I Blossom On The Grave Of The God Who Died For Me: Evangelization In An Age Of Unbelief
Wohin ist Gott?
Part One: Nemo dat quod non habet
Many people have written to me asking me to comment on the recent appointment of Archbishop Fernandez as head of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith and other ecclesial “inside baseball” issues. But I have already done my bit for King and Country in commenting on these intra ecclesial issues and to a great extent such efforts just leave me exhausted and feeling a bit empty. Don’t get me wrong, I think these topics are terribly, agonizingly, important (even if they bore a lot of people) and I am glad that the Register and Catholic World Report have given me the opportunity to comment on them. But at the same time I have to admit that I think in many ways those short form commentaries on issues of ecclesial discipline and theology have taken my focus away from my first love which are the longer form blog essays on topics of deep theology.
The two things are not mutually exclusive of course since theologically speaking a Church that is adrift in the cultural currents without a proper theological rudder is a Church in trouble and therefore the articulation of theological topics is constitutively related to the recovery of the Church’s soul. And I will continue, to the extent that time allows, to write on all of the various “issues” swirling around in the Church right now.
Nevertheless, the currently raging white-hot debates in the Church are merely the eruption into full view of a deeper theological and spiritual confusion in the Church. And that confusion is the result of an almost total lack of imaginative, intellectual, artistic, philosophical, theological, and literary depth, or even curiosity, among Catholics of all kinds. And as the old Latin adage goes, nemo dat quod non habet (“you cannot give away what you do not possess”), which means therefore that the contemporary Church, by necessity, obsesses instead over things it does possess, such as bureaucratic structures and sexual sinners, with the former now being reconfigured in order to be more accommodating to the latter through the alchemy of synodality.
However, theologically speaking, the only thing that the Church truly possesses as her own is the crucified and risen Lord and the moral praxis of martyrial witness that following “the Lamb who was slain” entails (Rev. 5:6). And it is precisely this proclamation of, and witness to, the crucified and risen Lord which has inspired most of the great intellectual and artistic achievements of the past 2,000 years. And the Kingdom logic of this new regime of grace and martyrial charity ushered in by Christ was the only real and true revolution the world has ever seen. All other so-called revolutions were merely permutations of either the libido dominandi or attempts at fleeing its tyranny via the path of spiritual withdrawal and apophatic negation. Only Christ, because he was truly God Incarnate in full union with a real human nature, could achieve, as Athanasius pointed out centuries ago, the full radicalization of creation as being most “natural” and most “worldly” precisely insofar as it is also most intimately united to what is “above”. And what is above is the Lamb who was slain and who is now in glory at the throne of God as a slaughtered Lamb who is yet still “standing”. And here we see the precise nature of the Christian revolution in the conjoining together of the images of butchery and glory, of death and its transformation into life.
This is our revolution. Indeed, it is our only revolution. It is the revolution of a world turned upside down by the crucified God. And it is the Christ of the wooden, Roman gibbet that is the world’s only hope. As Madeleine Delbrêl puts it, writing retrospectively on her time as an atheist, “… and because you were not here, the whole world seemed to me small and silly and the fate of all men stupid and cruel.” (quoted in “The Dazzling Light of God: a Madeleine Delbrêl reader”, p. 12). Indeed, without Christ the world is merely a dissipated mess of competing and disordered mimetic desires (Girard) in search of violent ways of scapegoating those who stand in our way – allegedly – of possessing all of the shiny objects of our totemized idolatries.
But of course death is the final barrier that casts a shadow of futility over all such worldly schemes. Death is the ultimate boundary and therefore we seek to overcome it either by accepting it with an “adult” and “stoic” indifference to our lives -- an indifference nobody ever really achieves -- or to overcome it through some kind of Titanistic and Promethean effort in which we seek an ersatz immortality via grand achievements which evoke an everlasting memory in those who come after. But monuments fade or are sprayed over with the graffiti of later vulgarians and soon enough we are all forgotten.
