It became clear to me that my personal Christian faith is not tolerated or permitted in the public square, at least by some and perhaps by many.” So said the CEO of one of Australia’s largest football clubs after he was forced to resign one day into the job, following revelations that he was board chair of a group of conservative Anglican churches and that, a decade earlier, one of the pastors had preached some fiery sermons on the sanctity of life and sexual morality. It didn’t matter that the executive was not a member of the congregation at the time, had never heard the sermons in question, had said nothing himself to offend progressive orthodoxies, and had championed “diversity” and “inclusion” initiatives as CEO of a major bank. He was canceled for associating with a group that espoused traditional Christian beliefs. The state premier weighed in, demonizing the man’s church as hateful, bigoted, and “absolutely appalling.” After the Anglican and Catholic archbishops spoke in the man’s favor, the premier, who advocates abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and other leftist causes, suggested he was a better Christian and Catholic than they.
We could point to many other examples of what Pope St. Paul VI called “the great drama of our time”: the division, sometimes collision, between the Gospel and the culture. Of course there can be a Christian culture, and liberal cultures can be more or less hospitable to religion. But “Western” societies that long traced their genealogy to the twin wisdoms of Jerusalem and Athens seem to be taking a different direction.
So, is the West now “post-Christian” or “secular”? From the Latin saeculum comes our word “secular” and its variants. By “secular” we denote the affairs and powers “of this world,” in contrast to spiritual or otherworldly affairs and powers. “Secularity” denotes not only a distinction but a degree of separation between church and state, with each sphere and its agents having a certain freedom from the other. And “secularization” describes the process of further separating these spheres, and minimizing or privatizing religion.
Whereas other civilizations identified sacred and profane power, Christianity has always insisted that some things be rendered unto Caesar and some unto God, even if we bring the one conscience to both spheres. In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor argues that this ancient Christian balance was already threatened in the Renaissance–Reformation period. The closure of religious houses, seizure of church property, rise of anti-clericalism, and horror of the wars of religion opened the gates to a humanism that disembedded individuals from society, society from the cosmos, and the cosmos from God. There arose a full-blown secularism, which sought to accelerate the process of “disenchantment” and, in its more aggressive form, to abolish religion altogether. Belief and unbelief became rival accounts of reason, nature, community, and happiness.
The ensuing centuries saw the decline of the Judeo-Christian worldview and the emergence of secularization theory—the idea that as societies become more affluent and scientifically advanced, they inevitably become less religious. By the 1930s, theorists were describing the West as “post-Christian.” The Second Vatican Council placed the rise of atheism “among the most serious problems of the age” and asked believers whether their own ignorance of the faith or lukewarm witness were contributing to popular unbelief.
Six decades later, only fragments of our “enchanted” past remain, with its sense of mystery and revelation, providence and hierarchies. In the new epistemic and moral orders, individuals acquire knowledge empirically, are subject only to themselves, collaborate when it suits, and contribute to efficient production and maximal consumption. The free market, liberal democracy, technologies, and social media dominate, and our hermeneutics are of suspicion, materialism, relativism, and rupture. The clerical sexual abuse crisis seriously damaged the credibility of the churches and so their ability to respond to the challenges of secularization. Many individuals, institutions, and cultures have abandoned Christian beliefs, norms, and behaviors.
In the past decade alone, the proportion of Americans identifying as Christian fell from 75 percent to 63 percent, with three in ten now identifying as “Nones”—atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular” religiously. The proportion of Christians in Britain, Germany, and Australia declined from around six in ten to below five in ten in the same period, while “Nones” rose to four in ten. Most people in the Netherlands today have never visited a church, and one in ten of those who still identify as Catholic say they don’t believe in God. Those who do believe and count religion as important in their lives now represent just over half of Americans, a quarter of Canadians, one-fifth of Australians, and one-tenth of Britons, French, and Germans. Well below two-fifths of American Catholics attend Mass each Sunday, one-eighth of Canadians and Australians, one-tenth of Germans, 7 percent of Belgians, 5 percent of the French, and 3 percent of the Dutch. Many pastors bemoan a lack of young adults. Though immigration of more pious populations has masked the scale, there are many signs of decline in Western Christianity.
