How Catholics Can Save Our Dying Civilization

In a recent address, Archbishop Chaput articulated how much we depend on the residual religious capital of earlier times, but once the capital is spent, “we may not like the results, because the more we delete God from our public life and our private behavior, the more we remove the moral vocabulary that gives our culture meaning.”

In spelling out this precipitous divestment, the Archbishop identifies four feedback loops both caused by and contributing to the depletion of religious capital. First, we’re unable to think clearly, a capacity which our obsession with marketing and emotional-laden images hinders. Second, we’re unable to remember, constantly re-inventing ourselves but with a weak grasp of the abiding things. Third, trapped in our technological and scientific loves, we’re unable to lift our eyes and imagine and hope for the fully-human. Fourth, we’re increasingly unable to distinguish genuine freedom from mere indulgence or license.

Even before joining the Church, I was tantalized and impressed by the Christian Humanism of Catholicism. Here was a faith that included great intellectuals and great mystics, magnificent works of art in exalted buildings and works of mercy in the most humble of settings, the work of spirit and the work of human hands.

That spirit of fullness, the integral vision of Christian Humanism, is manifest in Archbishop Chaput’s talk, for it is utterly natural for him to relate the loss of authentic religion with very natural consequences. The loss of faith isn’t just a loss of heaven but also of thought and imagination, not just a loss of observance but of human life. The faith is a humanism mediated through Jesus Christ who reveals not only God but also ourselves, and which takes the way of the Cross. A Humanism of the Cross is not “airy” or naïve like a certain kind of progressivism, and yet Catholicism holds that there are genuine and remarkable human accomplishments which should be in no way denigrated and which in no way compete with the Gospel. That’s a remarkable vision.

Integral humanism is unknown to a society failing in thought, memory, imagination, and freedom. Paradoxically, the faith is often rejected on the grounds that it is the faith which is unthinking, forgetful, small-minded, and unfree. As the late Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan put it, aptly in this case, “a civilization in decline digs its own grave with a relentless consistency.”

In one of his major works, Insight, he probes the conditions of what it is for humans to understand, launching what he calls “a campaign against the flight from understanding,” articulating with remarkable precision how the flight from understanding promotes the cultural and civilizational decline sure to follow.

In the ordered universe created by God, human intelligence is naturally suited toward our own development and the advancement of the good. If we were perfectly intelligent and perfectly reasonable, we would expect our knowledge, actions, policies, persons, and societies to develop and progress. Of course, we refused to be intelligent and reasonable, choosing (and inheriting) the way of our own will, and thus concupiscence, ignorance, death, wickedness, and decline. Rather than knowledge, we use our reason for self-satisfaction, and our actions, policies, persons and societies are distorted and disrupted as a result.

Such distortions tend to accumulate, moreover. Just as reason tends towards cumulative progress, so does unreason tend towards cumulative decline, for “corrupt minds have a flair for picking the mistaken solution and insisting that it alone is intelligible, reasonable, good.” Having rejected the full range of questions for a more reductive vision, minds forget how to think, certainly forget how to remember, and the imagination contracts, as does the moral vision.

So distorted, the reduced person carries on with their intelligence, although now the “bent” intelligence overlooks the fully coherent, the genuinely reasonable, the truly good for a conclusion close to the truth, but not quite. Perhaps it works well enough, but the next exercise thereby begins further away, starting only with the resources of “close enough” but not the truth, and the options have shrunk, as have the persons who think, and act, and choose. The next decision is yet farther from the truth, and important resources are forgotten, vital skills neglected, key authorities overlooked, and the situation begins to splinter. Soon enough, the necessary things—wisdom, patience, sound education, imagination, faith, and so on—are in short supply, and those with power privilege themselves, forgoing the wisdom that others could provide, as Lonergan explains (and which Steven Cone and I catalogue in our new book):

Increasingly the situation becomes, not the cumulative product of coherent and complementary insights, but the dump in which are heaped up the amorphous and incompatible products of all the biases of self-centered and shortsighted individuals and groups. Finally, the more the objective situation becomes a mere dump, the less is there any possibility of human intelligence gathering from the situation anything more than a lengthy catalogue of the aberrations and the follies of the past. As a diagnosis of terminal cancer denies any prospect of health restored, so a social dump is the end of fruitful insight and of the cumulative development it can generate.