My friend, Marcus Daly, is a coffin maker and his shop that he rents in Scranton has in its side yard two, completely effaced and unreadable tombstones that are utterly neglected. Who were these two people? Who loved them? What were their names? I look at them and feel a deep and profound loneliness and a desperate despondency. Desperate because the gears of existence grind-on with a pitiless and inexorable inevitability: We shall all be forgotten someday. And someday, billions of years from now, there will not even be a glimmer of a memory of any of us, or of our world, having ever existed at all. It will all be as if we, and our world, had never been. Quoting Delbrêl yet again:
The great, indisputable, reasonable misfortune is death. …
Revolutionaries interest me, but they have misunderstood the question. They can arrange a better world; we will always have to move.
Scientists are a bit childish. They still believe they kill death. ; they kill ways of dying: rabies, smallpox.
Death is doing just fine.
(Delbrêl reader, pp. 22-24)
It is only in the resurrection of the crucified Christ that the world can transcend the regime of death. What does St. Paul mean when he says in Corinthians that the “sting of death is sin”? He means precisely that most of our sins are rooted in our awareness of the finality and futility of death which causes us desperately to seek some kind of happiness via the false intimacy of a purely worldly fulfillment, which leads to all of the sins of concupiscence, which are more than just sins of the flesh. But death is also a form of intimacy and indeed there is nothing more intimate to us than our own death. But the resurrection destroys death and thus robs sin of its sting from within. And therefore faith in the resurrection of the crucified Lord is the key to the entire Christian revolution. And it introduces us into the intimacy of the God-man who has died, risen from the dead, and who now shares with us a partaking in the new intimacy of a death that has been transformed from a hopeless finality into a modality within eternity – an eternity which is now our eternity as well.
This is the Christian revolution. It is the revolution of a new intimacy which alone slakes our entire thirst for the ek-stasis of love. And it is a love which alone has no boundaries and no limits, and which cannot be transgressed by being trumped by something “more” or “higher”. There is no greater enlightenment than the wisdom this intimacy brings and no greater joy. This intimacy is the intimacy of a fullness of life that transcends the stale categories of the “Law” as St. Paul points out. It is an intimacy that does therefore contain an antinomian rejection of the purely forensic and juridical elements of the moral law in favor of the new “nomos” of love that is in many ways more binding – as love always is – than “mere morality” which is, in many ways, the point Jesus was making in the Sermon on the Mount. “Mere morality” is about an obedience which knows only that a “rule” has been imposed. And “mere rules” always provoke transgression. The true morality of the Sermon on the Mount is an ethic of resurrection intimacy under the tutelage of the formal logic of love which is a new law that liberates.
This is the revolution. It is a revolution of a rather peculiar divine love to which we are “called”. And the fact that we are “called” and not “forced” by some kind of divine necessity as in paganism is a further indicator of the peculiar contours of this revolution. The call and its response are similar to the quality of love and courtship when the moment is reached where exclusivity is demanded by the very nature of the love itself, and is experienced as a sweet burden, a joyous bondage, and a liberating slavery. The demands of such love are total, as it now transposes life into an entirely new logic and regime wherein all that is old is new again. And in no way is it experienced as just one part of my life among many other parts. Indeed, it isn’t a part at all, but the transposition of all of the parts of life into a newly transformed whole, and any attempt to mute that transformation and exclusivity through compartmentalization and compromise and even, infidelity, is to betray it and eventually kill it off entirely. So too goes the path of conversion to Christ. It is not a white-knuckled affair of obedience to a command, but an entry into the way of love. And the way of love is far more demanding than mere obedience, which after all, knows only limits.
This is what the Church possesses. This is her evangel. She “owns” nothing other than this and even this is not of her own making but is a pure gift, a pure grace. As Balthasar puts it, we rise, we “blossom”, on the grave of the God who died for us:
The truth that provides the yardstick for faith is God’s willingness to die for the world he loves, for mankind and for me as an individual. This light became manifest in the dark night of Christ’s crucifixion. Every source of grace – faith, love, and hope – springs from this night. Everything that I am (insofar as I am anything more on this earth than a fugitive figure without hope, all of whose illusions are rendered worthless by death) I am solely by virtue of Christ’s death, I am solely by virtue of Christ’s death, which opens up to me the possibility of fulfillment in God. I blossom on the grave of the God who died for me. I sink my roots deep into the nourishing soil of his flesh and blood. The love that I draw in faith from this soil can be of no other kind than the love of one who is buried. (The Moment of Christian Witness, pp. 26-27, Ignatius Press, 1994)
Part Two: Modernity as transgression and nullification of the possession
But how do we get our unbelieving world even to listen to this evangel? Most of the ongoing debates within the Church of today center around this question of evangelization. And the various schools of thought have coalesced around certain standard approaches all of which, in my view, fall short of promoting the intimacy of the Kingdom of the crucified and risen Lord to the modern world in an appropriately radical way. But before we get to that discussion we need to once again look at the nature of the cultural crisis we face in order to know what it is quite specifically that we are up against.
