The Catholic Thing
Identifying Our New Mission Print E-mail
By Joseph Wood   
Saturday, 16 February 2013

The next pope, still to be elected, is already getting plenty of advice.  Some of it is very valuable, such as the push for continuity with, and yet greater fervor for, the New Evangelization as set forth by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. 

Just as lay people have a major role to play in this Year of Faith – and perhaps an even greater role now with the papal transition – they will play a larger role over the coming decades in the Church and the New Evangelization.  That is essential and desirable if it proceeds on the basis of love for Christ and the Magisterium, including respect for the authority of the pope and the bishops.

We know from experience that the problems the next pope will face are much like the ones Benedict XVI and those before him faced. And the entire Church must participate in the always-incomplete effort to deal with them.  That is our perennial task in the city of man, until the city of God replaces it.

In his own particular station, the pope will have to play many roles.

The pope as priest must minister to a flock that is, as a whole, unaccustomed to silent prayer and contemplation.  His own prayer, joined to that of his predecessor (who will be living nearby), must both carry the weight of the whole Church and bring Catholics back to a life of prayer in the ordinary tasks of the day.  Only that simultaneous attention to the ordinary and the mysterious, or that way to the mysterious via the ordinary, can overcome what Walker Percy called the malaise of our post-modern time, the contemporary and widespread acedia that afflicts the developed world. 

The pope as bishop must teach a flock whose knowledge of Church doctrine is limited and whose basic mindset is that of the mainstream around it, which is to say utilitarian and rationalist. The flock is thus challenged in its capacity to exercise a faith-informed reason.

The pope and bishops must also respond to new forms of the old craving for community, for a life lived in friendship with others.  This longing for community opens the way for Christian lives of sharing.  But it also paves the way for false friendships and communities worshipping false gods, usually the members themselves.

The pope as administrator must carry out reform of the Curia, a task that has stymied his predecessors. But the Curia also has within it some truly holy men ready to help. 

The pope as chief diplomat for the Holy See must cope with an array of foreign policy problems stemming from unhealthy regimes around the world:  the persecution of Christians in China, the Middle East, Pakistan, and elsewhere; the advance of intolerant secularism with its attacks on religious liberty in Europe and the United States; the confrontation between Islam and Christianity in Africa; relations with the Orthodox countries; and more.

     White smoke rising

Those are all challenges with which the Church is familiar from ages past.  They are not new.

What may be new is that the New Evangelization must proceed in the context of the modern technocratic state, which offers itself as rival to God.  And here, the pope must especially inspire and then trust the laity to advance the cause.

Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, to which I refer often but not often enough, describes the trajectory from Enlightenment thinking to a mode of moral decision-making that ultimately substituted emotion for reason, and gave us the modern state.

That state grows out of the loss of traditional virtues and the authentic life in community that they enable.  It replaces excellence, struggle, and meaning in suffering – the local and specific and ordinary – with the promise of immediate ease, comfort, and security, fueled by the grandiose and abstract.  To that all-encompassing appeal, it adds a monopoly on the means of coercion, an unprecedented technological sophistication, and increasingly unlimited powers of property redistribution.  It enjoys the dependence and patronage of academe, the entertainment industry, and large corporations.

The Church has contended with secular authority before, from Rome through the middle ages to the absolute monarchs to the totalitarianisms of the last century.  But the scale and capacity of the modern state presents a different problem.  The long and closely related transition from a prevailing morality of virtue built on absolute truths, to a prevailing morality of materialist scientism and relativism, makes the task of the Church especially difficult.  

That task is reestablishing God as the proper object of all our loves and the end of our whole lives, with service to others as our means and a just secular – but limited – government taking its place among those means.

Some commentators advocate more democracy and more equality as the panacea for the problems inside and outside the Church.  That formula could quickly elevate the autonomous self and its immediate gratification to the status of reigning idol.  It would mirror the decay of ordered political liberty and the loss of the balance of rights and duties in the West. 

The New Evangelization has to proceed from the Church to the mainstream world, not the reverse.  For that to happen, the new pope, and with him the entire Church, must assume the biggest role and mission of all, the one understood by the early Christians and all the saints: witness.

