At this year's National Catholic Prayer Breakfast—a very popular, politically-minded event in Washington, DC—I heard the word "materialism" mentioned at least twice in under an hour. First, in The Catholic University of America's "Cultivating Catholic Minds
" video, which urged thinking "beyond mere materialism" in favor of probing the "frontiers of the truth about humanity, culture, and God." And second, by Archbishop Joseph Naumann, who reflected
on the death of God and our crisis of faith: "Materialism reigns and breeds utilitarianism—our value is determined by our usefulness."
I agree on both counts that (mere) materialism is the enemy of faith and threatens to overwhelm us. However, defeating it takes more than rejecting its results, determinism and utilitarianism. Neither of these flow directly from it, anyway. The consequence of materialism is nihilism, the idea that morals, religion, even life itself is meaningless. Any other effect pales in comparison.
This isn't an academic point, nor a political one. Our crisis of faith can't be subverted by making sharper distinctions or scoring linguistic points. Materialism is a personal cancer that invades the mind and heart and prevents someone from moving outside of himself. Anything that appears meaningful is consumed. Nothing can
exist besides the tumor itself. Even the rejection of materialism, for a materialist, is a non sequitur. With that prognosis, all hope is lost.
If there is a cure to materialism, it must be equally caustic. Once the disease is ingrained, killing it means killing much more than just the tumor. The whole apparatus of reason is subjected to the therapy. That includes our scientific mind and aspirations, and even dimensions of our apparent psychological well-being. When over-confidence in our natural ability to make sense of things is ripped away, we begin to teeter toward sheer spiritualism. That's equally lethal, but it kills differently, more like oxygen poisoning. The real solution exists only barely, somewhere in the middle, by the artful skill of a master physician.
The crowd at the Prayer Breakfast applauded for the video and for Archbishop Naumann's remarks. Both were well done, and I clapped, too. But it made me wonder whether a room full of cancer patients—even if they were dressed up nicely and served coffee and scones—would ever find the courage to applaud an astute, albeit overwhelmingly negative, rehearsal of their diagnoses. "You're all dying of cancer, and so is the rest of the world. We have a cure that can work, but it will basically bring you to the point of death and it isn't provable."
Faith is not morbid. But the enemy of faith is death, not simply for the body but also for the mind, the heart, and the soul. Admitting that faith is in crisis means exactly that we've seen such an enemy in our midst—and even in us
—and that we acknowledge its removal will be painful and harrowing. There is no easy path forward for any of us. On one side lies a vicious, inhumane reduction of all things to nonsense (materialism). On the other, an emptiness that extinguishes all self-reliance and self-worth in favor of utter transcendence (spiritualism). Both utterly contradict the personal sense imbued in our existence, that's inextricable from our self-identity. Faith is neither materialist nor spiritualist, but it must invariably stand on the precipice of both and continue ahead, with supreme confidence in the power of an untraceable, unique, personal encounter with Jesus Christ.