As I have stated over and over again on this blog, in various scribblings and videos, my claim is that ours is a culture predicated upon the nullification of God as a “really real” existential option. Our disbelief is different from the atheism and agnosticism one often found in a premodern context. Previous generations saw fire-breathing atheists like Nietzsche, who still took the faith seriously enough to engage it, and whose dark protests against Christianity gave a back-handed witness to the ongoing importance of the question of God. Our era by contrast merely yawns at the faith and treats it like a quaint, antiquarian curiosity perpetuated by a shrinking congregation of ignorant dullards who just don’t get that modernity and its science have killed that dragon. The world has “moved on” from that “God thingy” and now considers those who even raise the question to be anti-social and dangerous obstacles to the latest iteration of technological “progress”.
Therefore, the atheism of today is not overt and is more of a de facto atheism of praxis and what the French call a “mentalite”, grounded in the belief that even if some kind of “ultimacy” exists that it is largely unknowable and unprovable and is, therefore, best left to the side of the road as the technological revolution grinds inexorably forward. The modern world still allows for a certain measure of what we call “religious freedom” so long as that freedom stays well within the boundaries of its dog kennels of domesticated and neutered impotence. “Spirituality” is allowed to remain as a kind of feel-good oozing of gnostic emotions signifying nothing more than a kind of “health aid” to inner calm and better tantric sex. And it is a spirituality that fits nicely with a de facto cultural atheism in a consumeristic register since its “church” is the boutique shop at the mall that sells essential oils, CBD products, books on better living through Yoga, and various disgusting tasting green liquids made from exotic plants grown only in Bolivia.
And it is this view of the Abrahamic religious believer as a dangerous obstacle that is the only remaining way that our culture takes us seriously. The rise of a totally transgressive culture devoted to the erasure of the last vestiges of tradition, natural law, classical morality, religion, sexual mores, and the very concept of “boundaries” has nullified the God linked to such things as an ongoing concern. Augusto del Noce made this point repeatedly as he presciently foresaw the linkage in modernity between the nullification of Transcendence, its sublimation into a new religion of a secularized immanence, and the project of the transgressive erasure of all that has come before us. Today the conspiracy buffs call this project “the great reset”. And even if they might falsely identify all kinds of nefarious hidden agents as the men behind the curtain (who knows?), they are essentially tapping into del Noce’s insight that the dogma of modernity can be stated as follows: “today it is no longer possible to believe … XYZ”.
Culturally speaking this has largely taken the form of erasing the boundaries with regard to human sexuality. Classical culture – Christianity included – represents to them repression in the form of sexual boundaries formulated out of iron age prejudices and taboos. From Freud through Kinsey and on to the modern LGBTQ juggernaut, modernity has been about the business of constructing a new immanentized religion of social self-construction, and this construct is deliberately viewed precisely as a construct – plastic and fungible -- since that is the point, on both an individual and social level. All natural limits are erased through a process of ideological assassination of their chief institutional protagonists which usually consists of the co-optation of classically American virtues like “free speech” and their transformation into their opposite.
Make no mistake here. Del Noce was correct. This is in fact a new religion with its own set of dogmas, its index of forbidden words and thoughts, its sacraments, and a magisterium of denunciatory power with inquisitor-spies everywhere. The rainbow flag has replaced the cross and that flag has iconic power that goes far, far beyond its original evocation of Stonewall and the legitimacy of seeking social toleration for sexual minorities. It is now the emblem of the new religion of transgressed boundaries. It is the creedal symbolon of a new praxis whose lex orandi lex credenda demands that public worship be properly oriented to the new ordo of transgression lest we slide back into heteronormativity and closets with doors.
