It frequently happens that a small but very determined and very well-organized group overcomes a much larger group that is less determined and poorly organized. Think of something we’ve seen in the movies – a train robbery in the Old West. A half-dozen armed robbers stop a train and deprive its 500 passengers of their cash and jewelry.
The same kind of thing has often happened in political history, e.g., the English Puritans in the middle decades of the 17th century. If a public opinion poll had been taken in their day it would no doubt have shown that they were very much in the minority with regard to their religious and political beliefs. But they were intense in their beliefs, often to the point of fanaticism, and, despite disagreements among themselves, they were much better organized than the nation’s apathetic majority.
And so this minority was able to seize control of Parliament, fight and win a civil war against King Charles I, cut the king’s head off, replace the monarchy with a republic, and maintain during most of the decade of the 1650s a military dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell. All this while being a minority; and not just a minority but an unpopular minority.
In Russia, the Bolsheviks were a minute fraction of the entire population of that immense country. Not only that, they were a relatively small fraction of all the revolutionaries who worked to overthrow the Tsarist regime and install a government that would modernize Russia. Yet this numerically insignificant minority of revolutionaries was able to take power away from the other revolutionaries who, only a few months earlier, had taken power away from the Tsar.
The great advantage possessed by the Bolsheviks was that they were led by Lenin, a ruthless fanatic who was also an organizational genius. He had instilled just the right spirit into his followers. And what was that spirit? A spirit of single-minded devotion to the revolutionary goals of the party, and a spirit of disciplined obedience to the commands handed down by the party’s handful of top leaders.
In religion, too, minorities often defeat majorities. The classic instance of this is Muhammad and his original handful of followers. These original Muslims were for years a minute fraction of Mecca’s population. Then they migrated to Medina. A few years later they were in control not just of Medina and Mecca but of all of Arabia.
More recently in the United States – or to be precise, from about 1960 forward – a relatively small number of liberal clerics, theologians, and seminary professors have taken effective control of many of the mainline Protestant denominations, turning these denominations away from traditional Protestantism and in the direction of secular humanism, a non-Christian or even anti-Christian worldview.
The denominations I have in mind are the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and the Presbyterian Church USA. The United Methodist Church remains traditional, but only because the American section of that denomination is now outnumbered by the African section; the American section is liberal, and nobody will be surprised if it soon secedes.
If you’re an up-to-date liberal Protestant, you no longer believe in the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the Divinity of Christ, or the Trinity. Above all, you don’t believe in that fundamental tenet of traditional Protestantism, the plenary inspiration of the Bible and its consequent infallibility.
But you do believe, in contrast to old-fashioned Protestantism, that fornication, abortion, and homosexual conduct are morally permissible, at least in many circumstances. You are a champion of same-sex marriage and transgenderism. You favor the ordination of ministers who are openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer (whatever that means).
Moreover, you hold that your very un-traditional views are exactly the views Jesus would hold were he living among us today – and perhaps teaching at the Union Theological Seminary.
Despite rejecting the authority of the Bible, you appeal to the Bible to prove your point. The fundamental message of the Bible, you say, and certainly the fundamental message of Jesus, is that we should love our neighbors. This general commandment of love supersedes all more specific commandments, including those commandments that either explicitly or by clear implication condemn fornication, adultery, abortion, and homosexual relationships.
Would Jesus, then, say that everything is permitted? Not at all. He would be strongly opposed to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and every other form of hate that runs rampant among Americans, especially old-fashioned Protestant Americans, that is, Protestant Evangelicals. More positively, this ultra-liberal Jesus would be in favor of open borders, Medicare for all, free abortion for college students, high taxes on billionaires, and impeachment of Trump.
Can the same thing happen to Catholicism in the United States? Can it become a liberalized thing barely distinguishable from “progressive” atheism? It depends. Will our liberal laypersons and priests and theologians and seminary professors walk out of the Church and leave it to orthodox believers? If so, we’ll be able to rebuild over the next century or two. Or will the liberal/progressive Christians remain, take over, and move us gradually down the road toward atheism?
It seems to me that either of these outcomes is possible. If Catholicity is to prevail in the Catholic Church in the USA, a well-organized, strongly committed minority (something like the early Jesuits) will have to appear on the scene, leading the fight against the religious liberals, either converting them to genuine Catholicism or driving them out of the Church. And perhaps this orthodox minority will have to be led and inspired by an organizational genius, somebody like Loyola (or Lenin).
Maybe this is happening right now, right under my nose. I hope so. But I don’t see it.
Meanwhile, whenever I think of the state of the Church in America, the words of Yeats ring in my ears:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
*Image: The King’s Last Day (The Execution of King Charles I) by an unknown artist, c. 1649 [Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh]