The Once and Future Christendom

Thinking clearly and asking ourselves hard questions about the future is the first step toward finding alternative ways of living the Faith that will outlast the current crisis the Church finds herself in.

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The Church of Rome is beset by many serious problems at this hour, but one of its chief ailments is that it is badly governed, to put it mildly. We are living through one of those times in history where the “successors” of a previous generation of rulers have failed miserably on many fronts. It is not surprising that so many people have become nostalgic for earlier, more successful eras in the Church’s history, even if their vision of the past is skewed by romantic notions. 

The Church is clearly in decline and its ability to influence society is weakening. This is not likely to change any time soon. That is, in my opinion, all the more reason to think about what should happen in the future, when the Church will (God willing) be governed by more capable men and, therefore, be more capable of fulfilling its mission—to spread the Gospel of Christ to the world. 

One of the best books I have encountered for thinking through these issues is one published two years ago, Christendom Lost and Found: Meditations on Post-Post Christian Society, by my friend Fr. Robert McTeigue, S.J. (Never fear, dear readers; he is one of the “good Jesuits.”) Fr. McTeigue’s book is less a straightforward guidebook for how to extricate ourselves from our current situation than a reflection on what questions we might need to ask first. 

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Fr. McTeigue’s book began life as a journal he wrote just before the pandemic and lockdowns of 2020. In it, he reflects on the loss of Christendom and what it entails. He notes that what we once called “Christendom” provided a clarity and solidity for Catholic identity; Catholics once knew who they were and what they believed, and the loss of these is something worth lamenting. 

Though he does not say so explicitly, he implicitly links this loss to what he calls a lack of anchoring in the Church’s “time” that afflicts us today. He means not only the inability to view our lives in the light of eternity but, at a deeper level, that the rhythm of the Church’s calendar—for example, its seasons and rituals—no longer forms the backdrop to our lives. We measure ourselves by the time of the world, whether we will it or not. This is indeed something worth lamenting.

However, Fr. McTeigue is careful to balance this sense of loss with the realization that not all was healthy in what we once called Christendom. This is a difficult thing to admit for anyone with a heartfelt love of tradition and a reverence for the past, but acknowledging it is necessary. No age of the Church is untouched by evil, and though Fr. McTeigue is careful not to make the opposite mistake of rejecting “Christendom” as if it were devoid of any good, he pinpoints one of the problems that this older configuration of the Church’s life certainly exacerbated—something he calls “Churchianity.”

“Churchianity” is the tendency of the Church to serve its institutional and administrative structures at the expense of its faith and mission. Everyone, I suppose, who is a serious Catholic and has dealt directly with the Church at some point has experienced this for themselves. But Fr. McTeigue’s description is an insightful one, as it applies to pretty much every institution in Western life these days, not just the Church. Every large corporation seems geared toward serving its shareholders and not its customers, every government its administration rather than its people, and, sadly, the Church is no exception.  “Churchianity” is the tendency of the Church to serve its institutional and administrative structures at the expense of its faith and mission. Tweet This

But if that is the case, then what do we do about it? As Father puts it, “Christendom is dead—now what?” All the good things that made its institutional failings bearable have been swept away with those shortcomings. But what do faithful Catholics do when the institutions that are supposed to work for their good no long serve that purpose? (I should clarify that I mean here those negotiable and contingent bodies the Church creates to fulfill her mission, not the priesthood or her divinely ordained constitution.)

Father notes the dilemma we face is that we must in some sense retreat from the onslaught against faith and civilization (he wrote several of these reflections during the George Floyd riots of 2020), in order to protect the sources of both, while also being able to “go on the offensive” against the degradation of both. This is what makes the injunction “to build” in the face of the dissolution of our society so difficult to follow: the enemies of the Church and Western civilization seen capable of engaging in a constant subversion of all that we hold dear, tearing up their roots before they can grow. It takes much more time to build a civilization than to destroy it. 

