After I posted about the implications of Scottish Cardinal O’Brien’s resignation amidst allegations of sexual misconduct, I’ve found myself swept up into the surging currents of Rod Dreher’s blog.
Given that Rod says a great deal, there’s of course a great deal that can be said in response. But I’ll refrain. Instead, what interests me is the urgent tone of Rod’s postings on these and related matters. There’s an odd atmosphere of collapse, a kind of apocalyptic anxiety. Rod speaks of declining (collapsing!) Church attendance in Britain, which he merges with evocations and warnings about still more depravities to be uncovered. In his mind it adds up to a crisis of Catholicism akin to the traumas of the Reformation. He can’t understand why I’m not outraged, or mad, or in some way properly agitated by what he sees as the evident signs of a world-historical threat to the Christian witness.
Maybe I’m blind. Maybe I’m morally obtuse. Maybe I’m spiritually deluded. But then again maybe Christian faith and the Church have enough spiritual range, as it were, to cover bad situations like the current clerical abuse crisis, or larger trends such as secularism.
Some years ago I was talking with Muslim friends. They expressed some of Rod’s dire urgency. By their thinking, Islamic fundamentalism is a reaction of Islam to the traumatic challenges of modernity: science, secularism, pluralism, the atomizing effects of free market capitalism, the lure of sexual freedom, the pleasure-a-day seductions of consumer culture, and so forth. They were anxious, concerned, and in ways akin to Rod’s postings, fearful of collapse though self-inflicted wounds as Islam over-reacts and corrupts itself in a spirit of blind opposition and desperate negation.
I expressed sympathy. But I told them that Christianity and Judaism put failure and collapse into their founding narratives. The Israelites make a golden calf. They prostitute themselves to strange gods in every generation. In their captivity they are seduced by assimilation. The same holds for the disciples. They deny and abandon Jesus. With characteristic insight into the logic of the Old Testament and its fulfillment in Christ, St. Paul does not push these truths about our weakness and humiliation away, but draws them near: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
And your point, my Muslim friends asked? Ah, I replied, Christianity and Judaism are of course threatened, debilitated, and weakened by modernity, for all the reasons you say, and more—and for all the reasons Rod Dreher says, and more. But it’s not unprecedented. On the contrary, it’s common, almost the norm. This is why Christianity and Judaism, however beaten down by the present age, need not be anxious and despairing. We need not think that the real debilitations and real wounds inflicted on the Church—and the sexual sins of the clergy to wound the church in a special way in our era, a time when sexual morality plays such a central symbolic role in Western Culture—are fatal.
So of course I agree with Rod that clerical sins should be censored and miscreants disciplined. And of course I regret that more people don’t go to church in Britain (or New York for that matter). But I can’t participate in his odd sense that somehow the Church is on the verge of collapse. No longer at the center of Western culture, no longer influential, no longer the obvious option for morally sensitive upper-middle-class people? Yes, quite possible, and in many ways already all too actual. But the collapse of the cultural dominance of Christianity is not at all the same thing as a spiritual, theological collapse. From where I sit, when it comes to the interior lives of Catholics and of the Church, things have gotten better, not worse, in the last two decades. I suppose it’s as St. Paul says: for when I am weak, then I am strong.