In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI established the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, with his exhortation, Ubicumque et Semper (“Everywhere and Always”). He was explicitly responding to his predecessor Pope St. John Paul II’s call (Christifideles Laici) to re-evangelize the once-Christian countries of the tired old West, now lapsed from the faith. There has been, Pope Benedict said, “an abandonment of the faith in societies and cultures which for centuries seemed permeated by the Gospel…. A troubling loss of the sense of the sacred … and [loss of] a common understanding of basic human experiences: i.e., birth, death, life in a family, and reference to a natural moral law.”
Now, the need to re-evangelize the West seems obvious. But what makes that really new? Well, at first blush: the Church must reach neither brutal, honest barbarians, nor the despairing slaves of tyranny—that would be the old evangelization—but rather the comfortable consumers of post-Christian Europe and North America. These sophisticates see themselves as escaping a childhood superstition, like chickenpox, so they now carry all the rationalist antibodies needed to resist infection in their adulthood. Despite suffering the pathologies of a collapsing civilization (drug abuse, promiscuity, sexual obsession, family breakdown, infertility, depopulation, psychotic violence, infanticide, suicide and euthanasia), clear-sighted Post-moderns believe that “progress” has brought them to the verge of a sunny highland meadow (blossoming with these very pathologies), or painless nihilism, or both.
Hopeless? How do you bring the promise of redemption to those with no sense of sin? How do you awaken a sense of the tragedy of the Fall, to people who have no wonder in existence? How do you bring the wonder of existence to people who believe their own lives are no more than a Buddhist dream? Perhaps the West is just so decadent, so nihilistic, that evangelization is impossible.
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We’ve been here before, however. In the first century, the Roman gentry already suffered from fun-loving infertility. Some people owned other people—young men owned girls and boys, and wealthy widows, exotic slaves. Divorce and infanticide were common, and incest not uncommon. Popular entertainment had people really chopped up with swords, not just acting before a camera. Skepticism was the norm. Pontius Pilate’s quip, “What is truth?” voiced not the longing of an enquiring mind, but the fatigue of a civilization giving up, under a thousand pinpricks of mystics and sophists. That was the mission field of the old evangelization. It sounds familiar. It comforts to think it’s always been this bad.
What has Changed Between Old and New?
But if we suppose the post-modern world no more vicious than decadent antiquity, we really must ask: “What has changed?” Human nature hasn’t—“man and woman He created them, and for this reason, a man shall leave his mother and father, and cleave to his wife…” (Mat 19:5). The promise of redemption hasn’t changed. So, something between the natural beginning and supernatural end? The language, the imagery, the cultural context?
One first step is to look at current examples of evangelization. Jennifer Fulwiler’s Something Other Than God, Matthew Kelly’s talks and Lighthouse Catholic Media’s catalogue are full of “personal testimony,” like Scott Hahn’s conversion story. The excellent Humanum videos, defending the family, ignore statistics in favor of personal witness. My personal favorite, Courage’s magnificent Desire of the Everlasting Hills, demonstrates all the current traits:
There is an insatiable hunger for personal narrative. Statistics may be useful in policy arguments, but only personal narrative carries conviction.
There is little trust in authority, but a huge, unembarrassed appetite for acceptance and personal intimacy. In the modern state, people are safe and well-informed, but lonely.
There is little sense of guilt, but a tragic sense of shame, a need to look honestly at the waste of oneself and a hunger for mercy.
A demand for authenticity is paradoxically conjoined with an expectation of continual self-discovery, joined with the hope of beginning anew.
There is a naive faith in technology; technology can cure any “negative consequences” of sin, as it “cured” the natural results of promiscuity, venereal disease and pregnancy.
Despite the cures, we must still live with who we become. So rediscovery of Law is the end of the process, a bitter-sweet peace that works by attraction. Universality is assumed but less important than personal discovery and fidelity.
Now, a pessimist might look at these characteristics, and conclude that they represent an abject surrender to corruption. Our time is enslaved to “Me-ism,” a blend of Modern “Appetivism” and Post-modern “Imaginism,” with John Lennon as its prophet. Since this “personal testimony” new evangelism is clearly “all about me,” it simply corrupts the Gospel message with the popular egocentrism of the day.