Fr. McTeigue does not give any easy answers to this problem (because there are none) but says we must begin by recognizing that the Church’s current compromises with the world are not sustainable, warning against the “normalcy bias” of human nature. Something else is coming; the Church will dwell in the world differently than it has in the recent past, or it will die. 

He wisely cites the great Josef Pieper on the nature of man as a pilgrim who lives in this world in statu viatoris, in the “state of being-on-the-way.” We must live between presumption and despair, so must we live both finding spaces for contemplation but also taking up the fight against a fallen world when necessary. We cannot fight the “culture wars” the way the Left does, living in a state of permanent revolution. But we must not also live in a permanent state of retirement from such. We must somehow toggle back and forth, without losing hope. 

Father does ask some pertinent questions that can help us in this endeavor. For example, one of his meditations is entitled “Who will lead? Who will follow?” This is a very good question, as it seems to me that pretty much any plan of action going forward is going to have to address it. Father discusses Rod Dreher’s idea of the “Benedict Option” in his book, and though he doesn’t say so, I’ve always thought one of the weaknesses of Dreher’s idea is that he scrupulously avoids any mention of the dreaded “p-word”—power. Personnel is policy, and who is in charge and who has to follow are not minor matters but crucial ones. Dreher never really discusses these types of issues. 

But these are exactly the types of questions Catholics should be thinking through right now, even as the Church and Catholicism are becoming marginal to society. Not only do we need to think about power in the Church, but we also need to reconsider our past (minus the cloying apology tours of recent pontificates) and what might happen should the Church become influential and powerful as she was in the Middle Ages. No society or institution can prevent abuses of power, but one claiming to possess divine truth and a divine mandate to get everyone to believe in that truth ought at least to be able to say that her members have given some thought as to how she might act differently in the future. 

Finally, Father admonishes us not to try to “fix” things, as if our efforts could succeed without God’s help. Instead of proposing solutions, he lays out four strategies for what to do: “Circle the Wagons,” “Build an Ark,” “Flee to the Catacombs,” and “Reconquista.” “Circle the wagons” means a short-term defensive crouch, hoping the storm will pass; “building an ark” refers to a long-term strategy of that kind. “Fleeing to the catacombs” is to live one’s faith in a clandestine manner, sort of like spies. “Reconquista” is self-explanatory: an insurgent war to retake lost territory. 

Fr. McTeigue suggests pros and cons of each strategy and which one might be suited for what type of person. He does not suggest a one-size-fits-all prescription for everyone, but he makes clear we all need to decide how we can contribute given our own individual gifts and resources. There is no single “Big Idea” that is going to save us.

What would a renewed Christendom look like? “We know in part, and we prophesy in part.” Only time will tell. Right now, the questions are more important than the answers. What we can say for sure is that the projects of the past century and a half have run their course. 

Since the first Vatican Council, the Church has attempted to create a “modern Christendom” to replace the old one within the institutional Church, reinventing the Vatican as a centralized substitute for the temporal states that abandoned Christianity, minus their full coercive powers. For all the upheavals that have occurred since Vatican II, this trend has only intensified, making its obsolescence all the more obvious. 
That the Church will necessarily take a new form in the future is certain; thus, the need to reconsider what form it might take, and how a new Christian society might be built around it, is imperative. Pascal wrote in his Pensées that for man, “his whole duty is to think as he ought.”

Thinking clearly and asking ourselves hard questions about the future is the first step toward finding alternative ways of living the Faith that will outlast the current crisis the Church finds herself in. If nothing else, the very act of thinking and imagining what the Faith might look like in the future can instill hope that it will indeed have a future. And that is no small thing.

Author

  • Darrick Taylor

    Darrick Taylor earned his PhD in History from the University of Kansas. He lives in Central Florida and teaches at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, FL. He also produces a podcast, Controversies in Church History, dealing with controversial episodes in the history of the Catholic Church.

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