Alasdair MacIntyre famously suggested that modernity is like the late Roman Empire, living on fragments of old ideas and practices that made sense only within a context that is now largely lost. Christian institutions, such as parishes, schools, hospitals, and aged-care and welfare agencies, might seem quite healthy. But they can easily lose their souls and become Christian “zombies” indistinguishable from secular NGOs. Religious symbols, voices, and traditions are ever less prominent in the public square, which some call a “Babylon” in which believers are “exiles” or “resident aliens.” Claims of objective truth, traditional wisdom about sin and salvation, and spiritual “fairy tales” about creation and revelation, liberation through the Red Sea, and a first-century Nazarene have been replaced—first, by secular tolerance and a plurality of competing “narratives” from TV gurus, psychotherapists, and others; then, by anti-religious indoctrination through education and media and the canceling of religious voices. Secular fixations—on autonomy, sexuality, victimhood, diversity, and inclusion (of everyone except believers)—inform many contemporary laws and practices. Western history, arts, and culture are deplored or ignored. And civility in engagement and debate have been replaced by the ever evolving, increasingly bullying rules of influencers and wokesters.
As a young man, backpacking around Europe while deciding my vocation, I spent a fortnight in Florence. Two young guys from Seattle arrived at my youth hostel with only a day for Florence and asked me whether there was much to see! Though no expert, I offered to take them around. Engraved in my memory is an incident in the Uffizi Gallery. One of them turned to me and asked, “Who is the woman with the baby in so many of the pictures?” I’d assumed that, growing up in a Christian culture, even non-believers would know who Mary and Jesus were. This was in 1984; four decades later, Seattle’s youth probably know even less about their spiritual patrimony.
On his recent return flight from Kazakhstan, Pope Francis told a journalist, “The West is not in general at its most exemplary right now.” By repulsing refugees, it has become the watery “graveyard of humanity.” For ceasing to have children, it is experiencing “a demographic winter.” “The West is decaying,” the pope said. He gave euthanasia as an example. “It’s inhuman,” he exclaimed. “Let’s leave killing to the beasts.”
In modernity, there are different versions of secularity, secularization, and secularism. Milder versions reflect the Christian distinction between the city of God and the city of man, show respect to people of all religions and none, and enable coexistence and some degree of collaboration between church and state. A more extreme secularism casts aside all settlements between church and state, seeking a comprehensively post-Christian reality. Governments, courts, and businesses increasingly marginalize believers. There are many signs of the adoption of a radically secular worldview. Some secularists would ban crosses from public places, schools, or necks. Even when faith is acknowledged as a majority view or religious freedom as a fundamental right, some regard religion as so benighted, even dangerous, that it must be constrained and finally eradicated. Those who identify as believers are encouraged to live as “practical atheists,” as if there were no god.
But is the trend toward irreligion inevitable, irreversible, and complete? Addressing the first assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1948, an exasperated Karl Barth said: “‘Post-Christian Era’? Nonsense!” How, he asked, had we come to accept the Nazi propaganda that our world was “post-Christian”? Why did we imagine that we were the first generation to face the challenge of godlessness? Whence the nostalgia for some golden age of Christendom? In separate essays for First Things, Peter Berger and Rodney Stark have argued that secularization theory is fundamentally flawed. I agree.
History, anthropology, and divine revelation all testify that human beings are religious animals. Roger Scruton and Christian Smith have each observed that people believe in religion because they are persuaded that it is true and God-given; because the spiritual is basic “to how human perception, cognition, and explanation ordinarily work”; and because religion provides community, identity, meaning, ecstasy, beauty, order, and emotional energy. Charles Taylor likewise argues that even in very secularized societies, people crave “a fullness, a richness,” whereby life is deeper, worthier, more admirable, “a communion of whole lives, of whole itineraries toward God.” Of course, there are non-believers whose lives are functional and happy enough. But as religious forms endure, evolve, or decay, and as efforts to wipe out religion succeed in some places or fail, it seems that “religion is somehow irrepressibly natural to human being[s].”
