The Catholic Thing
Seeking the Kingdom First Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 15 June 2009


A few years ago, I was in Paris talking with Jean-Luc Marion, a distinguished French Catholic philosopher, so distinguished that last November he underwent an apotheosis: he was named one of "The Immortals" of the Academie Française. (The French, as you may have noticed, don’t mind laying it on a bit thick when it comes to their own culture).

I have argued for some time that Western Europe’s abandonment of religion is not the rule in the modern world, but the exception. Elsewhere – from the Middle East to Korea, India to Guatemala – the very harshness and emptiness of modernity have actually induced a return to various historic faiths.

M. Marion agreed that statistics show that to be true, but remarked that you cannot measure the state of people’s souls with sociology. One of the great modern churchmen, the late Cardinal Lustiger of Paris, Jean-Luc said, had often reminded him of that. This is no doubt true, though perhaps more comforting a thought in those places where historic Christianity seems in irreversible decline. Still, it’s good to remember that the blaring headlines about the results of surveys and public opinion polls are often a kind of gigantic modern Ouija board or a soothsayer’s reading of birds’ entrails, and thus to be closely scrutinized.

But a problem remains all the same. Our colleague James V. Schall mentioned in a column here last week that the apostles cared about Christ and would not have given much thought to preserving Christendom or Western Civilization. It’s undeniable that as a simple practical matter, you only get something like a Christian civilization when you are aiming at something else, or rather Someone else.

One of the big failures of cultural renewal in this country and elsewhere, however, is that it has gotten things backwards: people seem to want religiosity so that we will get a better public order, rather than seeking a better public order so that people can live their lives with fewer obstacles to their eternal salvation.

That’s a difficult argument to make in our kind of democracy. So instead we have to talk, for example, about how a "hookup culture" of sexual promiscuity leads to STDs, unwanted pregnancies, abortions, family breakups, welfare dependency, illegitimacy, and social problems. As with all sins, there are real-world consequences to bad behavior. But the one thing that cannot be said, though it is the most important thing for Catholics and many other believers, is that such behaviors may lead to eternal damnation.

Now before you start writing in, note the "may" in that sentence. Neither you nor I know whether any individual is saved or damned, except for those the Church has declared to be saints in Heaven. And please, we’ve had enough of the diversionary tactic of saying the Catholic Church is obsessed with sex (we have eyes, too, and can see who it is that is really obsessed). But Christ Himself warned people in his day about the eternal fire, and the disappearance of that possibility in a lot of religious discourse renders much about Christianity almost meaningless.

I’ve used sex as an example because far more people in our country find their way into troubled waters over sex than are likely to steal or murder or oppress widows and orphans. But you can jeopardize your chances for eternal life in a variety of ways, and the Catholic tradition has a well-elaborated and sophisticated account of what those are, even if hardly anyone, even Catholics, much takes the trouble to learn about it anymore.

That’s happened because, for quite a while, few wanted to teach it anymore either. It’s easy to teach the truth in season – when lots of people accept and try to follow it. It’s much harder when it has become socially unpleasant because many people are living un-Christian lives and have even been falsely catechized to believe that you are un-Christian for reminding them about Christian truths.

If you look at the trends, things look pretty bad for faith and morals in large parts of the developed world. The mere fact the one-third of children born in America – still quite a religious society – are illegitimate is not a good thing for Christianity or society. For historical perspective, in 1950, the illegitimacy rate was 3.9 percent; in 1960, 5.3 percent. Then the sexual revolution hit and the numbers quickly rose to near one-third. (Again, I’m only using sex as an example: just to pick one other "social indicator," in 1960 there were about 288,000 violent crimes in the United States; in 2007, there were over 1.4 million).

These figures may not tell us much about individual souls, but they do strongly suggest something is awry. Our society over the past half century has not been conducive to good behavior or, it seems, to salvation.

Something similar happened during the nineteenth century in England, where a wave of libertinism occurred around the time of the American Revolution. Fifty years later, England too saw rising illegitimacy, family breakdown, widespread prostitution, alcoholism, and drug addiction. British leaders responded with religious and moral efforts, and produced the now much-derided Victorian Age. That era may have included much smugness and hypocrisy, but at least stands as a monument to the fact that you can do something about evils, assuming you can still recognize them as such.

You also have to put first things first. The Victorians knew that tackling their social problems was first of all a religious and moral challenge. The question for us is whether we are willing or able to see that truth anymore, and act on it.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West.

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Comments (4)Add Comment
What is Sin?
written by Willie, June 15, 2009
I would not hold my breath waiting for the West to recognize the truth. Especially since the 60's the academy and the juduciary have jettisoned"First Principles" in favor of posative law and consensus. Romance is gone and hook-ups do seem the rule anymore, despite ugly consequences. Despite the warnings of Christ, people seem to think that everyone is going to heaven or they just don't believe in anything. Our culture will continue to fail if the courts and universities don't again find truth.
written by Dr. Thaddeus Kozinski, June 16, 2009
Good essay. What is to be done then to put first things first? This quote by J. Judd Owen is apt: “For since the liberal state must act, and since it can’t take any religious prescriptions as authoritative for its actions, the liberal state in principle denies that there are any true, politically relevant religious prescriptions. Liberalism rests on a theological premise.” Unless this theological premise is rejected publicly and politically, I don't see how things will get any better.
written by Liz, June 16, 2009
"The question for us is whether we are willing or able to see that truth anymore, and act on it."

Several weeks ago I emailed my bishop and asked why he had not commented on the Notre Dame Scandal. His reply, via his press secretary, was that the bishop did not comment on events outside his diocese. I was appalled. (And I let them know) If our leaders don't stand up for Truth what kind of message are they sending their flock?
Thanks, Robert Royal
written by Thomas C. Colleman, Jr., June 16, 2009
Thank you, Robert Royal, for explaining succintly, among other things, why Christians foucs so much on sins of the flesh. After all, how many people are tempted to build huge polluting factories whch emploly children at slave wages and burn crosses on our Isalmic neighbors' lawns? But nearly all of us are tempted to use our fellow children of God as objects and thereby mock God's gifts and desecrate temples of the Holy Spirit.

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