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On Adapting to "Modern Times" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
| April 24, 2006
"Those who write today on the theme of any one country in Christendom
are haunted by the knowledge that their theme is uncertain. The subject
which they desire to treat is not sufficiently fixed in the dimension
of time.... We predicate of any one province of Christendom that it is
thus and thus, but even as we make the affirmation the condition we take
for granted may be changing such is the peculiar misfortune, but
also the peculiar interest of the time in which we live."
Hilaire Belloc, "Spain," Places (London: Cassell, 1942),
A friend of mine, whose wife is Spanish, sent me a news item dated April
5, 2006, from Madrid. The headlines read, "Spain
Will Not Be Catholic in 20 Years". These were not
what I would call "encouraging words." If they are not Catholic,
we might wonder, what they will be instead? We already know how the Spanish
electorate capitulated to the bombing of a Spanish commuter train by pretending
that no problem existed with Muslim forces in the world or in their back
yard. To solve their consternation, they elected a socialist. This solution
is almost invariably a formula for further disaster on more than one score.
But the article about Catholic decline from El Pais was an account
of a survey by the Fundacion Santa Maria (just what "Santa
Maria" might think of the results is not indicated). The survey told
of "mounting disgust" with the Catholic Church. We know, of
course, that people can be "disgusted" both with the good and
with the bad. I would presume, judging from Christs temptation in
the desert, that Lucifer was rather "disgusted" with Christs
performance. We know the now suddenly famous Judas was also annoyed at
Christ. Thus, this so-called "mounting disgust" of the Catholic
Church may be directed against what is good about her, granted the much
publicized faults and sins of her members. The Catholic Church, in the
form it is, is in the world because of sinners, who usually do not appreciate
being reminded of their real status before God or one another.
In addition, we are told that in Spain an increasing "disbelief"
in God is prevalent. What was the reason for this "trend?" First
of all, the present generation in Spain, we are informed, will not bring
up their children "as believers." Only 49% of Spaniards now
affirm that they are Catholic, and that figure evidently included those
who said they were Catholic but did not practice the faith. The survey
dealt only with those from 18-24 years of age. Back in 1996, 77% of the
same group said they were Catholic, clearly a significant change. Nor
did the survey indicate just how few children the Spaniards are having
The surveys authors went on to "explain" why this decline
took place. Not unexpectedly, it was because "the Church failed to
adapt to modern times." You have to love someone so naive. Let us
suppose that the Church had, over the centuries, accepted the principle
implicit in this reasoning. Each new "modern times" would mandate
a new ecclesiastical and ethical configuration. The Church would not be
the same in doctrine and rite over the centuries, but would be something
"modern" in each new generation. No matter if what it held in
one "modern time" was just the opposite of what was held in
a subsequent "modern time." Logic doesnt count. The Spanish
youth are eager to be up-to-date, however rapidly that up-to-datedness
becomes, in turn, out-of-date. Just let them know what "modern times"
signifies and they are eager for the next step, whatever it is. Nothing
will be too modern for them, by this logic, nor will anything ever be
But it gets better. One Juan Gonzalez Anleo, who was an author of the
report, ventured to explain the situation further. "The Churchs
unpopular stances on issues such as the legitimization of
gay marriage or abortion have alienated young people." No doubt this
is the most profound piece of op-ed advice given to the Church since it
was told to "go forth and teach all nations!"
On reading such an absurd passage, one hardly knows whether to laugh or
cry. We are led to believe that all over fair Spain we find lying around
in all the public squares alienated youth, struck down by the horrible
idea that marriage is for the purpose of children, that it is the affair
of a man and a woman, and that children in wombs are not to be killed.
Here is Schalls suggestion about how to handle this agonizing problem.
In order for Spain to become Catholic again, all we need to do is to convince
their bishops or preferably the Pope, to approve gay marriage and abortion.
Suddenly, miraculously, the Spanish youth from 18-24 will leap up out
of their lethargy to become enthusiastic believers again. They will do
the flamenco in all the bars, all the while rejoicing that they are now
legitimately members of "modern times."
Frankly, it is not unlike claiming that if the Church in Germany had approved
the racism of the Hitler Jugend movement, itself once a form of "modern
times," all indoctrinated Nazi youth would have suddenly become pious
Catholics. It is all very simple. All the Church has to do to regain its
prestige in Spain, according to this theory, is to deny its basic tenets.
If you come down from the Cross, we will adore you. Personally, I cannot
believe the Spanish youth are so stupid, but I am just reporting what
I read in the papers.
Another way to look at this logic would be to say that if the Church ceased
being Catholic, the Spanish youth would flock to its membership. The Church
here is presented as a kind of reflection of "modern times."
It takes its cue not from Scripture and tradition, not from what it was
to hold down the ages, but from a survey of what local Spanish youth maintain.
Thus, whatever "modern times" holds, the Church must hold. If
it does not, the youth will be modern come what may whatever "modernity"
might imply, and we know what it implies for the survey tells us.