Moreover, religion still boasts many adherents. Christianity is currently the professed religion of 2.6 billion people worldwide. Philip Jenkins has detailed the remarkable recent expansion of Christianity in the global South. Even in the West, thirteen countries still boast more than 90 percent Christian adherents; another twenty-two, more than 80 percent; and a further twenty-four are more than two-thirds Christian. In each, many of the non-Christians are religious believers of another stripe. Even in countries with falling rates of affiliation and practice, the decline is by no means comprehensive. Tom Holland argues that Christianity remains “the most enduring and influential legacy of the ancient world,” its emergence “the single most transformative development in Western history,” and its moral and ethical code the most influential of any upon the Western mind.
Secularizing societies are also bucking the global trend. Though one in six of the world’s people have no religious affiliation, it is projected that by 2060 the ratio will have declined to one in eight. Atheism is in graver danger of extinction than theism.
Many Westerners still pray and worship, read the Word of God, receive sacraments, live Christian lives, and pass on the faith as best they can. There are pockets of enthusiasm for faith and morals, even among young adults. Traditional vocations, new ecclesial movements, and evangelization ministries thrive in some places. There exist unembarrassedly Catholic or Christian colleges, forums, and magazines. Many less serious believers, who blow hot and cold on their religion or say they are “still searching,” are nevertheless shaped by Christian beliefs and norms, and some report experiences of the numinous. Others entrust themselves or their loved ones to faith schools, colleges, hospitals, or aged-care, welfare, and pastoral-care services. We still find political, economic, and cultural leaders of genuine Christian inspiration. There are prayers in many parliaments, oaths in courts, nations entrusted in their constitutions or on their currencies to God. Recently, an extraordinary proportion of the world’s population witnessed the unembarrassedly religious funeral of a Christian monarch. Raw figures on declining affiliation do not tell the whole story.
Down the ages, the Christian religion has proven resilient. Religious affiliation and fervor have waxed and waned, but whenever the death of God has been proclaimed and the end of Christianity predicted, revival has been just around the corner. In the nineteenth century, revival involved an eruption of new religious orders that evangelized the global south and built social infrastructure from which we still benefit today. Today there are places where Christian symbolism, voices, and traditions are more prominent than once they were, where truth is honored, and where civility in debate and other classic Christian virtues are still practiced.
Arguably, “post-Christian” societies are a particular kind of Christian society: They are rooted in the history, culture, and practices of Judeo-Christianity, and they draw upon its principles even to criticize that patrimony. Richard Rorty, a mostly-atheist who long predicted the end of religion, came to hold that there was nothing more useful for underpinning liberal democracy than the New Testament, nothing more effective for instilling respect, empathy, and hope than Christian virtue.
For now, secularism lives parasitically with Christian culture, because no other host has proven so suitable. The secularist philosopher Austin Dacey makes a stronger claim than Rorty: He laments the marginalization of religion in social discourse, because religion is not only useful to democracies but their necessary condition, both underpinning liberal tradition and acting as its foil. Secularists engage in “vicarious religions” that have their own priesthoods, symbols and rituals, dogmas and heresies. Unbelievers, Dacey argues, benefit from encountering beliefs different from their own and are inspired by the Christian determination to secure a rationally informed and compassionate individual conscience and social order; thin liberal conceptions of the good, by contrast, offer little basis for choice or common life.
In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, John Cleese plays Reg, a member of the People’s Front of Judea. In a terrorist cell meeting, Reg asks rhetorically: “What have the Romans ever done for us?” His fellows respond with example after example of the benefits of Roman civilization. “All right, all right,” Reg concedes. “But apart from sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a freshwater system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?” For all the historical ignorance, revolutionary fantasies, and plain ingratitude of modernity, the debt of Western civilization to Christianity is much greater.
All right, all right. But apart from the sanity that sanctity brings to a world of sin; the building of hospitals, hospices, and leprosaria; the creation of the university and the most comprehensive primary, secondary, and tertiary school system in the world; the endowment and staffing of orphanages, aged-care homes, and other welfare institutions—apart from those things, what have the Roman Catholics ever done for us? Apart from ending human sacrifice, cannibalism, slavery, infanticide, and the chattel conception of women and children; the explication of a sublime moral code and vision of the virtuous person; the shaping of our language and discourse; the promotion of literacy, printing, and libraries; the sponsorship of much science, medicine, and technology, and of traditions of art, music, literature, and architecture; the development of much of Western common, civil, and constitutional law; and the establishment of a corpus of theological and philosophical thought that has provided metaphysical grounding for our politics and so much else—apart from all that, our secular antagonist presses, what have the Romish ever done for us?
