The World Has Little of Value to Teach the Church

I recently commented on the signs of the times, and noted that they tell us to pay more attention to eternity. The topic deserves further discussion.

In the 1960s, it became common for Catholics to look to the world for guidance. This attitude inspired the widespread false belief that Saint John XXIII said the Second Vatican Council would “open the windows” of the Church. It also led Blessed Paul VI to note that the Council had “felt the need … almost to run after [the society in which the Church lives] in its rapid and continuous change.”

That was then and this is now. However things may have seemed to some of the Council fathers or their advisors, the idea that we should look to the world for guidance now seems ridiculous. What contribution does it make for Catholics to line up behind something as self-involved as today’s secular society? In an age of pop culture, smart phones, fast food, single working mothers, and endless years of propagandistic formal education, it’s all but impossible to hold the world at arm’s length. Instead of trying to embrace it, we evidently need to detach from it so we can pay attention to God.

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Today’s world knows less and less about how to think, act, and live. Its orthodoxies become ever less connected to reality and its ways of thinking more narrow, chaotic, and deadening. For proof look at Twitter, what’s taught in the schools, and the entertainment and commentary on TV.

We have set ourselves adrift from God, history, and human nature. The world is awash in mindless distraction, the Internet is turning us into scatterbrains, and authoritative voices deny the objectivity of truth. Our highest ideal is nondiscrimination with respect to human connections other than money, certified expertise, and bureaucratic position. The effects of this ideal, which is commonly identified with the Gospel itself, are to entrench power and dissolve the patterns, standards, and communities that make the lives of ordinary people functional and give them meaning.

The result is a culture that doesn’t work. Family and local community fall apart. Religion disintegrates, so much so that even cults lose adherents. We no longer pick up a worthwhile way of life just by growing up and coming to admire what’s admired and hate what’s hated in the world around us. Why should anyone form himself on the model of commercial pop culture, social media fads, and what young people are told in today’s schools?

Something of the sort is true even within the Church. It should be a community in which you’ll do okay if you learn from your elders and let yourself be formed by what they say, do, and admire. But the authority of specifically Catholic tradition has gone the way of the one-breadwinner family. Embracing the world has made the Church one option among many, and Catholics have lost any distinctive idea of how to live.

One result is that young people find it very difficult to grow into adulthood. Slogans like “free to be you and me” may be helpful in some settings but not for raising children. Parents worry about the world in which their children are growing up, but they don’t know how to define the problem or what to do about it, so they turn to helicopter parenting and periodic moral panics. And to make matters worse, the Church is abandoning her leadership regarding family, education, and community life, in part because focused initiatives, which exclude people who reject them, are now thought unpastoral.

It’s not just parents and children who face seemingly insurmountable problems. Young men like challenges and want to accomplish things that are concrete and difficult, but the world deprives them of suitable goals. It insists that roles for men are bad, because they oppress women and limit individual choice (more to the point, they complicate life for government and commerce). But without definite roles to aspire to, young men become aimless and turn to fantasy, rebellion, or makeshift remedies; hence, we have video games, the rise of the Alt Right, and Jordan Peterson’s runaway popularity.

As for the girls, they’re told to be powerful and adventurous but usually don’t much feel like it. When they try to do what’s now expected of them they wobble between willfulness and insecurity. Sexual freedom was expected to empower them. Instead, it puts them perpetually in play, turning them into targets of male desire which has been liberated from any rational understanding of a good life. To make their situation more difficult, liberation has deprived them of any reason other than arbitrary will for saying “no.”

Such a world needs the Church, but who needs it? If someone wants to engage it he may do some good, but he should first disengage to get the right perspective and orientation. Otherwise he may end like the man who engaged the problem of drunkenness, followed the way of accompaniment, and drank himself to death.

So what to do? I’ve noted that the signs of the times call for a renewed emphasis on the transcendent—that is, on divine realities. Without their presence to keep everything in order, the practical alternatives are distraction and dissipation on the one hand and this-worldly fanaticism on the other.

We have plenty of both today. To provide distraction we have career for the few and drink, drugs, social media, and degraded pop culture for the many. As for fanaticism, we have PC among our rulers and their hangers-on, and a variety of movements among rebellious young men which ignore the transcendent and therefore go nowhere.

We need something better. That thing is obviously Catholicism, but how do we give Catholicism a concrete presence in today’s world? Calling for better observance of Catholic moral teachings isn’t enough, because those teachings grow out of an understanding of God, man, and the world that must somehow be made more vividly present for the Catholic way of life to make sense.

In earlier comments I suggested a greater emphasis on traditional liturgies and devotions. Other initiatives people are likely to find useful include disciplines that have fallen out of favor but now show signs of returning. These include traditional monasticism, consecrated virginity, and, to the extent a worldly hierarchy shows itself uncomfortable with such tendencies, initiatives like the Beguines, Beghards, and other unofficial movements that have sprung up when the hierarchy has failed to respond to the need for renewal in the Church and reformation of life among the faithful.

What’s needed especially is greater seriousness among the men. Human society has indestructible patriarchal aspects, and divine things won’t be taken seriously until men take them seriously. The Canadian theologian John Lamont notes that the relentlessly prosaic nature of modern thought has turned personal spirituality into “the preserve of religious, women, and weirdos.” The world will not change for the better until this changes.

Bringing this about should be the basic task for Catholics in the years to come. It won’t be easy, because the problem is so fundamental—namely, how to change basic understandings of man and the world. But that, after all, is what conversion is all about, and now, as always, what the world needs most is conversion.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is the opening scene of Marlo Thomas’s musical program “Free to Be You and Me” that aired March 11, 1974 on ABC. 


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