We traditionalists tend to resist the notion that there can be fundamental change in the human condition. Any such suggestion seems to threaten the slippery slope of “situational ethics,” rejecting the whole idea of a permanent human nature and natural law. If people today are not prepared to hear the law and repent of their sins, why bother entertaining them with engaging vignettes.
Yet, there really has been concrete, undeniable, change in our circumstances in modern times: demographic change, the steady increase in human population since the Neolithic. Population growth has exponentially magnified human cultural interaction, infrastructure, communications, and consequently, public administration. As sainted historian Christopher Dawson observed, most of mankind began living in cities sometime around 1900, and this fact is not merely of sociological interest, but of biological importance, universalizing what he called “artificial nervous tension.”
Obviously, we’re not living in a Global Village, but rather a Global Bazaar, emphatically not the vulgar festivals, folk songs, malicious gossip and tight marriage bonds of village life, but rather the usury, fraud, cosmopolitan cynicism, and sex-trade of the bazaar, because the universal culture has always been “bazaar.” This is both more and less than another smug claim about Modernity’s unprecedented” viciousness: more, since it points to a decisive change in conditions; less, Homo Urbanus really is morally no worse than his ancestors, but merely evil in a different way.
But wait, some will insist: post-Christian civilization really is morally worse. This age is fatally more corrupt, because—unique to these days—post-modern revolutionaries enshrine their viciousness in the sanctuary of law, the Promethean legal positivism. And there is something to this. Every sexual malaise from adultery to zoophilia seeks not merely public tolerance, but the approbation of positive statute. This, reads the indictment, is the unforgivable “Sin against the Holy Spirit,” deliberately refusing the Light, choosing to remain in the Darkness of Sin.
Now, rulers have often perverted their laws for their lusts—Nero’s marrying his horse springs to mind, as does Landgrave Philip of Hesse’s bigamous marriage (sanctioned by Luther). But the issue today isn’t a corrupt ruler. Today, with the “Consent of the Ruled” and the persistent perversion of positive law against nature, the entire culture rejects the Gospel Promise. Western Civilization as such is guilty of the “sin against the Holy Spirit.” It seems hopeless, impossible to evangelize (which hopelessness accounts for the End-Time thinking we see today).
It would be fatal indeed, deserving the Judgment of Sodom, were this charge true. Yet, however perverted or unnatural a culture becomes, civilizations as such cannot sin. Only free humans can sin. The products of a culture—its young—are as much sinned against as sinning, perpetrators and victims. Yet, this challenge does point to something. There has been change. Today’s cultural expectation that positive law can legitimize vice suggests that something has changed in our experience of law.
Today, Law is Used to Legitimize Vice
We appreciate this Sea Change if we look at the old understanding of Law. “Happy the man who follows not the counsel of the wicked … but delights in the law of the Lord…” says the Psalmist (Ps.1). Again, “The Law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing … sweeter than syrup or honey” (Ps. 19). This sensory sweetness of Law is not an isolated sentiment of Israel, but the archaic experience of Law as the Source of Life, when the primary threat is Anarchy. So, “the sweetness of the law [dharma] exceeds all sweetness; the delight in the law exceeds all delights,” says the Buddha (Dhammapada XXIV.35). When life always reels toward chaos, when monsters lurk just beyond the firelight, when any stranger is a deadly enemy … when an honest man knows his own weakness and despairs, then indeed might Law—Rita, Dike or Tao—seem imminently sweet, a delight to the senses, a refuge and mother.
This is not our universal, immediate intuition of law today, even for those of us embracing the Law of Nature and Nature’s God. We live today under fundamentally different conditions, a pervasively regulated world. We do not suffer (to state the obvious) from a shortage of laws.
Over 170 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville predicted the advent of this new epoch, a popular, gentle despotism, with a power “absolute, minute, regular, provident and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood…” (Democracy in America, II, 4, vi). We now living de Tocqueville’s prophecy that we today call the “Nanny State.”
Under this pervasive regulatory pyramid, the common experience of law changes radically. “It covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated rules, minute and uniform,” de Tocqueville envisions, “through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate to rise above the crowd. It does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”
Living in an open homestead, defenseless village or unguarded seashore provokes a deep longing for the security of Law—and impatient adrenalin for flight-or-fight. Conversely, an authoritarian public administration—the Universal and Homogenous State—provokes resentment of law as an arbitrary, purposeless obstacle to one’s deepest longings—as modern positive law has become. Justice becomes mere equality, naked uniformity of administration. Whether anyone receives their particular due—equity—is not the point, because administration cares only that everyone gets what is mandated. The popular impotence that results does not arise from any competence of the bureaucracy. Manifest waste and incompetence are more debilitating, provoking a Dilbert-like despair-or-die reflex.