Joseph Wood teaches at the Institute of World Politics in Washington.
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Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, February 16, 2013
I believe that the principle obstacle to evangelisation is that much of contemporary Catholicism has come to resemble the Anglicanism described by Mgr Ronald Knox, “reserved in its self-expression, calculated to reinforce morality, chivalry, and the sense of truth, providing comfort in times of distress and a glow of contentment in declining years; supernatural in its nominal doctrines, yet on the whole rationalistic in its mode of approaching God: tolerant of other people's tenets, yet sincere about its own, regular in church-going, generous to charities, ready to put up with the defects of the local clergyman.” In what sense is this the religion of the cross, the strait gate or the narrow way?
written by DEacon Ed Peitler, February 16, 2013
...and the Pope as deacon must reach out in service to all those in need. Charity as an expression of the Church's spirit of evangelization was modeled for us from the very begining days of the Church.
written by s. Walter, February 16, 2013
And of course "witness" in the language of the New Testament is "martyr." That brings to mind a qt. connected to W. Percy & Cardinal Ratzinger & The Catholic Thing's Fr. Schall. An interviewer, prompted by Fr. Schall, asked Percy, "What do you think of Cardinal Ratzinger's recent comment that 'sometimes bishops have to be martyrs, at least to public opinion'?". Percy replied, eyes flashing mischievously, "Well, I'm sure he'd be glad to assist some of them!"
written by Chris in Maryland, February 16, 2013
Amen to the comment by s. Walter! Comfortable Catholicism is counterfiet Catholicism.
written by Manfred, February 16, 2013
"The pope as priest must minister to a flock that is, as a whole, unaccustomed to silent prayer and contemplation." It seems the New Evangelization (who is the director of marketing in the Vatican?) Church sounds very similar to the one I grew up in. "Be not Afraid", "Crossing the Threshold of Hope". Did any of these work? Prof. Enrico Radaelli has written on the errors of the Council and its aftermath:"Ecclesiology, collegiality, single source of Revelation, ecumenism, syncretism, irenicism (especially toward Protestantism, Islamism, and Judaism), anthropocentrism, loss of the last things (and of both limbo and hell)...subversion of religious freedom in addition to the 'dislocation of the divine Monotriad' by which freedom dethrones the truth." It would seem to me that these are serious items which must be addressed before the Church starts on a new "New" program which is already doomed to failure.
written by Maggie-Louise, February 16, 2013
"service to others as our means"

I was overjoyed to read that our Holy Father actually said it out loud: one of the calamities of the Church of the Media (which the vast majority of us attend) was the "trivialization of the Mass".

You are looking for 'Means"? How about a return to a profound and transcendent Sacrifice of the Mass that will engender a renewed life of prayer as "means"? Mr. Paterson-Seymour describes our Church as being more Anglican than Catholic in her life and practice. The Mass in many parishes doesn't even reach that level. "As we worship, so we believe" and so we live out our Faith. Then, having salted the earth and lighting up the darkness, evangelization will follow.
written by Peter O'Reilly, February 16, 2013
Excellent overview by Mr. Wood of the both the problem and the task ahead. Much to digest, but perfect for a Saturday. Thank you.
written by diaperman, February 16, 2013
Mr. Wood, I think you should quote less from McIntyre and more from Benedict who said:

"In many respects, democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine and has in any case made a remarkable contribution to the formation of social consciousness." (Without Roots:The West Relativism, Christianity, Islam; Basic Books, p72) --and no sorry I'm haven't taken this out of context--check it out for yourself)

This is also the Pope who labeled "unregulated financial capitalism" along with terrorism and international crime and rising inequality between rich and poor as a threat to world peace.

There is consistency here.

How come Mr Wood, I come away with such a different impression of modern Catholic views on political economy when reading your articles and those by other TCT authors than I do when reading Benedict?

Could it have something to do with politics on this side of the pond?

Benedict is not a statist! But has he ever identified "the state" as a the central challenge for the Church today--as opposed to the other things mentioned which the state is necessary to ameliorate?

