“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society, [but] it would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats,” said the Jewish writer Abraham Joshua Heschel, in a quote now buzzing around social media, or at least around my friends’ pages. He is right about this, but also wrong. Rabbi Heschel continued, opening his book God in Search of Man:
Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message becomes meaningless.
This is a hard truth, because it tells us all that we have to up our game. We can’t just ponder the question "What went wrong?" which is helpfully open-ended, has many time-consuming answers, and offers us the chance to hit people of whom we disapprove. We’re required to ask “What is wrong with me?” and to answer the follow-up question, "Whatever’s wrong with the Church and with me, what do I do about it?" The answer is almost inevitably: A lot more than you’re doing now.
They Speak the Truth
Heschel, and the many Christians who’ve said the same thing, speak the truth. We deserve what we’ve gotten. But they speak a dangerous half-truth. It’s the humble answer but humility achieved by ignoring the other reality of Christian life in the world. The reality is: Were every Catholic a saint, were the Church filled with St. Francises and St. Martin de Porreses and St. Louise de Marillacs, Christianity would be eclipsed. It would be patronized, dismissed, disregarded, persecuted.
Jesus warns us about this. In St. Matthew’s gospel is the famous passage that begins: “Remember, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves” and declares a few verses later: “You will be hated by all men because you bear my name.” In St. John’s gospel, Jesus says:
If the world hates you, be sure that it hated me before it learned to hate you. … It is because you do not belong to the world, because I have singled you out from the midst of the world, that the world hates you. Do not forget what I said to you, No servant can be greater than his master. They will persecute you just as they have persecuted me.
Jesus knew He was talking to sinners who would remain sinners. He was under no illusion that His Body as it lived through history would maintain a uniformly high standard of holiness. The rest of the New Testament shows that the new Christians became the kind of people Heschel criticizes almost right away.
Jesus knew the people He came and died to save. He could foresee (even were He not God) the Church in America and western Europe in 2016. If we were to complain to Him about Bishop X or Father Y or writer Z, Our Lord would say, “I saw that coming.” And knowing what His people would be like, He still said, “You will be hated by all men,” not because the Church deserves to be hated, but “because you bear my name.”
Not the Final Word
We should accept the force of Heschel’s charge, but not let the charge stand as the final word. However inadequate we are, we bear a message and life that the world needs and wants and at the same time doesn’t want and often hates. The second desire is usually stronger than the first.
One may want the comfort and security of family but not the marriage that creates it, nor the Church’s rules for the creation of marriages (one man, one woman, open to children, 'til death do them part). One may love the Church’s vision of the good society, but not (depending on one’s political views) her understanding of individual responsibility or of solidarity and the common good.
What this means in practice needs more thought. I will say one thing. It should change our way of speaking. It should complicate our discourse and problematicize our narrative, as an academic might say. Whatever we say about the Church as we see her in the world, we should play against our favored narrative. We are creatures who, however judicious we’d like to be, tend to the extreme version of the narrative we favor, especially when people who disagree might be listening.
Most conservative or traditional Catholics emphasize the world’s assault on the Church, while a minority emphasize the Church’s own failures. The first should consider, and usually say, what the Church has failed to do in the part of her life for which she’s being attacked. The second should consider, and usually say, what in its attack the world has not said in the Church’s favor. Both should speak like this not so much in defense of the Church, but in recognition of the very complicated truth.