Religiously Unmusical – and Musical

The Curé of Ars, who knew something on the subject, once said, “Leave a parish without a priest for twenty years, and they will begin to worship beasts.” The good curé did not live to see our even more radical variants: ecological religions where people worship vegetation and even minerals. But something similar might be said about the effect of bad or incomplete priests or of a Church failing to evangelize fully. Not only does the loss of true religion inevitably lead back to false religions like paganism, as the Bible clearly attests, it leads to taking what is false or only partly true for Truth. 

The Catholic tradition calls that heresy, in the old and true sense of the word: selecting out and focusing exclusively on a part and presenting it as if it were the whole. This explains a lot about modern unbelief, especially when culture loses touch with religious reality and elites start to become what Max Weber, the sociologist of religion, called “religiously unmusical.” That’s a great way to put it. It makes clear that many people who think they have escaped religious narrowness and naivete for secular freedom and sophistication, are in fact suffering from a different naivete and a kind of tone deafness to a whole range of the beautiful and the true.

I was in Paris this week at a conference on secularization organized by a group I’ve mentioned before: the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago, which is simply the world’s best Catholic study center on a secular campus. The setting itself was significant. About ten years ago, then Archbishop of Paris Cardinal Jean Lustiger decided to restore the Collège des Bernardins, the medieval Bernardine college, as a center to promote vigorous Catholic engagement with the culture. It was a gutsy move in France, which in many respects is the flagship nation of modern secularization. But the college has reinvigorated something far from dead, and research programs in bioethics, courses on Catholic issues, and lectures and art exhibits provide a high-level Catholic presence in French culture.

Our conference centered around a book, A Secular Age, by the Canadian Catholic philosopher, Charles Taylor, a world renowned figure who won the 2007 Templeton Prize for Religion. Taylor was present and responded to presentations by a select group of scholars from France, America, England, Germany, and Poland. We all agreed that the basic model once accepted in scholarly circles – that modernization simply leads to secularization – is not only false: there are plenty of signs that something more interesting is going on, especially in the last decade or so, though it’s hard to describe precisely and can’t be used to make firm predictions.

Around the world, there is religious ferment, and not only among Muslims and fundamentalists, which helps explain why the Richard Dawkins and his ilk are in such a nasty panic. Taylor expressed frustration that there are so many seekers, especially young people, and yet cultural forces have blocked them from realizing that the Church has great riches for those who search – indeed, that the Church itself seeks God more zealously than anyone.

Many odd facts cropped up this week. For instance, a Jesuit living in Sweden – ground zero for the secular neutron bomb – described religion there as quite weak. And no wonder. The state is quite strong in shocking ways. Children at eighteen receive a state allowance, not for higher education, but to become independent of parents. On the surface, this seems mad, but it has a purpose. The state wants to make people into radically autonomous individuals who can be dealt with separately, with as little allegiance to traditional groupings like families as possible. Clearly, the “independence” this introduces conceals the fact that it begins a long life of dependence – on the state – for many things.

Swedish policies have, perhaps unintentionally, kept birth rates rather high compared with the rest of Europe. But this has come at the cost of the state replacing husbands with handouts. Swedish women continue to have children, but over half are born out of wedlock and only 60 percent of women ever marry (the U.S. figure, which has also declined, is 85 percent). This does not bode well for Sweden or for family and church.

But contrary to what many think, Europe is the exception in the flight from religious traditions. And even there, strong contrary currents flow. Paris itself, just had its priestly ordinations this weekend. Though there were only nine – down a lot from the past – 10,000 people attended the ceremonies. These young men come almost exclusively from traditional parishes and movements, and they make the unusual choice of vocation in order to make a difference. We know that secularism is more prominent now than in the past, but even in France those who are religious are perhaps more strongly so than in quite a while.

A friend who has lived many years in Paris took me to a packed Mass at the Church of San Gervais where the Fraternities of Jerusalem, groups of men and women religious and lay people who work half time in the world and pray half time in the church, has one of the most hauntingly beautiful liturgies I’ve ever seen. They pay attention to every detail, but especially music. And that attentive spirit draws number of participants and vocations. Founded in 1975 by a genius of a priest, Pierre-Marie Delfieux, there are now offshoot foundations in Rome, Florence, Vezelay. Strasbourg, Mont St. Michel, Brussels, Montreal, Cologne, Warsaw, and Magdala (Israel) among other initiatives.

You’ve probably never heard of them, but maybe it’s time that some of us begin to make them and similar phenomena better known. Because if our public culture is religiously unmusical, private groups like this are bringing back the most musical and attractive spirituality into a modern world that desperately wants to hear 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 books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.