How Our Debilitating Legal Regime Affects Evangelization
Now, the prospect that conditions have altered the cultural perception of law—though not human nature—raises many questions. Can one speak of redemption, and therefore right and wrong, without speaking of law? What language is necessary for post-modern civilization? And must this practical rhetoric ultimately rehabilitate the popular understanding of Law?
Regarding the first question, Saint John Paul II implied an answer in his Veritatis Splendor (52):
…The negative precepts of the natural law are universally valid. They oblige every individual, always and in every circumstance… prohibitions which forbid a given action semper et pro semper, without exception, because [such] behavior is never compatible with the good will of the acting person, with his vocation to life with God and to communion with his neighbor… However, the fact that only negative commandments oblige always and everywhere does not mean that in the moral life prohibitions are more important than the obligation to do good… the positive commandments. The reason is this: the commandment to love God and neighbor does not have any higher limit, but it does have a lower limit, beneath which the commandment is broken….
So the universality of “negative precepts” is the universality of necessity. If however we acknowledge the “Sovereignty of the Good”—the Infinite Good—then “Thou-shalt-not…” has only instrumental value on the way to Good. And confounding Righteousness with Obedience to the Law has always been Pharisaical. While Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom, still it is only a beginning, as “Perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18), and you can’t perfect love simply by fearing more.
In the old days, negative precepts came first—to the relief of people threatened by the anarchy of their own passions. Today, we suffer “guttering candle flames” of denatured desire and the “bent reeds” of impotence. So perhaps someone indifferent to “negative precepts” really needs to be fanned into desire toward the Good first, with a more convincing: “What Thou Really, Truly Longs For Is…” stirring a waning appetite for life itself, an appeal to Right and Good—“as the hart pants for the flowing stream”—rather than the reprimand of Law.
This impotence is not vice, a deliberate rejection of law. Rather, in post-modern culture, there is an obliviousness of law as Wisdom, even by those genuinely seeking to be good. Certainly, those of us accustomed to thinking of Natural Law as the inbred “blueprint of human happiness” are impatient with amnesiac post-moderns responding blithely, “That’s interesting,” “That’s fine for you,” or even “That’s your reality.” But the vast majority of people have their first experience of law as a “network of small, complicated rules, minute and uniform,” irrelevant to their own most anxious hopes. So the first question is relevance. What is the purpose? The terminus ad quem? Does it call me? Me in particular?
Now, our “changing conditions” are neither benign nor even neutral, no more now than in the past. Neither passionate anarchy nor impotent over-regulation is friendly to Law. Thinkers from Aristotle to de Tocqueville always saw that regulation itself cheapens the Rule of Law; “a virtuous people need few laws,” while the multiplication of statutes is a symptom of popular corruption. But things are worse with today’s ubiquitous administration. The very raison d’etre of modern public administration is personal dependency (“serving clients”). So even illegal displays of dependency—like inner-city “protest riots”—are patiently processed. The rioters’ destruction of private lives proves that administration must simply go farther in meeting their needs. Conversely, even legal expressions of personal autonomy invite distrust, as challenges to regulatory authority. Public officials respond gently to the felonies of the dependent, while smothering legitimate resistance of the independent—or worse, any corporate body claiming independent moral authority. Modern public administration spearheads the legitimation of vice, because vice breeds dependency, and dependency is its purpose.
Still, if one were excessively optimistic, one might conclude that this Age is preparing for a New Christian Realism—a rediscovery on a visceral level of Augustine’s original discovery of the human person, and rejection of today’s pervasive Gnosticism. Post-modern culture asks Glaucon’s challenge to Socrates in the Republic: “Don’t tell me about the rewards of justice or penalties of injustice; tell me what justice really does in the souls of its practitioners.” An unmoored people continually holds up narrative models of human character, measuring them against their own experience, and asking whether any of them speak to their own lives. They hunger for a Face. And the “personal testimony” of the New Evangelization is simply trying to show them that Face in a way they can recognize.
Editor’s note: The painting above depicts the papal approval of the Dominican Order.