If so much of Christian inspiration still survives, it forms a base upon which a Christian revival might be built. Contemporary Western secularity may prove to be another example of the temporary backsliding that has recurred many times in Christianity’s long history.
Wars civil, international, or proxy; insecurity and poverty, fueling mass migration; security forces and public services at the breaking point; a precarious world economy staring into a financial abyss; political instability comprehending factionalism, a leadership carousel, and low confidence in the state; declining trust in institutions; marriage and family in crisis, with high rates of divorce, abortion, infanticide, and suicide; old certainties passing, change accelerating, individuals and institutions struggling; subtle and overt persecution of Christians. As the old religion fades, a pagan hedonism fills the void. Is the year 2022—or 222?
Neopagans come in many varieties. Some have concocted spiritualities out of moral relativism, gods within nature or themselves, and Eastern, Celtic, or New Age practices that promise health or peace of mind. Some seek to reinvent a pre-Abrahamic religion, perhaps with a dash of witchcraft or diabolism. Then there are those like my young Americans in Florence, curious but almost entirely innocent of religion. Even these may have gods like those of the late Roman world: private gods, prosperity gods, power gods, pleasure gods, and passing-away gods.
So polytheistic was the late Roman empire, having gobbled up the gods of the many cultures it had conquered, that every family and individual could choose which gods to pray and make sacrifice to. Alexis de Tocqueville coined “individualism” in both admiration and critique of the Americans. Admiration, because putting self first and choosing one’s own path were at the heart of the democratic experiment and of the free enterprise, resilience, and achievements of America. Critique, because this disposition threatened Americans’ ability to maintain the common commitments and self-sacrifice that underpinned that experiment and those achievements. American individualism has continued to evolve. The title of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone says it all: Political parties and causes, sport and service clubs, and churches and neighborhoods all struggle for members. It’s not that people have no ideals or are unwilling to associate with others in good projects. It’s just that their attention is fleeting, most of their projects are deeply personal, and commitment to a common good is on the wane.
In addition to their private deities, the Romans boasted public gods of prosperity and comfort: Abundantia, Ceres, Copia, Fecunditas, Felicitas, Fortuna, Janus, Juno Moneta, Mercury, Ops, Plutus, Saturn. Whereas earlier Romans had admired a certain asceticism and were willing to sacrifice a great deal for family, honor, republic, or religion, by late antiquity the emphasis had shifted to personal wealth and comfort. The fortunes spent on luxuries for the upper classes and public entertainments for the masses would make our Fortune 500 CEOs blush.
In addition to personal and prosperity gods, the pre-Christian world knew deities who exercised power and through whom devotees hoped to empower themselves. The Romans turned to Hercules, Mars, Mithras, Quirinus, and Virtus for military might, or to Jupiter, Roma, and Securitas for political influence. All religion was, in a sense, civic religion, and people obeyed authorities as sacral figures. There were few restraints on power, and the Pax Romana was maintained by brute force. Democratic modernity might seem very different, with its egalitarian franchise, participatory politics, reverence for persons, rule of law, and commitment to compromise for the common good. But today we see disengagement, division, and cynicism about politics across the West. And as in late Roman times, a great tradition of rhetoric and debate has degenerated into slogans, ideologies, and power games.
The Romans also had gods for their baser lusts: Bacchus, Cupid, Liber, Priapus, Venus, Voluptas. Though not without shame, the Romans were famously licentious, especially in the imperial and heavenly courts. Prostitution, sexual exploitation of slaves, and pornography were widespread; substances and spells were employed to improve erotic life; pederasty was not uncommon. St. Peter exaggerated very little when he summed up Roman life as “debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing, idolatry, and reckless, wild living.” It is not hard to draw parallels with modernity. Today, sexual activity begins at young ages, and many people have multiple sexual partners over a lifetime; 84 percent of underaged males and 57 percent of underaged females have viewed pornography, and many are addicted by age eighteen. Nor is our time famous for its asceticism. “Food porn” is big, people are bigger, and alcohol and other substances wreak their havoc.