Such is the result of sin, and from original sin there is no progress. Intelligence is powerless to free itself from original sin, even if it wanted to, which it no longer does.

As I understand it, Lumen Fidei is making no claim of empty pietism but rather an acutely prescient observation when stating that “once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim,” for the light of faith provides an illuminating source of “every aspect of human existence,” and thus is integral and non-reductive in its knowledge. Such a light, the encyclical continues, given our sinful state, “cannot come from ourselves but … must come from God.” Further, this light does not merely sweep us out of our troubles and into some serene realm of transcendence, but transforms us by God’s love, giving us “fresh vision, new eyes to see”—faith allows us, again, and also here and now, to begin the recovery of thought, memory, imagination, and freedom.

The faith is about far more than social recovery and advance, for in the end faith gives us an encounter and union with the living God, but faith never provides less than the possibility of social recovery. While God gives us Himself, and this is ultimate, it was not below Christ to heal the lame, teach the unknowing, and work as a carpenter; just as Christ engages us in our natural and temporal concerns, so too does faith, this Humanism of the Cross, bring new vision and light to the spiritual impoverishment surrounding us.

As Lonergan puts it, faith, and the love ensuing, remakes us, including our intelligence, so as to allow for the progress natural to reason. No guarantees, of course, for we can, and do, resist love and the transformation made available to us, and the snares and wickedness of the devil operate still, but there can be hope, even if of a chastened, patient kind—one which knows not only Eden but also the Cross.

The Church exists not for itself but for others. We exist for evangelization, for the health and welfare of souls. But persons are not souls only, they are, in the words of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, a unity of soul and body so profound that “neither the spiritualism that despises the body not the materials that considers the spirit a mere manifestation of the material do justice … to the unity of the human being.” As such, we exist for others as complete and integral persons—for an integral humanism.

That humanism cannot be maintained or achieved inasmuch as we forget to think, remember, imagine, and live freely, and so we turn, in great hope, to the faith which remakes our loves with the love of God, thus giving us back everything we had lost.

I worry, I’ll admit, that it seems that too many of us are not fully cognizant of the enormity of the task facing us. We must re-evangelize and rebuild a Christian Humanism for the sake of the world and all persons, and yet we are, perhaps, as culpably wounded by the loss of religious capital as our fellows. The task is daunting, for we can give little to a watching world until we recover ourselves, and the labors needed for that—our schools, our music, our poetry, our ethics, our formation, our architecture, our hospitals, and etc. and etc.—will bring heavy crosses to bear.

But the leader and perfecter of the faith (Heb. 12:2) has already trod that path, and we can follow. But it’s time, perhaps past time that we do so.

Editor’s note: The picture above depicts the iconic scene at the end of the 1968 motion picture “Planet of the Apes” released by 20th Century Fox staring Roddy McDowall as Cornelius and Charlton Heston as the astronaut George Taylor.

R. J. Snell


R. J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and is a senior fellow at the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. He is the author (with Steve Cone) of Authentic Cosmopolitanism: Love, Sin, and Grace in the Christian University. His latest books are Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire and The Perspective of Love.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Pascal summed it up, when he said, “Not only do we know God by Jesus Christ alone, but we know ourselves only by Jesus Christ. We know life and death only through Jesus Christ. Apart from Jesus Christ, we do not know what is our life, nor our death, nor God, nor ourselves… Thus, without Scripture, which has only Jesus Christ for its object, we know nothing and see only obscurity and confusion in God’s nature and ours.”

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    Great quote offered by Michael Paterson-Seymour.

    R.J. you write: “… we are, perhaps, as culpably wounded by the loss of religious capital as our fellows.” Because of that, Catholics have an even greater need to foster communities of faith whereby we ourselves are able to continue our own healing. Communities not cut off from society at large because evangelization is our work and our mission i,e, the healing and restoration of all society. And that is done only by proclaiming the Gospel – proclaiming Christ. But we must also have safe havens where those involved in this evangelizing can return to be refreshed, renewed and supported. Safe havens centered always around the Eucharistic Lord.

  • Steven Jonathan

    We live in the age of the ever degrading image- we are bombarded with fast-food’s thought equivalent on tv and in the schools and instead of laboring to restore culture and to invest moral capital in our children’s future we live off the moral capital of our forefathers.
    We have traded “clear thinking,” which is difficult, for dystrophic jargon which is easy. Yet, thanks be to God that out of the heart of Holy Mother Church, truth goodness and beauty still flow!