The long and short of it is, however, that if the Church suddenly approves
abortion and gay marriage, there is no Church, whatever you might call
its remnants. The Spanish youth may choose not to practice what the Church
teaches. No one denies that. They are already paying a heavy penalty in
seeing their numbers rapidly decline. Spain has the second lowest birth
rate in Europe, after Italy. The Spanish youth can see, if they wish to
see, that their disbelief leads to a radical change in their very numbers.
Mr. Gonzalez goes on to tell us that "the Catholic Church is the
least trusted of any institution, including multi-national companies and
NATO." Again, one has to laugh. Do we assume the Spanish youth trust
Islam, the Russians, the Chinese, the French, or the ecologists? If they
get rid of NATO and multi-nationals, what is left but a backward and defenseless
Moreover, "one in eight said the Church is excessively wealthy."
That means, by my simple calculations, that seven in eight does not think
the Church "excessively wealthy?"
The report ends with one other statistic. It says that 43% of those questioned
said they still wanted "a church wedding," while 22% preferred
a civil ceremony; just why, the column did not clarify. But if neither
the one or the other produce children, what real difference does it make?
If we recall Bellocs introductory remarks about the status of Christendom
and the various countries within it, including Spain, we will be fascinated
to read of Benedict XVIs remarks on March 30 to a group of Christian
politicians from the European Popular Party, among whom there were no
doubt a few Spaniards. Pope Ratzinger, as did his predecessor, recalled
again the obvious Christian heritage of Europe. Not a few politicians
want to "relegate to the private and subjective sphere the manifestation
of ones own religious convictions" (LOsservatore Romano,
English, April 12, 2006).
The Pope noted how remarkably intolerant the advocates of a non-Christian
Europe have themselves become. "One has to recognize that a certain
secular intransigence shows itself to be the enemy of tolerance and of
a sound secular vision of state and society." What does this "sound
secular vision" entail?
When churches or ecclesiastical communities intervene in public
debate, expressing reservations or recalling various principles, this
does not constitute a form of intolerance or an interference, since
such interventions are aimed solely at enlightening consciences, enabling
them to act freely and responsibly according to the true demands of
justice, even when this should conflict with situations of power and
The notion that it is somehow "intolerant" to speak the truth
and address it to politicians for their serious consideration is something
only "modern times" could come up with. We are seeing not a few
governmental laws, and these in so-called democratic states, now telling
us that it is "intolerant" even to cite Scripture or ideas based
But what I am most interested in here, in light of the Spanish survey and
its analysis that I have cited above, is the Popes rather blunt and
clear statement of issues that we are told that the Church only need drop
for it to catch up with "modern times." Speaking for the Catholic
Church, the Pope stated that "the principal focus of her intervention
in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the
person, and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles
which are not negotiable." You have to love this man!
Almost as if he read the article about the Spanish youth in advance, Benedict
XVI then lists the three most important issues that are "not negotiable":
1) protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of
conception to its natural death; 2) recognition and promotion of the
natural structure of the family its defence based on marriage
and its defence from attempts to make it juridically equivalent
to radically different forms of union which in reality harm it and contribute
to its de-stabilization, obscuring its particular character and its
irreplaceable social role; 3) the protection of the right of parents
to educate their children.
Thus, the Church stands for exactly the opposite of the plan put down for
Spanish youth in their survey.
But what is even more significant about these positions that Pope Ratzinger
reaffirms is the reasoning he presents for their being in the public order.
"These principles are not truths of faith, even though they receive
further light and confirmation from faith; they are inscribed in human nature
itself and therefore they are common to all humanity." How often do
we have to repeat that the final basis of Catholic and Christian opposition
to abortion and gay marriage and such things is not the Bible or revelation,
even those these sources also understand what is reasonable and obvious.
And finally, Benedict tells the European Christian politicians something
that I hope did not startle them, but probably did:
The Churchs action in promoting them (these issues and principles)
is therefore not confessional in character but is addressed to all people
prescinding from any religious affiliation they may have. On the contrary,
such action is all the more necessary the more these principles are
denied or misunderstood, because this constitutes an offence against
the truth of the human person, a grave wound inflicted onto justice
So I am glad that I was sent the Spanish survey telling me that "Spain
Will Not Be Catholic in 20 Years." The main reason it will
not be Catholic is the same reason there will be so few Spaniards in twenty
years. Spain keeps up with "modern times."
"We predicate of any one province of Christendom that it is thus and
thus, but even as we make the affirmation the condition we take for granted
may be changing...." The Pope has it right, what is at issue is "the
truth of the human person." We should not be surprised that this "truth"
is not popular. Nor should we be surprised that it is "not negotiable."
What would surprise us would be statistics showing those who deny these
principles of reason were vigorously increasing and multiplying.
The truth is that those who deny them embrace a culture of death the likes
of which Christendom has not previously seen. The fact is today that its
most aggressive enemies continue rapidly to reproduce themselves gladly
to replace the many Europeans who do not see the light of day because of
the lethal embrace of "modern times." As I intimated, I cannot
believe the Spanish youth, 18-24, are really to ill-informed as not to see
this fate. Boiled down to its essence, what the Pope is saying to European
politicians and Spanish youth is this, "stop blaming the Church and,
for once in your lives, use your heads!"
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing,
Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing,
and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.
Read more of his essays on his
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