And they have been so successful at this that the transgressors have themselves been transgressed as pop icons like Madonna, who made a career out of torpedo braziers and a sexualized mockery of Catholic boundaries, now seem rather quaint and tame, and even a bit stale and boring, as we move into the brave new world of AI generated reality and pansexual 8 year olds with mandated and goofy pronouns. And the latter and the former are deeply related since they both represent the ultimate erasures of all boundaries as we manipulate our now digitized reality down to the very essence of human nature as such. We are all now just a series of “xoxoxoxo” computations and, as with AI and virtual reality games, so too with human nature as such. And on the near horizon we will see the creation of synthetic designer embryos gestated in techno wombs and made-to-order traits via genetic Crispr manipulation.
Thus there are a multiplicity of transgression movements in modernity but the two that most interest me here are those that seek the erasure of human nature in the area of gender and sexuality – since this strikes at the heart of the best school of true intimacy which is the natural family – and those that seek to erase human nature via the path of technological transgression in the form of AI, cybernetics, and genetic manipulation. Furthermore, given the current nature of Western, bourgeois culture, these two “schools” of transgression – both of which destroy true intimacy – are coming together to create “bread and circuses” on steroids.
Thus, as the sociologists say, the “plausibility structures” of our culture have created within all of us a deeply attenuated religious sense in the old-fashioned manner of the spiritual soul seeking its fulfilment in a transcendent God. The wisdom that comes through the putting on of the mind of Christ fades into the mist of our foggy indifference. In order to see God through the lens of Christ one needs the spiritual eyes to do so. And yet, our plausibility structures have given us all spiritual cataracts that make impossible any genuine spiritual insights without the greatest of efforts. It is very hard to swim upstream against this culture and few there are who do so. And even those of us who attempt that swim often find our efforts undermined by the swirling vortex created by the despairing abyss of nihilism that lurks beneath us in the depths of our subconscious.
And because of the ascendency of the culture of transgressive nullification, one of the biggest problems we face in engaging our culture is the fact that the well of discourse has been poisoned from the get-go. And by that I mean that the very living water we are attempting to give away is rejected tout court from the start as a toxic brew of benighted superstitions that were already tried and found wanting. We have “had our day” and now it is passed and nobody wants what it is we are selling. We are, in the eyes of our world, the religion known for witch burnings, the Crusades, the Inquisition, Galileo, and having too many kids. We are the religion of anti-choice, anti-freedom, and anti … everything. We are the religion of “Nyet” which bids us to cry with the saints rather than to laugh with the sinners. We are history’s wet blanket and are a perpetual buzzkill to life’s simple material pleasures. And we are all of that in the world’s eyes precisely as hypocrites as well since the sexual abuse crisis has exposed the Church’s seedy little secret: it does not believe in God.
Along these lines, I often say to those interested in evangelizing the modern world that we must understand that for the elites of our culture Catholicism is to them what Mormons or Jehovah Witnesses are to us. When we see them walking up to our door we close the blinds, set the dead bolt, and pretend we are not home until the little darlings have left the scene. Or, even if we do open the door, it is to smile politely, take their silly literature, and upon their departure, toss the comics or glossy brochures into the trash without giving them a glance. And that is because we just “know” in advance that what they are peddling is false and unworthy of even the slightest consideration.
Part Three: The unbelief of the believers and the form of modern sanctity
Of course, all of these cultural realities affects the Church and her ordinary members who must swim in this culture every day and are deeply affected – both consciously and subconsciously – by the formal logic of modernity’s plausibility structures. Therefore, my claim is that even if faith exists in the souls of most ordinary Catholics (and I think it does) it remains nevertheless true that the roots of such faith are shallow in many believers which has led to the modern spectacle of the unbelief of the believers. Joseph Ratzinger noted this phenomenon already in 1958 where he pointed out that most of us in the pews these days are closeted “heathens” masquerading as believing Christians, which is what led him to predict a mere ten years later that the future Church would be much smaller, lack social standing, and will have to undergo an agonizing period of retreat from its former Constantinian glory.
