There are only two religions in the world. They are the Catholic faith and paganism. Everything else, insofar as it really partakes of the nature of a religion, is either an example of, or can be properly reduced to, one of the two of those. Mankind's situation at the beginning of the third millennium is between one of those two religions, or unbelief or indifference. About these latter two I will have something to say later on.
In recent years the term Abrahamic religion has gained currency. The phrase is remarkably accurate. There is no reason to doubt the actual existence of Abraham, even if not necessarily everything related about him in Scripture need be understood as straightforward history. But from that one man, or rather from God's interaction with that one man, the religious situation of the human race changed radically. Outside of the various Abrahamic religions there exists only paganism. I hope it will be obvious that I do not use that word in any cheap pejorative sense. As a Catholic I obviously consider paganism mistaken, but the popular sense that in calling someone a pagan one is accusing him of moral depravity is far from my own mind. For the defining feature of paganism is certainly not moral depravity, nor is it even polytheism, as is generally thought. Rather the defining feature of paganism is that it is based solely on what has been handed down from those who went before, from the stories and practices of 'our fathers.' Religion, which claims in part at least to communicate knowledge of things divine, of man's fate after death and so on, has only one source whence to draw such knowledge. From God or from some accredited messenger of God. But paganism does not pretend to offer that. The necessary attitude of paganism toward the content of its own religious traditions is illustrated well by this narrative from Bede's Ecclesiastical History. After St. Paulinus had presented the Gospel to the King of Northumbria, the King asked his royal counselors for their advice. One of them spoke as follows:
The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed (Book II, Chapter 13).
"If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed." It is this "something more certain" claimed by the "new doctrine" that is the note which distinguishes Abrahamic religion from paganism. God has spoken, and spoken not at some undetermined time in the past to unknown persons, but spoken to some real flesh and blood human being, someone who can be identified as the receiver of God's revelation, and whose credibility can therefore be evaluated. "No one has ever seen the composer of the Vedas, and it is impossible to imagine one," said Vivekananda, the nineteenth-century Indian teacher ("The Religion We Are Born In," in To the Youth of India [Calcutta: 2000] p. 158). Such a concept of revelation is entirely different from that of the prophet or other divine representative characteristic of the Abrahamic tradition. The fact that the revelation offered to humanity is made within time, at a certain place, means that its bearer can be judged as worthy and credible or as not, and his revelation received accordingly. This concreteness of the revelation is what sets apart everything which proceeds, or claims to proceed, authentically from the Abrahamic tradition. Thus only within that tradition, and in particular in the Catholic faith, can the New Testament admonition, "Be ready always with an answer to everyone who asks a reason for the hope that is in you" (I Peter 3:15), be fulfilled. This paganism clearly cannot do, does not even aspire to do. Its apologia, when it has one, must be essentially negative, a criticism of aspects of Abrahamic religions or of the behavior of adherents of those religions. Because of this lack of theological specificity it has often been comparatively easy to convert pagans to the Faith, and where this has not been the case, as in India, probably it has been cultural factors, as well as the deplorable behavior of those who called themselves Christians, that are responsible. In any case, only those religions which claim Abraham as their father are in a position to attempt an actual justification of their specific beliefs as something revealed by God.
For, curiously enough, Abraham is unique. Judaism obviously claims Abraham as its original founder, and all forms of Christianity claim to be fulfillments of Judaism, Abraham being mentioned in the very canon of the Roman liturgy. But what is even more remarkable is that all later religions which likewise claim a definite beginning and figure for their revelation base themselves on that same Abrahamic tradition. Islam claims to correct Judaism and Christianity, but by no means does it repudiate them, and the Koran makes much of Abraham. Bahaiism in its turn claims to fulfill or correct Islam and presupposes the earlier stages of this same tradition. There is no other fount, at least none that has made even a peep of a stir in the world, for a definite revealed religion that does not derive or claim to derive from Abraham. (Is Zoroastrianism an exception, or a partial exception, to this statement? This is not altogether clear owing to our lack of information about Zarathustra, its original preacher. It appears to be essentially a hybrid like the Sikh religion, i.e., inspired by the influence both of surrounding paganism and of monotheistic, or quasi-monotheistic, insights or examples.)