In the pre-Christian world, deities exercised arbitrary power over life and death. A few—Aesculapius, Carna, Febris, Salus—might improve health and lifespan, but far more gods brought death: Averna, Dea Tacita, Dis Pater, the Inferi, Libitina, Mantus, Mors and Morta, Orcus, Pluto, Proserpina, Soranus, Viduus. In the pantheon and on earth, it was a violent world. Assassinations and executions were common, slaves and gladiators killed as public entertainment. Women and children were chattel, and in the late third century it was a father’s right—one frequently exercised—to have his baby killed, before or after birth. Ours, too, is a violent world. We think of the Russo-Ukraine conflict, the shootings that fill the nightly news, the millions killed by so-called health professionals before or soon after birth or when they are sick and elderly, and the violence in homes, raging on the roads, and trolling the web. The ancient cult of violence and death is rhymed in modernity, and so it is we know our private gods, prosperity gods, power gods, pleasure gods, and passing-away gods in pre-Christian 2022 as in pre-Christian 222.
Rodney Stark regards secularization theory as presupposing a golden Age of Faith, whether the Apostolic Age, the Middle Ages, or the 1950s, after which everything has supposedly been downhill for religion. He argues that participation rates were, if anything, lower in medieval times than today and that periods of high engagement have been exceptional. Without glorying in weak associations, we should recognize that for much of history, Christian individuals, families, and societies may in fact have been only partially converted, partially pre-Christian. I think of my relatives in the Basque country, with garlics hanging all around to ward off evil spirits, and the men delivering their wives to church each Sunday and waiting for them in a bar, supposedly because God listens to women more than to men. In many places, Christianity seems to run only skin deep.
Many people assume that societies progress in linear fashion from pre-Christian to Christian to post-Christian. I have suggested that all three of these descriptions may fit the modern West. So, which is it?
To begin, none of the descriptions can be applied to the West without qualification; all three are influential, even if one predominates in particular times or places. All three conditions coexist in modernity and compete for the soul of the West. None is yet victor. Wheat and tares will grow side by side until the divine harvester decides otherwise.
A great strength of Western civilization has been its facility for engaging alien ideas and customs, both contesting and assimilating them, changing them and being changed by them, while maintaining organic integrity due to its Christian soul. Christendom could draw from Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, from the Visigoths, Vikings, and Moors, from the recovery of Aristotle and the discovery of the New World, from civilizations older than itself and sciences newer. Christianity can coexist profitably with other discourses.
Each of the three worldviews can learn from the others, and each can curb the others’ toxic temptations. Sometimes useful alliances emerge. Post-Christianity both relies on and protests against Christian premises, but Christian tradition has always allotted scope to the secular. Christians may find postmoderns congenial on human rights and democracy, personal responsibility, and science and technology. But with pre-Christian pagans they may find more seriousness about bodiliness, sensuality, sentiment, and spirituality. In other situations, rather than finding commonalities, the three worldviews may complement each other. As Jonathan Sacks wrote, “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.”
But the three worldviews can point in very different directions. Westerners often seem to have a multiple spiritual personality disorder, with three different Me’s speaking at once or in turn. Some years ago, Christian Smith identified “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” as the fastest-growing religion among American teenagers, its key doctrines being: There is a god, who orders the world and wants people to be nice; being nice makes you feel good about yourself and makes the world a happier place; you don’t need to involve god in things too much, but he’s there if you’ve got problems; and whatever you do, like most people you’ll get to heaven. This chimera of Christian, pre-Christian, and post-Christian DNA has dazzled many.
All this has implications for evangelization. The post-conciliar popes have highlighted three target groups: the Gentes, or unconverted; the converted, whose faith must be reinforced against the challenges of modernity; and the diverted, who by baptism, family, institution, or culture should be Christian but are disengaged. The popes have suggested that the mission to each group warrants distinct energies, methods, even workforces. Undoubtedly that’s true. But we must bear in mind that most Westerners are at once part-converted, part-unconverted, and part-diverted. They need evangelical approaches that address all three dimensions of their spiritual identities and experiences, as well as the incoherence among them. We can no longer presume basic religious literacy or even a transcendent perspective. People today may no longer know who the Woman and Baby are in the paintings—and if the gender theorists get their way, soon they won’t even perceive a woman and a boy.
