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.