Let me strain the credulity of gentle reader, by blaming everything that happened in Ferguson, Missouri this week on the Catholic Church.
The same reader should carefully note his reaction to this puzzling assertion, and what he first thinks the author might mean by it. (There will be a test, eventually, though it will not be invigilated by me.)
We start with a little history: local rather than universal. As a Canadian, I am perhaps even more aware than most U.S. Americans that the town of St Louis, and the county surrounding to which Ferguson belongs, formerly belonged to France. It is, after all, named after Louis IX, the sainted 13th-century Capetian king.
This is not the deep history, but fairly recent, from the Judaeo-Christian point of view. The area wasn’t explored by Christians until the latter part of the 17th century: Marquette and Jolliet more than a century before Lewis and Clark. It was annexed by La Salle to La Louisiane in 1678. It could thus easily be part of Canada today, had the cards fallen out a different way.
The way they did fall out, the city and its region developed as part of the once-Protestant USA. The Cathedral Basilica of St Louis was founded after the Louisiana Purchase. Its diocese was once vast. Most roads to Catholic pioneering in the American West once passed through this Rome of the West.
I mention these things because, I have found, contemporary North American Catholics have largely forgotten, or else disowned their history. The ones I speak with seem remarkably unaware of the colonial heritage of France and Spain; have themselves bought into a Protestant overview of their past, which goes back only to Irish immigration.
An example, from just the other day, was a fellow Catholic who mentioned that Harvard was North America’s oldest university. Not so: a century before it was chartered (in 1650), the Royal and Pontifical University in Mexico was already in business. Indeed, before it disabled itself in revolutionary politics, Catholic Mexico was the superpower of the New World, her solid peso a currency recognized the world over.
Extending this horizon somewhat, the Catholic Church spiritually dominated the entire Western Hemisphere for centuries, and could have done so until the present day. Within living memory, she was still overwhelmingly dominant south of the Rio Grande, as well as in French Canada. Her martyrs and missionaries in the intervening wilds were rightly the stuff of legend.
She survived, then revived under terrible persecutions (in Mexico, especially). She withstood generations of Protestant and the secular tide (especially in Quebec). When faithful to Christ, and to her own traditions, she can spread anywhere, endure anything. But faithlessness she cannot endure. Across Latin America, in the Spirit of Vatican II, or in Quebec at the Silent Revolution, a mere historical moment of wavering brought on collapse.
With God, all things are possible. Without Him, nothing is. Faith is the absolute ground on which Holy Church has flourished; a ground that liquefies when faith is lost.
But I want to extend the horizon, more. By faith, the Church expands across Africa and Asia today, where she makes no concessions to the times. This is the universal condition for the universal Church.
Indeed, insofar as they continued to be guided by faith in Christ, our Protestant brethren also kept the civilization of Christendom alive, in realms where the material possessions of the Church had been appropriated.
And God keep them, where they are the only expression of Christendom left.
In videos from Ferguson, we caught another glimpse this week of what becomes of our world when this faith has departed. True worldliness enters “progressively” in its place, and the rapacity of fallen human nature is asserted.
Yet even in the midst of the post-Christian anarchy, we have glimpses of what will never depart. I am thinking of a young lady at Papa John’s in Ferguson – herself seen within a video posted by the courageous blogger, Vic Maggio.
Small, and unarmed, she is visible through the smashed glass of that store, standing up to huge, brutish, club-wielding thugs who have come to loot it. And, albeit with characteristically obscene gestures, the thugs back down.
I know nothing about this young lady. I will not presume to guess at her religious affiliation. But I will say that, whatever it is, every faithful Catholic will recognize a sister.
And so, returning to my original point – which had to be extended, to be understood – how did the Catholic Church fail Ferguson, Missouri? And 10,000 other towns?
She failed, of course, through her human agents; she is failing today, where she fails, through the same. She fails in every foot of territory that she surrenders. She brilliantly succeeds in every soul she wins over to the Mystical Body of Christ Jesus.
Cut now, to another video – this one actually splashed on CNN – about another former American wilderness. It is rural Lansing County in Michigan. It is an episode narrated by the self-avowed die-hard feminist, Lisa Ling, which tours territory where the Catholic Church, and a Catholic way of life, are flourishing.
And again, every truly faithful Catholic will recognize his sisters and brothers and fathers – and Father – as the interviews proceed. They are not people in doubt about their calling. They are not the kind of people who make excuses, or waste their time demanding “rights”; not people who look to any worldly government to come running to their aid. Instead: people who look to Christ Jesus.
We are that Church – that Church in this world – and there are no excuses. That world is converted through us; through our own example, and Christian acts. The matter is very simple, really. We must stop failing.