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On Adapting to "Modern Times" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | April 24, 2006

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"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), 175.

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 Christ’s temptation in the desert, that Lucifer was rather "disgusted" with Christ’s 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 anyhow.

The survey’s 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 doesn’t 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 the same.

But it gets better. One Juan Gonzalez Anleo, who was an author of the report, ventured to explain the situation further. "The Church’s ‘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. Poor things!

Here is Schall’s 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 country?

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 Belloc’s introductory remarks about the status of Christendom and the various countries within it, including Spain, we will be fascinated to read of Benedict XVI’s 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 one’s own religious convictions" (L’Osservatore 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 personal interest.
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 on it.

But what I am most interested in here, in light of the Spanish survey and its analysis that I have cited above, is the Pope’s 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 Church’s 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 itself.
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!"

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

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 website.

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