I'm sorry but I find your argument to distort things somewhat.
written by Joseph Wood, February 16, 2013
D-man: Your comment is annoying because you remind me that I can’t find my copy of Without Roots, one of my favorite books co-written by two of my favorite people. I don’t see a need to choose between MacIntyre (a former Marxist who has held to the validity of some features of the Marxist critique, and last I checked was no libertarian) and Pope Benedict. Both are brilliant thinkers whom I also admire personally. As best as I can tell, Benedict is mainly indifferent to specific forms of government as long as they are appropriate to particular circumstances, just, and in accordance with Catholic teaching (including Catholic rejection of socialism and liberation theology, though both contain elements of truth – he was especially strong in denouncing the errors of the latter). I suspect that although Benedict is said to lean more towards St Augustine than some other thinkers in recent centuries, his views on politics are similar to those of Aristotle, who saw the principal difference between good and bad forms of government as whether the rulers – one, few, or many – ruled for the sake of the common good rather than their own interests.

As you say, Benedict has criticized the damage wrought by an unregulated market. But I think his point over the long course of his writing is larger. In Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, he offers a critique of Enlightenment thinking, and the rationalist mindset that flowed from it, that is strikingly similar to MacIntyre’s. In that book (p. 30), then-Cardinal Ratzinger writes, “…this Europe, …in a fully fledged manner since the age of the Enlightenment, has developed precisely that scientific rationality which led to the geographical unity of the world… This same rationality leaves its imprint on all the world today in a much deeper way, thanks to the technological culture that science has made possible. …In the wake of this form of rationality, Europe has developed a culture that, in a manner unknown to mankind, excludes God from public awareness. …God is irrelevant to public life.” The U.S. is, to my eye, close to Europe in this regard.

Further, in his 1996 Guadalajara address, surveying the results of Marxism in Europe, he says, “The fact is that when politics want to bring redemption, they promise too much. When they presume to do God's work, they do not become divine but diabolical.” This, more than any particular economic arrangement, is my concern with the modern state, which is the political manifestation of modern and post-modern culture – the state as rival in the redemptive role of the Church. I think that when Benedict refers to the danger of a dictatorship of relativism, these thoughts just cited point to the political implications (though not the totality) of what he has in mind. My own thoughts on limited government accord with that, but any specific policy prescriptions I might advocate would be my own best efforts at prudential judgment, not the responsibility of Pope Benedict or MacIntyre.
written by diaperman, February 16, 2013
OK thanks Joseph for the thoughtful response.

I agree of course with your broader point about the dictatorship of relativism. And there is no doubt that the state has fulfilled many of the duties that the medieval Church once performed (though in fairness--the comparison here is most inexact for many reasons--among which is that the notion of insurance and risk management is much more refined than it was in the middle ages).

I suppose in theory the Church could once again take over the provision of social welfare currently run by the state (I mean education, unemployment, health, old age, disability, screw up your life insurance etc.) But in that event the Church would have to have real taxing power (collective action problems are very large) and other powers we associate with the state. This will never happen in the US for obvious reasons and nor is it expected in Europe. Whether this would even be a desirable goal is another question--I really doubt it. Notions of democratic accountability necessary for fair and efficient govt. provision does not fit with the ecclesial structure Christ left. Moreover, we would complain just as bitterly about Church taxes as we do about government ones (these were pretty steep in the middle ages remember?).

So my reading is is that the Church basically sees the welfare state as a secularization of the basic Christian impulse to care for the needy and also those not currently needy but likely to be needy in the future. Which is basically embraces with some of the qualifications you are getting at.

What irks me though is this all too cozy alliance between traditionalist Catholics (who think a secular govt. is illegitimate) and American conservatives who since Reagan at least think that govt. is always the problem. American Catholic conservatives then pretend that the Church shares their hostility to the state.

And I think your piece and your comment bears this out. Catholic social teaching (not socialist!)has consistently from Leo to Benedict identified inequality between rich and poor as a threat to the common good and stressed the need to ensure adequate distribution of resources across a society--not instead of the market but precisely for the free market to work well. Catholic conservatives not only ignore this issue completely or worse, denounce as "socialist" those who raise it, and still worse they dismiss out of hand the role of the modern state in addressing inequality---even though this is precisely what the modern welfare state is designed to do.

I just think your presentation is unbalanced. But take heart, most of the commenters will agree with you and attack me.

But thanks again for your reply!!! It's nice to have a civil discussion as unpolemical as possible.

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