    • James1

      While “clear thinking” in itself may, indeed, be difficult, I would tend to believe it is also that clear thinking leads to “difficult” results.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Does this civilization deserve to be saved? I am no longer certain. Everything that once made America great is already gone.

    • Alecto

      What about you, Teddy? Aren’t you a Great American? You’re still here, so that’s something.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        No, I’m a great Cascadian. I’m to the point that I see almost no added value in the federal government for the average citizen. We’d be better off doing everything local to our own neighborhoods- there’d be more jobs that way.

  • John O’Neill

    Much of the rot that has settled into the American Church has come from the dominant culture of the Americans themselves. The everyday graces and strengths of our Faith have become sullied by the materialism and hedonism which is promoted by the American culture. I am a first generation in this country; my parents emigrated from Ireland and came to this country for economic reasons. They brought with them a deep and devout faith in Christ and His Church. My five siblings and I still profit from the residue of their faith. However I can observe that when it comes to the spiritual lives of the second , third and future generations there is little or no room for the Faith. Many of these nephews and nieces went to Catholic schools to no perceivable avail. They are buried in the life of the typical American with its materialism, politically correct style and hedonism. For them and their children the Faith is something that they remember from their parents that existed in the distant past. I fear that when the first generation dies off that the Faith will die off with them. It is a fact that one of the largest identified religious groups in America are ex Catholics. American culture has helped to destroy that strong faith that my parents and many other parents brought with them to this soil. The future of the Church in America does not seem to lie with the cradle catholics who usually support most of the isms that oppose the magisterium of the Church. I believe that one of the 19th century popes declared Americanism as a heresy; could he have been so prescient. Serva Fidem.

    • John

      HOw true, John! Your comment reminds me of what orthodox Jews in America said: US “culture” did what the Nazis and the holocaust couldn’t – destroyed their children’s faith. True too that the future doesn’t belong to cradle or cultural catholics, but to those who come to it later on.

  • Steven Smith

    No civilization deserves to be saved, even as no man deserves such. The “unseriousness of human affairs” forbids that. This is however the one God permitted to be enacted and sent us to live within. I am only 23 and not even Catholic, but Mr. Snell’s article shouldn’t receive hand wringing or despair. It should send us to our knee’s in prayer, to the fields to farm, to the shops to buy and sell goods that are good, to the schools to learn and teach the best of men’s traditions and labors, to where ever and when ever and what ever and why ever and how ever that intergal humanism requires of us. I would like to see my father’s farm flourish, not wither and fail as part of a country that God’s people gave up on. Let us rise to the tasks God has laid at hand.

  • Alecto

    There’s a part of me that sees how distancing ourselves from creation leads to this impersonal, reductivist society. Human beings are more than cogs in the economic machine. We live in a medicated society, where 20% of women are on anti-depressants, children are subjected to pharmacological experimentation and where an equally alarming number of men are addicted to drugs, or porn. This may be simplistic, but I think we’ve arrived at a place where we no longer strive for anything. The ease of life is too difficult for many people to handle.

    We do not know how to do or make things ourselves, and have lost the simple joy of doing for ourselves, of actually making and creating for ourselves. If we believe that God made the universe, then it seems to me that God is pleased when we mimic that creative impulse. It imparts a sense of purpose, a journey of mastering a skill or talent and discovering what divine excellence there is in each of us.

    • Deacon Ed Peitler


      • Alecto

        Thank you dear Deacon!

    • John

      I agree with every thing you say, Alecto – apart from one small complaint: Many people are on anti-depressants because they,re, well, depressed! They’re not just happy pills for when we have a bit of an off-day! However, that doesn’t take away from the truth of what you write. Regards

  • davend

    Seems to me that Catholics should focus on saving a dying church.

    • Augustus

      Maybe you should read the article so as to avoid making ignorant comments like this.

    • Deacon Ed Peitler

      I take it you’re not Catholic. If that’s true, I am wondering your motivation for spending time on a Catholic website. If it’s not true and you are Catholic, I am wondering what you are doing to edify the Church. Just asking…

      • Alecto

        Would that many more “non-Catholics” spent time on Catholic websites. It helps to eliminate the many myths which people learn about Catholics (I personally laugh most at the one about them having cloven hooves).

