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The Church, Pilgrim of Centuries
by Thomas Molnar
Eerdmans, 182 pages, $15.95

Perhaps of all world religions, and certainly of all branches of Christianity, the institution of Roman Catholicism is the one on which the most social reflection has historically focused. And for good reason: as the largest single religious institution in the world, the Catholic Church affects nearly everyone, whether Catholic or not. In The Church, Pilgrim of Centuries, Catholic philosopher Thomas Molnar adds to this body of reflection with a rather bleak examination of the present state and future promise of Catholicism as a social institution. 

Molnar is well known as a consistent critic of the modern political project. In this volume, he applies his doubts about modernity in generalspecifically democracy and liberalismto an analysis of the problems of the Catholic Church, especially in America. From the outset, Molnar leaves no doubt about where he stands: the church is in big trouble, and there is little hope that it can escape the present morass to regain the glory of a rich and profound history. “Today . . . the church is battered,” he says, “not unlike some ex-great powers which, although on the victorious side of the war . . . are now exhausted, without a former energy, self-assurance, and the dynamism of expansion.” 

Molnar is also clear that the beginning of the institutional malaise of the Catholic Church can be precisely dated: 1965, the end of the Second Vatican Council. “What followed 1965 was not peace after a healthy and cleansing storm, but a landscape of devastation.” Since then, he thinks, the Catholic Church has become more and more like the mainline Protestant churchesbereft of its spiritual energy and moral integrityand is therefore, again like mainline Protestantism, losing its role as a framer and guardian of public morality. 

Implicit in Molnar’s analysis of what has led to this decline is a two-stage process of democratization. First, the onset of modern liberal democracy moved the church from the center of moral discourse to the periphery. Modern civil societya direct result of the invention of the separate client statehas led to the “reduction of the role of the church . . . from being the traditional spiritual guide of national communities . . . to the status of an interest group within a society.” Rather than being the moral compass by which political society directs itself, the church in a liberal democracy has become one of many interest groups competing for the same space in the public square. The church has no more natural role in public moral discourse than the National Organization for Women, ACT-UP or the United Steel Workers. The state itself, thinks Molnar, “assumes the role of ‘church,’ or at least adheres to an ideology which for all intents and purposes has become a substitute religion.” 

The second stage is the process by which the church has tried to dress itself in the proper democratic garb in order to maintain some voice in public discourse. The church has seen fit to prove its liberal and democratic credentials so that it be allowed to have a voice in a liberal and democratic society. “The liberal program,” Molnar explains, “now nearly universal in the Western world, has an agenda for the church different from its traditional role and mission.” Modern civil society has a triple ideology, he continues: “The adjusting institution is expected to become democratic in mentality and structure; pluralist in its acceptance of other institutions, groups, and movements as equals; and ecumenical in its reformulation of its vocation.” Liberal democratic civil society demands that an institution meet these criteria, or it need not apply for a place in the public square. 

But by making these adjustments in order to avoid marginalization, the church actually contributes to its further marginalization, and possibly, thinks Molnar, its eventual political irrelevance. The first mistake was for the church even to accept the terms of liberal democracy as the politicus receptus for the modern world. The second was to embrace these terms for its own ecclesial polity. By becoming more and more democratic (and allegedly more attractive to a democratic society), the church gives up more and more of its natural authority as a moral guide for this same society. The church relativizes (and “relevantizes”) itself into irrelevance. 

Molnar’s book centers on two options advocated by various voices within the church, neither of which is acceptable. Option A is a deliberate and explicit continuation of the democratization that has already taken place implicitly. This is a program in which the church not only concedes that it must find a way to exist in a liberal democratic regime, but actually becomes an apologist for the regime. Option A, rather than finding ways for the church to combat the corrosive elements of modern civil society, contributes to them by giving them theological sanction. In this view, democracy is not the worst regime except for every other; it is rather the result of divine providence, God’s own plan for civil society. Whether advocates of Option A intend it or not, Molnar contends, this course will inevitably lead only to further intolerance on the part of pluralist democracies toward those institutions that are not pluralist and democratic, as a healthy Catholic Church cannot be. 

Option B, according to Molnar, “is accommodation with socialism and the left.” This is the option of liberation theology, which thinks that “religion and socialism remain linked.” Molnar does not see the recent collapse of Marxist regimes around the world as invalidating Option B for those committed to it. “In fact,” he explains, “as enthusiasm for the Marxist solution is waning world-wide, they may be the rearguard Marxists, and as such may be as fanaticized and intolerant as the Marxist vanguard used to be.” As with Option A, Option B is a result of the church replacing its true vision with one supplied by the political and civil culture. “The consequence is practically the same; the church’s exclusion from the political realm.” 