In other words, even among those who still profess some semblance of the faith, there is a loss of the sense of intimacy with Christ with a consequent loss of a sense of participation in the cruciform structure of his existence. There is therefore also a deep, deep alienation from the core evangel of the Church amongst millions of Catholics and a deep sense of meaninglessness, loneliness, depression, and despair. Their cry is that of the desperate father of the possessed child who, after Jesus told him that all things can be accomplished through faith, exclaimed: “I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). We want to believe, but find we cannot, and yet we do believe. It seems therefore that the strange structure of specifically modern forms of faith are actually forms of a deep, smoldering, even at times searing, unbelief, but an unbelief that has been transformed, via the crucible of a true desire for God, into a kind of faith that stretches outward toward God as a destitute beggar who has been stripped bare of all pretentions.
We can escape our culture’s illusions to a great extent and with great effort, but, like the wounds of Christ, the scars remain with us and the religious ties that bind remain loosely affixed. We are all now atheists at heart even as our faith perdures in and through the unbelief embedded in our social constructs. It is an entirely new form of sanctity born out of the negating nullifications of modernity, and it is giving birth to entirely new kinds of saints. The sanctity of vicariously suffered unbelief – a form of crucifixion – transformed into the martyrial witness of unbelief conquered from within. And it is a conquest which brings enormous and manifest joy. And it is a faith and a sanctity which is most truly at home in the worldly world as a full participant and with eyes wide open.
It is essentially a lay form of sanctity, but it is also a form of discipleship that I think an increasing number of priests and religious are drawn to. And that is because the modern bourgeois parish is in crisis – a crisis of faith that mirrors the deep cultural unbelief -- and this crisis afflicts priests as much, if not more, than the laity. What this means is that many Catholics today exist in a deeply ambiguous relationship with the so-called “institutional Church”. It is a relationship that can be characterized as the typical parishioner being an “insider” insofar as his or her Mass attendance is relatively consistent and yet, nevertheless, on the level of emotions and existential commitment, an “outsider”. This too is an alienation from intimacy, only in this case it is an alienation from the Christ who comes to us in the sacraments. Much has been made of the Pew research that shows that a majority of Catholics in the United States no longer believe in the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. And much hand-wringing has been done about the need, in the light of this, for better catechesis and preaching. But even though that is all well and good (and it is), it does not address the deeper phenomenology of what is happening here. And that is the crisis of alienation from intimacy with Christ via the sacraments of the institutional Church because that Church has not recognized the agonistic and secularized aspects of the faith of most average Catholics. It has not recognized the alienation and it has not recognized that many Catholics are actually psychological outsiders to the Church, even if they sit in the pews every Sunday.
What then are we to do?? Is it all just hopeless? Should those of us who do not suffer from this modern form of faith-based alienation, and who feel like true “insiders”, just retreat into our Catholic compounds with a buried school bus stockpiled with brown scapulars and books on the coming apocalypse as predicted by Mary in various apparitions and mysterious “secrets”? Instead of the Benedict Option are we now to engage in the “Essene Option” of sequestration, resentment, and bitter hostility as we await the return of the kick-ass, and pissed-off, Pantocrator Jesus to lay waste to our enemies?
I think not and I think there are indeed reasons for hope. But it will require more than the tired categories of most Catholic responses to modernity up to this point to be truly authentic. Radical traditionalism, Catholic progressivism, and standard form Catholic conservatism, all fall short of the mark in various ways. None of them are radical enough which means none of them actually understand themselves all that well. Lacking a true Christocentric, cruciform radicality, traditionalism is not nearly traditional enough, Catholic progressivism is not progressive at all but simply the parroting of intellectual fashion, and standard form “conservative” Catholicism is simply Whig-bourgeois Liberalism at prayer. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, and they all have sincerely devoted Catholics within their ranks. Better Catholics than I am for sure. But as a response to the nullification of God in modernity and the deep culture of disbelief, they are all shadow boxing failures.
So-called radical traditionalism which has seen a resurgence of late. I have shown some sympathy with this movement here and there in social media and in some of my published essays, mainly due to the fact that they want to adhere to the historic faith as a counter witness to the current crisis. Nevertheless, I have grown increasingly impatient with the superficiality of their analysis, their scorched-earth hostility to any development in the Church beyond the neo-scholastic thought world of 1908, the not-so-latent anti-Semitism in many traditionalist circles, and their thoroughly antiquarian view of women – if not outright misogyny -- and the role of women within marriage under the headship of their husbands, which is often characterized as a headship of raw power.
