G. K. Chesterton’s saying “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried,” is both familiar true of every age. But perhaps in the twenty-first century, as at other times of profound transition in history, we are faced with the extra imperative to try it. In our time, it is less likely that we can just drift along without being brought to a decision point. So do I act like a Catholic or sit on the fence?
The changeover from secularism cum paganism (“An artisan made it, it is no god at all.” – Hosea) that was in some kind of balance with real religious practice to an exclusive secularism with the force of law is something that has been a long time coming. The Marxists did this in Russia and China. We did not learn from their history. The socialists here have moved along a similar path step by step.
Yet Christianity truly remains above all of that. Concretely lived out Christianity has a nobility and a grandeur that is rarely noted, but should in fact be a common experience. For example, when Benedict XVI spoke of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary during the audience on 20 October 2010, he said: “She is a true example for all who have roles of leadership: the exercise of authority, at every level, must be lived as a service to justice and charity, in the constant search for the common good. . . .Elizabeth diligently practiced works of mercy: she would give food and drink to those who knocked at her door; she procured clothing, paid debts; cared for the sick and buried the dead. Coming down from her castle, she often visited the homes of the poor with her ladies-in-waiting, bringing them bread, meat, flour and other food. She distributed the food personally and attentively checked the clothing and mattresses of the poor.”
She was a queen who chose to follow the gospel. This is Catholicism lived out in its fullness. She was someone who chose daily to live as a Catholic. This is what happens when people act on their faith. Of course, it has to be real faith in God and his revelation in the Incarnation of his Son and in the Spouse of his Son, the Church – not the “faith” of madly clinging to our own imaginings. This real faith is based on divine revelation.
The Founder of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Saint Eugene de Mazenod preached: “First let us question the world. It will give you an answer in keeping with its prejudices, a senseless code that serves as their rule of life and in keeping with which it expresses its sentiments. . . . Come then and learn who you are in the eyes of God.” In this homily, De Mazenod started with the elites and their “senseless code,” the source of most anti-human movements and then turned to what is revealed in Christ.
St. Elizabeth of Hungary Spinning for the Poor by Marianne Stokes (1895)
In Jesus Christ God actually showed what humanity becomes when it is lived.
What is manifested in the moment that a Catholic takes action is Christ Himself and not ourselves, daft as this may sound in a solipsistic culture. “The Christian lets himself be involved more than anyone else, because his [dialog] partner, perhaps his opponent, is like himself someone who is born from the crucified heart.” (Hans Urs von Balthasar)
This actual revelation of Christ was the foundation of what Vatican II set out to express. Back to von Balthasar:
The Council has undoubtedly made Church matters more difficult. Those who seek mitigations in everything and express delight at the “progress and growing “maturity” as each barrier falls do not understand what the Fathers were concerned with. It was to direct into the secular world through the Church, which is a divine mystery, the mysterious ray of Trinitarian and crucified love, wholly and completely.
The Fathers addressed their teaching to a sinful world and to sinful Catholics. Sin makes for resistance to what Christ (and the Council) came to do.
Human nature being what it is, we should perhaps look for some illustration to help us answer the question: why do most Catholics not witness to their faith in what is becoming a palpably more hostile environment?
Well we could look at the history of Nazi Germany for some instruction. With the rise of Nazism (or in our case a hostile secular culture), few people stood up against it. Most turned a blind eye, being either bullied or bought off by some trifle And the rest actively cooperated with the evil in all of its forms. (If you think that Nazi Germany is too strong a parallel, we are killing 3000 people a day in this country and doing little to stop it.)
The materialism and the paganism of the Nazi’s, even before the war, drenched the most sophisticated people in Europe in hatred and inhumanity. There but for the grace of God go we. I think that there is a reason why the history keeps being placed before us. We ought to appreciate the magnitude of what lies before us.
As we can see from the life of Christ, actually being Catholic is going to be difficult.