The Future Church That Never Was

“The Yankees,” said the Hall of Fame center fielder Tris Speaker, “will regret making Babe Ruth into an outfielder.” Speaker can be forgiven that colossally errant prediction. Nobody had actually done what Ruth was about to do, changing the game forever by changing the batter’s strategy, “uppercutting” the ball to produce a lot of strikeouts but also a lot of home runs. Besides, Speaker was an old mainstay of the Red Sox, and was undoubtedly disgruntled.

How can apparently intelligent people be so fantastically wrong in their sure-fire visions of the future? I am returning to the subject of my previous article, James Hitchcock’s brilliant Catholicism and Modernity: Confrontation or Capitulation? That article was about the sales pitch for Religions R Us, the new and improved Church of the Future. Put in your order before midnight tonight, and you will also get a general absolution for every sin you have committed, plus absolution for not one, not two, but three future sins of your choice! “Let’s do it!” smiles the tanned young fellow to his girl friend, flashing a thumbs up. “Way to go, Church of the Future!”

“The most ‘well-adjusted’ people,” Hitchcock writes, “those who are bright, extroverted, friendly, and competent—tend also to be drawn towards a mode of religion which is consciously up-to-date. The convent-educated girls who in the 1950s wore white gloves, walked in May processions, and considered their virginity the proudest sign of their faith have, without great trauma, learned to be comfortable with the irreverent life-styles of the 1970s, the nuns who once taught them the old ways now showing them how to make the transition to the new.” It is religion as a social fashion. White gloves were the thing in the fifties; fornication and divorce, in the ’70s; and now, boys who want to play dress-up as girls and shower with them in locker rooms. “Oh Daddy,” says Judy Jetson, “it’s all the rage on Pluto!”

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Poor prognosticators can occasionally blunder into a correct prediction, just as you can sometimes pick the right horse at the racetrack by shutting your eyes and pointing at the program. To be wrong beyond the bounds of probability and beyond the range of ordinary error requires some special training, or some initial debility irreducible to the dullness with which Nature endows us.

One can, for example, begin from wrong premises, and then relentlessly reason from those wrong premises, getting everything wrong along the way. The churchmen of those days held on dearly to plenty of wrong premises. One such was the malleability and perfectibility of man. So—I’m taking these instances from Hitchcock’s priceless reportage—Reverend William Hogan, former president of the Association of Chicago Priests, “enthusiastically predicted a glorious future for Vietnam under the spirit of Ho Chi Minh,” rejoicing for the benefit of the readers of the National Catholic Reporter, because “Marxism is being studied everywhere—Leninism—Marxism-newism. Great!” This was in 1976, not 1926. Not the hundred million dead, murdered by their Communist countrymen in Russia and China, could dislodge the grim idol from its throne in Father Hogan’s mind. He was by no means alone. We read with embarrassment one happy-go-lucky assessment and prediction after another, about the vibrant Christianity in Castro’s Cuba, about the merely “rambunctious” monster Idi Amin, about the unfortunate necessity of assassinations in Uruguay, and so on, worldly and deaf and blind all at once.
  If we can have Happyland on earth, what do we need from heaven? So Gregory Baum shrugged away as irrelevant the Church’s teachings on the last things. “We claim,” said he, “that the church’s teaching on eternal life is a revealed utopia. The message of the kingdom … proposes a vision of the future in which people live in justice and peace, conjoined in friendship and the common worship of the divine mystery.” And where, pray tell, has that come to pass? In the churchless wastes of modern wealth? In the family-shattered hell holes of our cities? In childless Europe? In the dumpsters outside of certain clinics, with tiny fingers sometimes poking out of the plastic bags that truss up what is left of their bodies, as if in judgment against the heartless Sexual Revolution?

That revolution too was based on a false premise: that man would really be free once he shucked off his sexual restraints. “‘Liberated’ Christians,” says Hitchcock, and he might as well be saying it today, “tend to have a naively hygienic view of sex—that it is a wholesome human power which, given proper education and the right kind of social arrangements (those liberal panaceas for every kind of moral disorder), will prove entirely healthy and benign.” Here I assume that most of the Christians at that time who had visions of Margaret Mead’s Samoa dancing in their heads would be appalled at what has come to pass: children born out of wedlock, the proliferation of venereal diseases, sexual dysphoria rampant, nude parades down Main Street, and pornography everywhere, with even sadism now claiming its very own “community.” Perhaps I give them too much credit, though. Hitchcock quotes one priest raving about that inane spree of pretentious porno-twaddle, Hair. He cites Msgr. James DiGiacomo, S.J., denouncing the censorship of pornography, calling it “puritanism, chauvinism, narrowness, anti-intellectualism, and all kinds of cultural fascism.” He cites a former priest, now a psychologist, insisting that “man is, after all, saying something to us in the language of pornography.” I wonder what it is that millions of boys hear, their brains shot full of holes by the filthy stuff.