And do not tell me I am attacking a straw man here. I am not. And I could go even further and add to this list of things that trigger me about traditionalism, their simplistic and puerile assertions concerning the causes of the post-conciliar crisis in the Church. They blame Vatican II for directly causing this and “therefore” ask us to just ignore the Council as a massive failure. They blame the new liturgy and tell us that if we had only stuck to the old Mass that things would have been much better. Go on social media and see the vitriol and rank hostility that many of the trads direct at Vatican II and the Mass of Paul VI.
But Vatican II did not create this mess. The Novus Ordo liturgy did not create this mess. Pope John Paul in Assisi did not create this mess. Pachamama did not create this mess. And the syllabus of errors, trench warfare Catholicism of radical traditionalism will be as useful in the modern endeavor to evangelize the world as a defibrillator in a morgue. The mess we are in has been brewing in the Church for centuries now and if the pre-conciliar Church was so darn healthy why did it collapse seemingly overnight as soon as the Council lifted the lid off of the Tridentine ecclesiastical repression kettle? Pius X’s Pascendi and oaths against modernism, which then led to the weaponization of the Holy Office against ressourcement thinkers, did more to undermine Catholicism than any other factor and led directly to the explosion of absolute apostate silliness after the Council. The post-conciliar collapse was therefore analogous to a group of hormonally charged Amish teenagers suddenly let loose on their Rumspringa.
Therefore, the sudden collapse of the older Catholic order showed just how spiritually adolescent pre-conciliar Catholicism actually was. And therefore if the traditionalists want to return to that model they are welcome to it. This is why Joseph Ratzinger pointed out, once again already in 1958, that the many outward metrics of Church “success” in that time (vocations, school enrollments, conversions, new parishes) were merely evidence that “statistics lie”. He therefore presciently predicted that the entire thing was ripe for a swift implosion. And please do not tell me again that I am attacking a straw man. This is the usual complaint of trads when confronted with the reality of their own movement. There is a huge undercurrent of theological restorationism and old fashioned hard, Constantinian integralism in the trad movement. It exists, it is real, and it is not a straw man.
This is why traditionalism is a dead end in terms of evangelizing a culture that has so deeply nullified God from the get-go. I would agree that one way that we can undermine the transgressive nature of modernity’s project of tradition-erasure and limits-erasure is to stand tall in the breach and fight back via a doubling-down on the tradition-principle at the heart of a truly human form of reason. But that project must take radically new approaches to tradition and breathe fire into the older equations from different angles than those with which we have grown too comfortable. And a simple return to the conceptual and linguistic grammar and cadences of a tone deaf scholasticism is going to fall like a tree in an empty forest with nobody to hear it. It might all be true up to a certain point and even in spots brilliantly so, but it will matter little since its language sounds to the modern ear like that Mormon on our doorstep. To be sure, it will appeal to some precocious types yearning for some kind of classical esoterica upon which to hinge their identity, but it will leave the majority utterly unmoved. It is “insider” language meant for insiders and will only appeal to those “true insiders”.
Likewise, Catholic progressivism of the Cardinal McElroy variety bids us essentially to redefine Catholicism as a “Big Tent” of total inclusion that is superficial and not really truly inclusive. It is superficial because it saws off the Christological branch on which it sits and on its way down to the ground celebrates the liberation achieved as a triumph of pastoral gradualism. But in so “bracketing” Christ and leaving the Christological provocation at the heart of the Church’s message in a state of perpetual suspension it cannot in any way act as a counter-witness to the modern culture of transgressive erasure. This is the cheap grace that the Protestant martyr Bonhoeffer warned us about wherein a Christianity devoid of Christ and his cruciform structure of existence is a counterfeit of the true faith. Pastoral gradualism is a real thing and it is absolutely necessary in dealing with today’s “outsider-insider” kind of alienated Catholic. But what McElroy and his allies are proposing is not a true gradualism at all with the cruciform Christ as the clearly articulated goal, but rather is a kind of mere sentimentalized and modern form of “kindness” (tolerance) which, as C.S. Lewis pointed out in “The Problem of Pain”, is in reality an enemy of the true moral good.