If the subjects of the new evangelization have a triple spiritual personality, so do its agents. We are all children of our age. To be evangelizers will require us to be immersed in our culture and appreciative of it, but also critical and to some extent quarantined from it. We need both formation and purification.
Even if Alasdair MacIntyre is right to argue that we can last only so long on the remnants of Christian principles and practices, still some of those remnants have proven resilient and may provide a base for recovering a more coherent Christian culture. But things may need to decline still further before the West will own that, like the Prodigal Son, it is living in a moral pigsty and must return to the Father confessing its sin. Rather than standing aloof like the older brother, traditional Judeo-Christianity will be there to help, even if, as Joseph Ratzinger predicted, it is smaller but more spiritual, with its faithful no longer merely carried by the tribe but having decided themselves for faith.
The aggression of some ex-Christians, neo-pagans, and faux Christians toward real Christianity is a tribute to Christianity’s enduring spiritual power. During the Diocletian Persecution of 303 a.d., all legal rights of Christians were rescinded, their churches were razed, their worship banned, their clerics imprisoned, and their members purged from the establishment, many enslaved or executed. Christianity was doomed. Yet the eremitical, monastic, and patristic movements were flowering nearby, and only ten years later a new emperor with a sainted mother decreed the Constantinian “peace of the Church.”
At the end of the first millennium, amid the corruption of Church leadership and the re-emergence of dualism in Europe, who would have imagined the medieval flowering ahead, promoted by a revived papacy, scholastic friars, and great preacher-saints? In the depths of the Reformation, when Christendom splintered and was nearly overrun by the Moors, few would have predicted the spiritual Renaissance soon to be advanced by humanistic Jesuits and others, or the extraordinary mission to the New World, or the abundance of saints. In Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, or amid the rise of ideologies that were to kill millions in twentieth-century Europe, Russia, China, and beyond, who would expect the emergence of the new religious orders and lay ecclesial movements? Since the first Pentecost, the Church’s ordinary rhythm has been growth and decay, purification and renewal.
So, in our time, surrounded by the pagan gods of self, wealth, politics, sensuality, and death, and by a secularism aimed at neutering Christianity, we may still pray for a springtime for the Church. There are signs of dissatisfaction: with the atomism and thin value set of late liberalism, which undermine identity, character, attachments, and civic orientation; with isolation, loneliness, narcissism, anxieties, and addictions; with social divisions, gender ideology, and manufactured outrage; and with the poverty of the sacred. Worshipping private gods or oneself does not bring the fulfillment, communion, and transcendence people crave.
But if Christianity is to do great things again, it must recover its voice. We must “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15), boldly in words and deeds. We must avoid retreat or retrenchment, which would make Christianity irrelevant. We must see the current chastisement of the Church as an opportunity for purification and a promise of resurrection. To survive times like these will require a desecularization and depaganization of institutions and hearts; a clear-sighted and fervent faith; effective telling of the Christian story through preaching, teaching, arts, education, and media; renewed confidence in the Christian anthropological, soteriological, and ethical vision; an affective liturgical-devotional life; lives of justice, compassion, and holiness; the renewal of supportive communities of family, parish, and school; a willingness to collaborate with people who are more post- or pre-Christian than Christian; patience, fidelity, and hope to persevere through dark times; above all, the grace of the Holy Spirit, to whom we pray Come.
As St. Peter told the persecuted Church: “Dear friends, I urge you . . . live such good lives among the pagans that, though they suspect you of wrongdoing, they may see your good deeds and glorify God for them” (1 Pet. 2:11–12). Political conflicts, culture wars, discrimination, and institutional diminution are not what we’d wish for, but neither should we despair, for they are opportunities to witness to the gospel. Only this kind of Christianity can honestly say that it loves God and humanity and will go wherever God and humanity are, without fear of being sullied or bruised. Only such a Christianity can reunite a divided Church and culture, provide a foundation for a genuinely tolerant, pluralist society, and bring God and humanity closer together. When we do these things, we are not post-Christian, or pre-Christian, or pseudo-Christian. We are simply, authentically Christian.
Anthony Fisher, O.P., is the Catholic archbishop of Sydney, Australia. This essay was delivered in October 2022 as the 35th Erasmus Lecture.