What of the others then? I said before that the defining mark of paganism is its inability to point to a definite revelation, a definite time and place for communication of divine truths. But there is more. Paganism in fact makes no truth claims at all, and typically tolerates contradictory stories, rites and traditions. The most literate and sophisticated paganism, such as Hinduism or classical Greco-Roman paganism or the religions of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica share that same characteristic with the most primitive shamanism or animism. Usually of course these paganisms will worship a multitude of gods and goddesses. But the question of polytheism in any strict sense is of little importance here. Some Hindus, for example, will accept that designation, many will deny it and claim that one divine principle is worshipped under many forms. But the truth, I think, is that the question is not important, or rather, that it is the wrong question to ask. For only under the scrutiny of Christian European eyes and minds would the question even have arisen. Many gods or many manifestations of the divine - to insist on a careful distinction in such matters is not part of the genius of paganism. The modern Hindu, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, expressed that genius for inclusion and a lack of distinct doctrines when he said, "Many sects professing many different beliefs live within the Hindu fold," or "While fixed intellectual beliefs mark off one religion from another, Hinduism sets itself no such limits" (S. Radhakrishnan, The Hindu View of Life [New York: 1973] pp. 28 and 13). The pagan excels at creating religious moods, the mysterium tremendum, for example, exhibited in so many great pagan works of literature both in India and in Europe, but not at stating religious truth with exactitude, or even desiring to do so. When pagan intellectuals tired of the often conflicting tales handed down to them by their ancestors, they turned to philosophy where they could find whatever knowledge of God was accessible simply by reason.
If this is the situation with paganism, that all of them differ merely in the details of their stories and ceremonies and in their degree of elaboration, what of the other religion which I have claimed was its only rival, the Catholic faith? I have already suggested the answer. All forms of paganism are one in their basic principle and their theological vagueness. The other religions are one in the sense that they are reducible to one. Judaism was clearly a preparation for a further and more universal revelation, Islam and its offshoots are equally plainly clumsy efforts to build upon the central Abrahamic tradition, in fact Christian heresies, as was noted at least since St. John of Damascus. Within Christianity the Catholic Church is likewise plainly the same ecclesiastical body which Jesus Christ left behind him on earth, and the sects which claim their origin in a correct understanding of Sacred Scripture misunderstand not merely the letter of the biblical text, but the very place of that text in the life of the Church. The Bible comes out of the Church, presupposes her, and depends upon her. To suppose that the mostly occasional writings of the apostles were ever meant to supply a complete rule of faith and morals is to seriously misjudge their intentions as well as to forget entirely the actually existing Church, which all through the apostolic age was teaching, preaching and worshipping, depending for her authority not on Scripture but upon the revelation orally committed to her by Jesus Christ. And Eastern Orthodoxy, as well as the other separated Oriental churches, for all their venerable traditions and beauty, are cut off from the center of Christian unity, a center acknowledged over and over again by the Fathers of the East themselves.
The concept of Abrahamic religion, so useful and so accurate, is often regarded, however, in an unfavorable light. That is, the religions of this tradition are held to be harsh, persecuting, unfriendly to women, and to have produced cultures which regard the natural world as simply inert matter ripe for exploitation. But what truth is there in these charges? It is true that in general the Abrahamic religions have had a concern for religious truth, which paganism lacks. Radhakrishnan, again: "Hinduism is wholly free from the strange obsession of some faiths that the acceptance of a particular religious metaphysic is necessary for salvation..." and, "It did not regard it as its mission to convert humanity to any one opinion" (ibid., p. 28). Such a view is of course inevitable in paganism, whereas in the Abrahamic tradition the claim is that a definite communication from God has occurred, some doctrine or commandment has been given to mankind and mankind naturally is morally obliged to accept it, since it comes from God who neither deceives nor can be deceived. That violence and wars should sometimes arise from this is perhaps inevitable, but inevitable because of the fallen state of human nature, not because of the exclusive truth claims that are made on behalf of the revelation. There is no reason why such a doctrine could not be spread peacefully, and indeed this has been the case probably more often than not. The Koran, curiously, seems to regard military conquest as a normal means of spreading its faith (cf. 2:244; 4:74, 84, 94; 8:65; 9:29, 60, 73, etc.), but this is by no means necessary to the concept of an exclusive revelation, and even Islam has sometimes spread peacefully, for example to Indonesia.
