Vainly do men of our time seek remedies for the cultural maladies affecting us. Each exertion of the political elite or the bien pensant only seem to deepen their woes. Faced with such existential crisis modern men seek corrupting escapes or the violence of bankrupt political extremism. Indeed, these things assume the kind of devotion once reserved to religion. Andrew Sullivan is hardly a credible source for the hearty Catholics who read these pages, carrying all the bona fides of the secularist Left. However, a recent piece of his presented a compelling taxonomy of our circumstance through the lens of the opioid crisis:
It is a story of pain and the search for an end to it. It is a story of how the most ancient painkiller known to humanity has emerged to numb the agonies of the world’s most highly evolved liberal democracy. Just as LSD helps to explain the 1960’s, cocaine the 1980’s, and crack the 1990’s, so opium defines this new era. I say era, because the trend will, in all probability, last a very long time. The scale and darkness of this phenomenon is a sign of a civilization in a more acute crisis than we knew, a nation overwhelmed by a warp-speed, post-industrial world, a culture yearning to give up, indifferent to life and death, enraptured by withdrawal and nothingness. America, having pioneered the modern way of life, is now in the midst of trying to escape it.
Those volcanic lines could very well have come from the pen of C.S. Lewis or Rod Dreher. But the crisis of modernity has reached such critical mass that even some of its most ardent fans are having buyer’s remorse. Having exhausted every recourse, Sullivan and his tribe have nowhere to go. The abyss stares at them, and they tremble. In a former time, they would have found refuge in the arms of the Catholic Church. Long gone are the days that Joseph Epstein, esteemed scholar of the University of Chicago, wrote about in his recent reminiscence about his native Chicago:
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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The Chicago of my boyhood was an intensely Catholic city. Ask someone where he lived and he was likely to answer with the name of his parish (St. Nicholas of Tolentine, St. Gregory’s). Catholic culture was everywhere… So Catholic did the place seem—with priests in cassock, nuns in habit everywhere part of the city scape—that as a young Jewish boy I took Catholicism and Christianity to be coterminous.
But these days the Bride of Christ, wounded so badly after decades of slashing, can scarcely give these souls succor. Too many of her leaders rush to “kneel before the world,” as Maritain lamented in his mournful Peasant of the Garrone. If they look to the Western European Catholic Church, they only find it happily impaling itself on the bayonets of the Sexual Revolution, shamefully dissembling as they call their mass suicide “accompaniment.” Such hypocrisy would make Nietzsche howl. If these lost secularist souls look to Catholicism in North America, they find not a few Catholic leaders playing in the sandbox of therapeutic religion. The Catholic Church in South America? No comfort there, as it still marches to the discredited platitudes of the hammer and sickle-lite.
Where does the scarred man of modernity turn? To the true Catholic faith, of course. Once there they will find in her churches a dimly lit box: The Confessional. Well, not all of them. In a mad rush to catch up with the world, many of those churches dismantled those blessed boxes. Other places sanitized them into cheery, well-lit clinics where self-affirmation reigns, and nary a bad word of sorrow for sin can be heard. But with perseverance they will find that sacramental oasis.
Sad, isn’t it, that such an enchanted place of God’s regenerative grace has become a terra incognita to so many Catholics. Even otherwise fervent Catholics are not exempt from an alienation from that precious bath of Christ’s redemptive Blood. But absence from that encounter with the drama of Calvary carries a heavy price. One that resembles those silent killers modern medicine warns us about: killing without warning, after a silent and unnoticed march through the human body. Neglect of Confession is a silent spiritual killer. Like a pillow pressed over someone’s face, it deprives the soul of the sacramental graces proper to the health and perfection of the soul. Consequently, a man’s soul suffers a slow asphyxiation: gradual and unnoticed. As it suffocates it experiences a kind of spiritual delirium
That delirium is marked by six symptoms. The first is complacency, leading the soul to adopt a coziness with the status quo. It readily subscribes to the ubiquitous slogan of “being a good person,” the paralyzing narcotic for those who desire nothing more than to abide by the standards of the world, rather than the standards of God. As with every prescription from the secularist shelf, it reeks of solipsistic reverie. You know the refrain: “Confession: Oh, not me. I’m a good…”
The second symptom manifests itself in the inability to see sin for what it is. Invariably, the afflicted soul finds itself relabeling sins, shaving away their sharper edges and producing construals more anodyne. Increasingly, it finds itself passionately committed to “causes”: “social justice” replaces sanctity. Little by little, the works of mercy become detached from their supernatural roots, and flatten into hollow philanthropy. These men eagerly feed the poor, and just as eagerly let their souls rot. They ignore Our Lord: “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Mt. 6:33).
Third, the soul becomes expert at manufacturing excuses for the sins it commits. Conscience is muffled, so that the soul finds itself able to displease God with impunity, even claiming that its very sin is the will of God. The German bishops come to mind (and many others as well) as they solemnly preach their “new paradigm,” which is only Newspeak for letting my sin be God’s will.
Fourthly, since most defenses erected by grace have been breached, the soul finds itself flirting more easily with mortal sin. Vices that once were clearly forbidden, appear more approachable, less ominous.
The fifth symptom is tepidity. The medieval term was acedia, or sloth. It is a sluggishness in carrying out the Holy Will of God, an increasing reluctance for acts of piety, and eventually the execution of duties to one’s state become onerous.
The final symptom is the clearest sign of the soul’s death rattle. The Faith itself becomes merely ceremonial, the redoubt of the aesthete. And its Truths no longer breathe life into the soul, but are seen as only attractive intellectual abstractions, like some elegant Euclidean demonstration. For some it is more deadly, the articles of the Creed become meaningless.
Lent is a time to gaze upon the face of the Crucified One and indict ourselves for his suffering. But a good Lent is not only seeing those sins, but begging pardon for them. Being finally rid of them in the cleansing fires of Confession.
In 1979 St. John Paul II addressed a crowd of two hundred and fifty thousand Catholics at Victory Square in Warsaw. During his remarks he was frequently interrupted by those heroic Catholic Poles, shouting, “We want God.” Within a decade of that earth shaking event, the Western Communist behemoth crumbled. Its collapse was not due to tanks and missiles; not parliaments and Congresses; certainly not ivory towered academics or their learned journals. Catholicism slayed the monster. The Holy Catholic Faith won the triumph. Simple Catholics, over decades of brutality, kneeling in dimly lit Confessional boxes, begging the purple-stoled priest: “Bless me Father, for I have sinned.”
Wandering secularists, do you want to change the world? Despairing moderns, do you want respite from your grinding emptiness? Come to those earth-moving words: “Bless me Father, for I have sinned.”
Editor’s note: Pictured above are confessionals in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. (Photo credit: Wikicommons)