Molnar’s criticism of modern civil society and the church’s reaction to it is always illuminating and at times profound:

Since liberalism is basically nominalistic, it denies the genuine ensembles, corporations, institutions, states, nations, and churches. Thus there is no philosophical contradiction when liberal society turns into its opposite, the egalitarian society, where no authority but only brutal force may prevail.

Further, Molnar seems to be on target when he warns of the difficulty of living in liberal political culture and not being affected by “liberal ideology.”

What happened between the middle of the last century and the middle of this one is that liberalism has become a social orthodoxy and the entire apparatus of modern society has come to be seen as the embodiment of an unquestioned truth, a cultural final word concerning the individual and the public weal.

This liberal ideology, he continues, “acts as a dissolver of the religious worldview and practice.” Liberalism “with its indirect and multiple pressures . . . instills religious indifference in the population.” And he warns Catholics who would embrace liberal democracy with enthusiasm; “The church cannot become ‘liberal’ and dissolve authority, institutions, structures, and discipline. Their absence or even weakness threatens the souls Christ entrusted to the church.”

Now, no one can deny that as the church accommodates itself to liberal culture it is always in danger of losing its true freedomthe freedom “to set forth the Gospel’s teaching, guard its integrity, and thereby protect the faith of the people of God” (Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian). But on at least one major point, some of Molnar’s conclusions are a bit problematic. He is careful to note that it is unthinkable that the church should somehow become extinct, but he makes statements that might suggest that he is denying Christ’s promise to the church that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. Talk of the church becoming “irrelevant” sounds too much like the church finally succumbing completely to the weight of modernity. There is much to make a Catholic weary as he surveys the American landscape, but the promise remains, and it is one that should offer us hope. The promise of Christ is that the church will always he the protector of orthodoxydespite the many voices of dissent that are heard within it. As long as this is true, the church will not be irrelevant to the one question that has disturbed mankind throughout history, and the question to which the church has the only relevant answer: how must I be saved?

Nor is it even correct to say that the church is irrelevant in public moral debate, Molnar’s main concern. The fact that abortion is even a moral question some eighteen years after Roe V. Wade must be attributed to the strong, consistent voice of the church’s magisterium. And who really thinks that such issues as school-dispensed contraception, pornography, and sexual “liberty” would be the hot issues they are were it not for the highly structured and organized voice of the Catholic Church?

In this connection, Molnar takes issue with Richard John Neuhaus, to whom he attributes the notion that this era is the “Catholic moment,” that the Catholic Church is beginning a new formation of public morality in America. Molnar says that this is patently false, and were this actually Neuhaus’ position, he would be correct. But this happens not to be Neuhaus’ position, at least as put forward in The Catholic Moment, where he, too, expresses some of Molnar’s pessimism. Indeed, Neuhaus’ critique of the church in liberal and democratic society is usually as insightful and occasionally even as alarmed as Molnar’s. Neuhaus’ “Catholic moment” is highly qualified, and he acknowledges that the moment may be missed.

Molnar’s political insight is keen, but Neuhaus’ ecclesiology is better. The latter stands consciously on the promise that Christ gave His church, and it looks for the church’s continued march through history as the mystical body of Christ. Because of the kind of institution the Catholic Church is, it just mightunlike all other institutionsbe the instrumentality for the creation of a rigorous public and political morality. Its rich history of moral and political thought, its highly developed institutional structure, its sheer size, and the zeal of many of its adherents make the Catholic Church (pace Mr. Lincoln) “the world’s last best hope.” This does not mean, says Neuhaus, that it necessarily will make a sweeping change in the moral practices of Americans, but no other institution can even be considered a candidate. Molnar thinks it impossible that even the Catholic Church can pull this off, and on this point he goes too far.

Regardless of how gloomy the picture looks from an orthodox Catholic perspective, the church has always weathered every storm and will continue to do so. It may not have the political relevance Molnar would like to see, and that is to be mourned. But the teaching of Christ and the Apostles is not primarily concerned with that kind of relevance. As Tom Bethell wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, we might see a smaller church in years ahead, but if that happens we will certainly see one that is more sure of itself and its mission”to protect the gospel of Christ. One wishes that the entire tone of Molnar’s book would have been more consistent with the last paragraph of his Introduction:

Optimism is not in order, for we do not even know whether we have reached the low point of this revolution. It seems, however, that faith and orthodoxy possess a resilience that Utopia-fuelled radicalism lacks. It also seems that sacred history obstinately accompanies profane history and comes to its rescue.

The Church, Pilgrim of Centuries is a worthy assessment of why, at least at the present, this truth is difficult to see.

Kenneth Craycraft is a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.