As far as hostility to women, it is here that the Abrahamic tradition exhibits clear marks of a civilized approach. Among pagans, with not many exceptions, women have been traditionally treated as objects, property, to be managed and used for the sake of men. It is in such cultures that practices such as suttee (burning of widows), forced marriages, female genital mutilation, binding of female feet have existed. Within the Abrahamic tradition even Islam endeavors to regulate the status of women, to provide safeguards for them, to limit their exploitation, while one could say that the Catholic Church has given women a higher position than any other religious or cultural tradition. In particular, the doctrine of monogamous and indissoluble marriage appears as an historically remarkable restriction on the behavior of males and a signal accommodation to women. Whatever abuses in fact existed in Christian culture, there was a recognition of the freedom of a woman to reject a proposed marriage, and within marriage, the equal sexual rights of wives. But in this matter some distinction between the Catholic Church and Protestantism is in order. Christopher Dawson pointed out that the efforts by Protestants to hark back to the spirit of the Old Testament brought about some restriction on the place of women in society.
In Protestant Europe, on the other hand, the Reformation, by abandoning the ideal of virginity and by the destruction of monasticism and of the independent authority of the Church, accentuated the masculine element in the family. The Puritan spirit, nourished on the traditions of the Old Testament, created a new patriarchalism and made the family the religious as well as the social basis of society ("The Patriarchal Family in History" in Dynamics of World History [La Salle: c. 1958, 1978 printing] p. 163).
It was in Catholic Europe, especially in Italy, that women first achieved status in higher education. The first woman generally held to have received a doctorate was Elena Cornaro Piscopia, 1646-1684, who received her degree from the University of Padua, and was for a time a mathematics instructor at the same university, and there were many women academics in eighteenth-century Italy, such as Laura Bassi, 1711-1778, a married woman, who taught, among other subjects, physics at the University of Bologna. Women were not admitted to higher education in England until the middle of the nineteenth century. Perhaps if Mary Wollstonecraft had lived in a Catholic country instead of in England, she would not have felt the need to write her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).
What of the effects of the Abrahamic tradition on the natural environment? Here let us look specifically at Christian culture and tradition. It is often held that the commandment in Genesis 1:28, "fill the earth and subdue it," constitutes unimpeachable testimony of the exploiting attitude which is inseparable from all forms of Christianity. This was perhaps most famously and coherently expressed in Lynn White's 1967 article, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis." White's article is by no means a crude diatribe and he makes an apparently plausible case for his conclusions, which may be summed up in this passage, "Hence we shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man." We are entitled to ask, however, whether the Christian tradition as preserved in the Catholic Church does really maintain that "nature has no reason for existence save to serve man." Some of the most beautiful texts in Sacred Scripture, such as Psalm 104 or Daniel 3:35-59 evidence a sensitive appreciation of the natural world, and the latter passage in particular attributes to created beings a definite value besides their utility to man, for the heavenly bodies, the animals and the plants are all invoked as existing for the praise of God, quite apart from any use by man. (Protestant Bibles omit this passage, which is not in the Massoretic text.)