Furthermore, the McElroy/progressive approach is also incoherent since it does not really want radical inclusion for all. I am sure it would not allow into the tent neo-Nazis, racists, anti-Semites, misogynists or mafia dons. Nor should it. But that only underscores that the inclusion it seeks is simply the inclusion of those who live as liberal, secular, moderns and that they be allowed to do so on their terms, not ours. But, and all sarcasm aside, at least McElroy is aware that most moderns simply don’t buy our Schtick anymore and we need to approach them differently. But that does not mean that we should just wave the white flag and join the secular liturgy of concupiscence as concelebrants. Pastoral sensitivity is one thing, but “celebration” is quite another.
Sadly, the various “conservative” responses are also insufficient since the modus vivendi they have reached with modern political Liberalism, bourgeois suburbanism, and rich Catholic Republican donors, is not going to do much to staunch the bleeding. These are rear-guard actions of a people in retreat who hope that some version of the standard suburban Catholicism of bored parishes and Monte Carlo night fundraisers can be salvaged if we can just manage to tread water long enough to bob like a cork over the cresting waves of the cultural tsunami that is overwhelming us. If there even ever was a “Catholic Moment” as the neo-cons affirmed, it has long since passed and despite their best theoretical attempts to say otherwise, America has never been a crypto Catholic nation awaiting its Catholic Great Awakening.
This is status quo Catholicism and its bishops are mere placeholders and managers of the financial and personnel portfolios for “Catholic Inc.” which, like Bud Light, is in the middle of a public relations nightmare (sex abuse scandal for those just waking from a coma) that has seen its market share plummet. This is the Catholicism of anodyne and atrociously superficial homilies, and mail-it-in-I-don’t-have-time-for-this, liturgies. Neither of which are really the fault of priests since they all these days are pastors of 25 parishes, and are also campus ministers, prison chaplains and part-time maintenance workers. Nor is it really the fault of the bishops either since most of this managerial class stuff has been forced upon them and drives them batshit crazy. But it is the model of Catholicism they have all inherited and it is the model into which they think they must “fit”.
But it is also a model designed for spiritual somnambulance, existential dishonesty, and an utter inability to take into account modern unbelief and the “outsider-insider” Catholic of today. It is an old-fashioned brick and mortar Catholicism that still has its place, but which is in dire need of an imaginative overhauling of its essential structures. It lacks life. But from where and how?
Part Four: The Ernstfall Response
I have no “program” or “strategy” for the best way forward in our evangelization. And that is because this is not something that can be “thought out” in advance in some ersatz committee and published as a series of documents from the bishop’s conference as if the spiritual crisis we face can be met through the development of new bureaucratic maneuverings. The solution is going to have to bubble-up from below as new saints emerge and new forms of sanctity are inspired by the Holy Spirit in ways that elude anything that can be captured in “listening sessions”. We face what Balthasar called our “Ernstfall” moment of Christian witness which means a moment of decisional crisis in which we must choose what form our sanctity will take in today’s world of a nullified God. And that will require a true listening to the Spirit of the crucified and risen Christ and not the whisperings of the zeitgeist on superficial hot button issues.
Therefore, the true revolution can only be recovered, as it has always been recovered, by the emergence of the creativity of the saints. And if we look carefully at the Church over the past century, we see the tell-tale signs of a sanctity that is evincing a clear preferential option for life in the world and solidarity with that world even while being a mere sojourner in that world – a “pilgrim people” as Vatican II put it. It is a sanctity in the world but not of the world and for the sake of the world. As David L. Schindler put it, we exist in “The heart of the world” but precisely as “from the center of the Church.” We see this in the emergence of what have come to be known as “secular institutes” and in various other new ecclesial movements which are very much driven by a spirituality of the laity in the world.
However, there has also been a certain tension in the rise of this new spirituality since it often has been a bit at odds with the spiritual mediocrity of so many of our parishes. Sanctity often has rough edges, is provocative, and frequently takes the form of a “re-wilding” of Christianity as it seeks to make the faith “weird again”. Balthasar correctly pointed out that “to be concentric to Christ is to be eccentric to the world”. But the spiritual profligacy, exuberance, and re-wilding weirdness of these new forms of sanctity are quote often at odds with the anodyne anesthesia of our parishes.