        Heal the breach, dear Deacon. Isn’t a website the quintessential form of New Evangelization?

        • Deacon Ed Peitler

          Oh, it’s not that non-Catholics are unwelcome in my eyes. Quite the contrary. What better place to be evangelized and drawn to Christ – the source of all truth and His Church? But I am curious about why people would come here in attack mode. I have certainly done no study of this, but I am disinclined to believe that (faithful) Catholics go on other religions’ blogs and bash them, like saying that their religion was “dying.” That would be incomprehensible to me.

      • davend

        Take a serious look at the moral decline among the laity, and far more acutely, within the church’s leadership. From my viewpoint, you’d have to be blind to see that something isn’t seriously amiss within the Church. How can we be any type of witness to civilization if we can’t even get our own house in order? Just saying “nice” things won’t ever change that.

        • Deacon Ed Peitler

          I do believe our Church is holy. How could it be otherwise with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit? What is problematic are those of us who are sinners and inclined to muck up the Church. Then again, the Church is where we come to be perfected through grace. But besides Her sacramental life, we do expect our leaders (aka bishops) to be bold leaders in proclaiming the Truth.

    • Alecto

      See, I can’t argue with that view, because in a way you’re correct. People have left the Catholic Church and are leaving the Catholic Church, which isn’t any indicator of the innate truth of the underlying belief. It is a reflection of the people who leave. And I can speak with intimate knowledge of this because I myself have left and returned more than once. It is always my own pride and selfishness which leads me astray. If numbers or converts alone made a Church “right”, then Islam is where we all should be. But, numbers don’t make a Church “true”. Catholicism may be waning in influence, but that may be indicative of a necessary period of rest and reflection where not much appears to be happening before an explosion, a rebirth of faith, much like the Renaissance was in relation to the so-called Dark Ages. I choose to believe this is that phase in the Church.

      Aside from that, leaving the Church doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve found the means to deal with life’s big questions outside the Church or any support or comfort in dealing with life’s disappointments, challenges or tragedies. Faith in Jesus Christ, the sacraments, and Church is the answer to all of the questions life poses.

      • pmains

        That’s a large generalization — to say that the Church is waning in influence. If anything, I think the Church is more relevant and influential than it has been in a long time. The priestly scandals are being resolved, and are no longer as prominent in the media as they once were. The American people really are tiring of the endless wars, and with that is coming a renewal of interest in Just War Theory. The HHS mandate issue really seemed to be of interest to my LDS neighbors. Even though they have no problem with contraception, they worry about being the next target.

        The biggest issue, though, is the sexual insanity that has gripped our society as of late. A lot of the Evangelicals are realizing, in the wake of recent defeats on marriage and adoption, that their arguments simply don’t have the depth necessary to persuade on issues of sexuality. Where will they turn to sharpen their arguments and make their counteroffensive? The Theology of the Body (or something very similar, perhaps an ecumenized version) is going to be the weapon that wins this war, or else the war is lost.

        • Alecto

          I don’t disagree with some of your post, but the problems with falling attendance and membership don’t stem solely from scandals within the Church. Americans are more secularized than ever. And, the Church’s involvement in too many divisive political struggles has alienated many Americans (including me) and a whole lotta conservative Catholics. Does it make any difference whether someone else shot you in the foot or you shot yourself?

        • RobW

          The Church is in trouble in the U.S, thats obvious. Ralph Martin on the “Post-christendom sacramental crisis…

  • poetcomic1

    “When an opponent declares, “I will not come over to your side,” I calmly say, “Your child belongs to us already… What are you? You will pass on. Your descendants, however, now stand in the new camp. Soon they will know nothing else but this new world.”
    – Adolph Hitler

    • Socrates: “Do you know by what means they might be persuaded to accept this story?”
      Glauco: “By no means, as far as they themselves are concerned, but I know how it could be done as regards their sons and their descendants and the people of a later age generally speaking…”

      Plato, Republic, 415

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  • Roger Biernacki

    Please remember that the quickest and easiest way to save our dying civilization is through
    proper reparation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary by living the 1st Saturday devotion. The
    Triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and Her promise for a period of peace is a true period of time (30-100? years) in the near(?) future.

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  • Lygeia

    This was a fantastic article.

    I am definitely keeping this one for posterity.

    It said so eloquently what would have taken me so many more words to say.

    Excellent article.

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