Another point made by White also deserves critical attention. He speaks of the momentous nature of the change from desiring to understand to desiring to dominate nature. In this connection White mentions and praises St. Francis of Assisi and Eastern Christian theology, but he takes no notice of arguably the central figure in the Catholic intellectual tradition, Thomas Aquinas. For St. Thomas is squarely among those seeking to understand rather than exploit. When White says that "Eastern theology has been intellectualist. Western theology has been voluntarist. The Greek saint contemplates, the Western saint acts," he is highlighting indeed certain trends in Latin Christian thought, but not Thomas himself, who made the primacy of the intellect over the will one of the key points of his thought. Latin Christendom did embrace voluntarism shortly after St. Thomas's death, and the eventually triumphant nominalism does indeed appear to have helped prepare the way for Baconian and Cartesian science. And when Thomas again began to be appreciated in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, whatever influence his philosophy of nature might have had on the cultural trajectory of Europe was overshadowed by the nascent scientific revolution.
As with the question of the treatment of women, however, we must make sure that when we speak of the tradition of Christian thought we make the necessary distinctions between various kinds of Christianity. Protestant Christianity, at least as much as nominalism, did effect a significant change in the way men thought about the created universe. In his well-known work, The Sacred Canopy, Peter Berger wrote,
If we look at these two religious constellations more carefully, though, Protestantism may be described in terms of an immense shrinkage in the scope of the sacred in reality, as compared with its Catholic adversary. The sacramental apparatus is reduced to a minimum and, even there, divested of its more numinous qualities.... At the risk of some simplification, it can be said that Protestantism divested itself as much as possible from the three most ancient and most powerful concomitants of the sacred - mystery, miracle, and magic. This process has been aptly caught in the phrase "disenchantment of the world." The Protestant believer no longer lives in a world ongoingly penetrated by sacred beings and forces. Reality is polarized between a radically transcendent divinity and a radically "fallen" humanity that, ipso facto, is devoid of sacred qualities. Between them lies an altogether "natural" universe, God's creation to be sure, but in itself bereft of numinosity.... This reality then became amenable to the systematic, rational penetration, both in thought and in activity, which we associate with modern science and technology (Garden City: 1967, pp. 111-13).
Although Catholics have not always lived up to the demands of their faith, or even seen and understood its implications, its authentic genius has been toward understanding the world of natures rather than exploiting it. To be sure, the world was created for man's use, but that can be understood in more than one way. Use, of course, is not abuse, but even beyond that point, it is wrong to say that Catholicism saw the created world as existing exclusively for man. In addition to the passages from Scripture that I cited above which acknowledge a role for created nature in praise of God entirely separate from their usefulness to humanity, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (339) teaches "Each of the various creatures [is] willed in its own being [and] reflects in its own way a ray of God's infinite wisdom and goodness." Moreover St. Thomas's whole doctrine presupposes that the goodness and perfection of individual created things lies in their fulfillment of their own natural tendencies. Thus we may take Lynn White's thesis as applying only with important qualifications to Catholic thought and life.
This then, as I see it, is the religious situation of humanity: paganism or the Catholic faith. But clearly not everyone is buying.
Whatever commonality Hindus might recognize with other forms of paganism, among religions which claim Abraham as their remote forebear there is hardly a rush to abandon their own particular claims and embrace Catholic truth. In addition, both religious indifference and various shades of unbelief are increasingly common. Among Europeans it appears that indifference and positive unbelief are the chief rivals to the Church since European Protestantism seems largely a dead letter. In the United States Evangelical Protestantism is still a religious and cultural force of some power, although perhaps beginning to wane, even if in Africa and Latin America Evangelical Protestant missions continue in strength. Let me conclude however with some words chiefly about our stance toward unbelief and religious indifference, but which also have some bearing on our apologetic with regard to Protestants and to pagans as well.