Thus do we see a double alienation from the modern parish. On the one hand you have the millions of “insider-outsider” Catholics as I have described, but you also now have the alienation of those Catholics who desire a more radical form of Christian life that takes the form of being both in the world and yet radically different from the world. Call these Catholics whatever you want – avante garde Catholics, back to the land Catholics, dive bar Catholics, bohemian art colony Catholics, urban homesteading Catholics, classical education and homeschooling Catholics – the fact remains that their attempts at re-wilding are often at odds with the suburban, techno-affluence, and spiritual boredom of modern parishes.
But the grass is growing through the sidewalk and the Spirit truly does inspire new movements. And I am struck in particular by how many saintly women in particular have become beacons of hope for me in this regard.
I think here of the French mystic and philosopher Simone Weil who, though profoundly drawn to Catholicism, remained at arm’s length from the Church for most of her life for reasons too complex to discuss here. Nevertheless, she is perhaps one of the most profound religious thinkers of the modern secular era who is an example of the kind of alienated faith so common today. She just had more intellectual honesty and clarity than most “insider-outsider” Catholics, and who, therefore, I think is a gift of God’s grace to the modern Church who is gifting us with truly modern saints who have taken into themselves the sufferings of transformed unbelief. And her message is similar to that of other, more mainstream, Catholic thinkers of her time such as Romano Guardini, George Bernanos, and Francois Mauriac. And that is the message of a deeply christological solidarity with the agonistic unbelief and attendant nihilism of our era as we empathetically plumb the depths of its despairing loneliness. And in so doing to bring the true intimacy of divine suffering – the sufferings of love – into the cold and impersonal darkness of modernity.
This is the intimacy of the “transgression” of the resurrection which “violates” the “boundaries” of both suffering and death. That which seemed impenetrable and ineliminable has been probed, breached, and exposed as the false boundaries of our postlapsarian naturalistic assumptions. The torturers and despots do not have the last word. The moldering stench of the grave does not have the last word. And it was this resurrection transgression of the victory of the crucified Lamb that Weil sought to communicate via her own witness to an unbelieving world. Gangly, unattractive physically, maladroit, often unhealthy, and who died young in relative anonymity, she nevertheless had a sanctity whose odor only grows over time.
I think of another French woman, Madeleine Debrêl, quoted above, whose life went from lukewarm Catholic to overt atheist and then back to a radical form of Catholic living. She became a nurse in order to live in the world in solidarity with the poor but who also viewed writing as her vocation in order to communicate to the world certain spiritual insights. And those insights are so profound and cutting that one realizes in reading them that one is in the presence of a holy prophet of God. But she too often lived in a certain isolation from “mainstream Catholicism” and therefore a bit alienated from it.
And of course, there is also Dorothy Day. People often ask me what is it that most attracts me to her way of life and her thought. And my answer is always the same. She understood “alienation” and she was familiar with all the Marxist uses (misuses) of that often over used and shopworn category. And she wanted to retrieve the concept from the Marxists and to place it within a christological context. In this regard, her sanctity took the form of a union with the crucified Christ who alone suffered the deepest alienation in his kenosis into death and Hell, and who therefore alone can bring true spiritual healing to all of the many ways that modernity creates a scarring alienation within us all. And insofar as the Church had accommodated herself to the alienating structures of bourgeois modernity Dorothy Day saw, presciently, that millions of Catholics would eventually come to feel alienated from that Church as well. That modern people are in search of a spiritual solution they do not know and yet the Church fails to articulate that solution. That modern people are in search of bread, but the Church has given them stones.
This has already been the longest blog post I have ever written. And I could go on and on with examples of modern forms of sanctity that I think are prophetic and needed. But I think you get the point. In conclusion therefore I can only say that what I seek is a Church that lives and preaches Christ crucified and that her only hermeneutic is the hermeneutic of Christ’s Kenosis.
This is all the Church really possesses. This is her only true “synodality”. The synodality of the praxis of the via crucis. Someday we will have a new pope and a new head of the DDF and new bishops and new Cardinals, and all of the current kerfuffles will become yesterday’s news. That is not to say that the issues of today are unimportant. Because they are important. But they are penultimate and not ultimate.
These things too shall pass. And all that will truly remain is Christ crucified and risen.
Dorothy Day, pray for us