But the surest way to get everything wrong in the realm of nature is to ignore the wisdom of one’s forebears. Here the words of Edmund Burke ought to be seared into every Christian’s mind. Says he, referring to the good solid Englishmen of his day: 
”We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.”

To apply Burke’s words to our time: there is nothing new about mankind, about men and women, about children, about liberty, principles of government, the good of the family, work, public servants, public varmints, education, piety, honor, purity, and all the other virtues, that has not been a part of the immemorial heritage of the human race. We are not wiser than our grandparents. Feminists have toiled in the traces for a century and not brought to our attention a single genuinely great writer or artist or thinker who had been neglected because of her sex; though they have slandered a few and warped our understanding of others. Educationists have come up with one New and Improved Method after another, and not one has enjoyed any success, and some have been disastrous; liturgists have penned New and Improved Music, and never a masterpiece, nay, not even a decent off-Broadway ditty among them. Cut yourself off from the wellspring: run dry and wither.

The churchmen of the time welcomed such liberation from history and from received wisdom, let alone from the magisterial tradition of the Church. “The chastity thing is a bore to me really,” says a thoroughly modern nun. “It’s not something I see any virtue in doing.” Hot new scholarship, gussied up as “scientific reading,” according to the author of Tomorrow a New Church, “has broken forever the taboo of the ‘sacred text.’” The Jesuit John O’Malley crows: “We are freed from the past. We are free to appropriate what we find helpful and to reject what we find harmful.” He does not ask whether the people in any one age can possibly be the best judges of their own failings and therefore their own needs. When Jesus walked the earth there were people who considered themselves fit to appropriate what they found in his teaching that was helpful and to reject what they found harmful. They crucified Him.

The result of this free-floating was not sophistication but shallowness and self-importance. That should have been foreseeable. One Daniel O’Brien did foresee it, sort of. He happily predicted that, as Hitchcock says, “religious communities of women could ‘renew’ themselves most quickly because they possessed the inestimable advantage of a ‘shallow’ theological background,” which meant that they “had less cultural baggage to jettison.” Women with more college courses to their credit, cut loose from such masculine preoccupations as precision, drawing distinctions, and reasoning from premises to conclusions, became as it were pagans in petticoats. Catholics of the future, their heads clear of the patent medicine, will gape in disbelief to read such things as these from Rosemary Radford Ruether: “I knew that Ba’al was a real god, the revelation of the mystery of life.” Old Ba’al had some “defects,” she concedes, but “were they more spectacular than the defects of the biblical God or Messiah, or perhaps less so?”

And then sometimes the paganism turned brutal and power-hungry—as paganism is wont to do. So a committee of the Catholic Theological Society of America urged that Catholic hospitals be allowed to perform abortion. Writing for Commonweal, Reverend Raymond Decker, associate dean of a Catholic law school, “hailed Roe vs. Wade as ‘Christian’ and said that the Vatican Council’s decree on religious liberty would prohibit Catholics from ‘imposing’ their moral principles on others,” and concluded that attempts to amend the Constitution accordingly were “reprehensible.” Not reprehensible, apparently, was a speech ridiculing Mother Teresa, duly reprinted in the National Catholic Reporter. At the infamous 1976 Call to Action Conference, one of the speakers called for legal constraints against both the individual and the independent action of the traditional family, leading Bishop Carroll Dozier to ask, admiringly and blandly, whether “we do not need a more authoritarian government than we now have.” Such as the one they had in Red China: National Jesuit News urged the order to accept wholeheartedly the Chinese cultural revolution—the same that made that nation’s rivers run red with blood.

Over and over, wrong and wrong again; with the Church not speaking to the world from her wisdom, but the world teaching the Church a lesson in its foolishness, and the Church going along, like the puny kid in the schoolyard who sucks up to the bully and learns to cheer when the bully beats up the kid’s own brothers.

  • Anthony Esolen

    Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

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