I should say at the outset that generalizations about Western culture are dangerous, for the situations in different countries appear to differ significantly. And only about the United States can I speak from meaningful personal experience. Although in this country there is little intellectual attack, in the sense of a debate, on Catholic doctrine, unbelief, and even more indifference, do pose major difficulties for the Church and are probably the major threats to the faith of baptized Catholics. The best method of dealing with them seems to me the method adopted by our ancestors in the Faith, the method of creating, as much as possible, a Catholic subculture. In the United States this subculture was never perfect, and at least since the nineteenth century American Catholics have been eager to adopt American, and hence Protestant and Enlightenment, cultural attitudes, nevertheless to a considerable extent this subculture did succeed in guarding the faith of Catholics. It no doubt seems far-fetched to even contemplate its rebuilding. But I still maintain that it is probably the most effective means of guarding the faith of ordinary Catholics in a secularized Protestant culture such as ours. Nor need such a subculture mean a lack of engagement with those outside the Church. On the contrary, it provides the best position from which to practice such engagement. Although the United States is hardly a society given to much intellectual dialectic, still such discourse is not without effect, and within the limits of their paradigm of biblical authority, many Protestants do engage in a type of this debate. Even if most people do not embrace or leave a religion because of rational argument, more engagement of this kind by Catholics would be a helpful effort toward evangelization.
About Europe or Latin America I can speak with little assurance either about the situation or about possible methods of improving things. Probably the diagnosis of Archbishop Javier Martínez of Granada, Spain, applies to most traditionally Catholic countries.
If a Christian society is de-christianized, this means in fact that many Christians lose their faith. They lose it long before they are conscious of it: that is, when the Christian faith that permeates all the institutions and is present in all the important moments of life, while still being an omnipresent landscape in the culture, has ceased being the factor that determines human experience. More and more aspects of human experience and activity are being left at the margins of faith, determined by other factors, so that the Christian faith is being turned into a forgotten language, to a great extent incomprehensible and, therefore, irrelevant for real life (Francisco Javier Martínez, "To Speak of God or to Show the Redemption of Christ?" Communio, International Catholic Review 21:4, Winter 1994, p. 689).
Already in the 1920s Hilaire Belloc wrote of "districts in France which might be called `de-Catholicised.'...where the ordinary practices of religion had so far declined as to be familiar to but a very small minority...." (Survivals and New Arrivals [New York: 1929] p. 137). Things of course have gotten only worse since then, but both these statements suggest that the communal character of religion is as important in maintaining the Faith in Europe as in the United States. A profound misreading of both contemporary culture and of human nature led many in positions of authority in the Church during and after the Second Vatican Council to downplay the role of a communal Catholic identity in maintaining personal faith and practice, and the Church has hardly begun to escape from that morass even today. An ecumenism far different from that envisioned by the Council, if we may judge by the text of the conciliar decree on ecumenism, also went a great way toward undermining any sense of Catholic uniqueness. But if the first effective defense of Catholic life at the sociological level must be to halt, as much as possible, the continuing defections from the body of the faithful, then the question of Catholic identity must be addressed as soon as possible. In the United States a major danger is that this identity will be confused with a conservative cultural stance, as if by becoming conservative cultural Calvinists we would be any closer to recovering a Catholic identity. Rather we have to seek that identity both in Catholic doctrine and in the authentic traditions of Catholic thought and life that exist or existed in this country and in our Catholic homelands. If we do so we will find ourselves challenging American culture on a much deeper level than any other group and arriving at conclusions that place us at uncomfortable variance with both conservatives and liberals. But if we do not do so, then we can look forward simply to more of the same, a Catholic population that can maintain its numbers only because of continuing immigration, and to more and more intellectual polarization as important groups in the Church latch on to socio-political conservatism in lieu of any other viable cultural model that they are aware of.
This, it seems to me, is the situation we live in today. Catholics know that the Church will not fail, will not disappear from the earth until the return of the Lord. But what happens in the meantime depends upon us and upon the grace given to us. For the latter we can do nothing except pray and make sacrifices, but for the former we have the responsibility of trying to think clearly about the present situation and the future of the Church. Let us hope that this can be done better in the immediate future than we have managed to do in the recent past. If it is, then we have as good hope as we might have for the accomplishment of some good while this life lasts.