Things look bad in the Church and Western world just now. The Church, humanly speaking, seems to be destroying herself through unresisted absorption in a secular world with which she has ever less in common. What was once her real, though imperfect, reflection—the civilization of the West—is also destroying itself through willful rejection of moral and cultural tradition, reinforced by demographic suicide. While all this is happening, governing elites become ever more partisan, indifferent to the common good, and blind to reality.
Nor are such developments simply matters of abstract principle. Within the Church, observance and belief continue to decline. The respite from happy talk brought by the sex abuse scandals seems to have ended, and people speak of the Francis Effect and the New Evangelization, but none of it seems to go anywhere. Meanwhile, in society at large, there appear to be signs of profound crisis: alienation from public institutions, pessimism about the future, and rising death rates among large and important sections of the American population. The latter is an unusual phenomenon for a developed country; it was last seen in Russia around the end of the Soviet period.
History shows examples of civilizational catastrophe—the fall of Rome, the Muslim conquests and extirpation of North African Christianity, the world wars and totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century—and the Gospels say that worse will come before the human story reaches its conclusion. Nor is it obvious, humanly speaking, where to look for something better, since non-Western civilizations seem worse off than we are. Under such circumstances, prophesies of doom have their point.
Even so, there is always hope. The Gates of Hell will not prevail, and God always wins in the end. Even apart from that, though, the Church and world have so far bounced back from catastrophes that seemed about to overwhelm them. Life goes on, tomorrow is always another day, and truth and charity have functional advantages over lies and willfulness that eventually tell. So the Arian crisis passed, the Muslims were stopped at Tours, the ruins of Rome gave rise to a new civilization, the Protestant Revolt was followed by the Catholic Reformation, and the skeptical eighteenth century was succeeded by a resurgence of Christianity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Within the Church there are, of course, positive as well as negative indications, even in the West. She tends to return to type after periods of disorder, because she is fundamentally well-founded. Her vision and principle of life are what they are, and have continuing power to draw those trying to make sense of life. Churchmen who blur or reject them find listeners for a while, but their successors become fewer and less talented until the movements they start disappear. Why chase after inventions when truth is more sustaining? And why bother with a Church that tells us nothing of her own achievements, whose vision is one of liberation from herself, and whose apparent function is to provide soothing rationalizations, or add to the sanctimony and sharpen the intolerance of secular causes?
That is why today those in the Church who actively support the project of subordinating the Church to the world tend to be older clerics of the sixties generation. Some of them have institutional power, and can still do immense damage, but the future belongs to the devoted, and it is the orthodox and lovers of tradition who have the energy, vision, and staying power. That’s likely to become all the more so as association with the Church becomes socially disadvantageous, and she comes to attract few who are not drawn by the intrinsic rewards of the Faith. All that is needed is for the spark to be kept alive.
So we can say with some confidence that the Church will recover from her current disorders. The Western world has less intrinsic strength, but even there, it’s not over. The basic social problem in the West is radical decline in the fine-grained order provided by family, religion, and other culturally supported connections and ideals. That decline is largely caused by the continuing reconstruction of society as a sort of rational economic machine, which attempts to do away with traditional social organizing principles in favor of money, therapy, and bureaucratic administration.
This attempt causes profound problems. Man is social, and doesn’t invent his own way of life. He needs a social order to live by, so a society must offer patterns and motives for a way of life people can find enduringly satisfying if it is to keep their loyalty. That requires it to foster networks of close human ties, together with a fairly coherent system of customs, understandings, and attitudes that take into account basic human concerns and aspirations.
Western society no longer satisfies those conditions, and a sketch of how we have reached that position may be useful in deciding where we should go. Man was originally tribal. His gods, customs, laws, and understandings were bound up with membership in a sort of family or clan writ large. The ancient city added a rational element by reducing myths to written form, and formalizing laws and government, while retaining tribal particularity. Thus, the Athenians had a formal constitution providing for courts and deliberative bodies; they also viewed themselves as one people sprung from the soil of Attica and bound to the gods of the city.
That arrangement did not outlast the rise of philosophy and empire. The gods and customs of the city had to subordinate themselves to universal reason, and to the laws and deities of the empire, so they lost credit and the ability to order a life that seemed to make sense. Nor did the foreign laws and deities—Roman law, the cult of the emperor, and so on—seem to have much to do with daily life or the mystery of existence. Something deeper and more comprehensive was required. This need was satisfied after several centuries of mystery religions and Hellenistic philosophies by the rise of Christianity, which was at once a philosophy, a mystery religion, and (after Constantine) an imperial cult.
The triumph of Christianity led to the medieval world, which sustained something of the intense local life of the ancient city. But at the universal level, Christendom was formed, an intensely engaging reality, along with a secular empire based on military force and propped up by a makeshift imperial cult. That world seemed a uniquely effective solution to man’s social and spiritual needs, and has given rise to the Catholic ideal of subsidiarity within a universal Christian order.
The arrangement depended on a balance of opposing forces that did not last. Church and Empire were in constant conflict, and each found it difficult to maintain order in its own sphere. It broke up as the modern emphasis on clear, effective system took hold and led to the nation-state, which hit upon the irrational, but effective plan of centering all loyalties—local, tribal, political, and even spiritual—internally.
The irrationality of that arrangement—which made a purely human construction the focus of supreme loyalty—eventually led to the insanities that tore Europe apart in the first half of the twentieth century. So the system of sovereign nation-states is now being replaced by postmodern liberal universalism, which aspires to create a global order based on pure universal abstractions—i.e., science, human rights, the global economy— and corresponding institutions—i.e., transnational bureaucracies.
Hence our current problems, which are caused by the inability of such an arrangement to satisfy the need for a humanly sustaining social order. It disrupts and overrides family life, community networks and loyalties, and social conceptions of the transcendent for the sake of efficiency, equality, and a narrow conception of reason, and by doing so ends by making people ever less functional, law-abiding, and public-spirited. Such tendencies guarantee the system will become less and less workable, and, at some point, people will stop supporting it.
Life will nonetheless go on, so some other system that is more in line with the permanent necessities of human nature will grow up in its place. The Catholic goal, of course, is restoration of the balance of Christian universality with familial and community localism. The primary alternative seems to be something rather like traditional Levantine society—a sort of neo-tribalism of multiple inward-turning ethno-religious communities within a crude and unprincipled regime that maintains minimal public order, while mostly looking out for the interests of those who dominate it. It seems to me that our task today as both Catholics and social beings is to fight for the former alternative, however distant it may seem. The other possibilities are all far worse.
Editor’s note: The image above titled “Julian the Apostate Presiding at a Conference of Sectarians” was painted by Edward Armitage in 1875. Emperor Julian (r. 361-63), the only pagan Roman emperor after Constantine, looks on as Christian scholars debate scripture.