Upholding the teachings of the Catholic Church
Volume XVII, No. 4
What Can We Hope to Accomplish?
The Prospects for Evangelization in Dangerous Times
by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese
To open with a quotation from Charles Dickens may strike many as a singular failure of originality. Yet his oft-quoted "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" applies as forcefully today as at any time in living memory, and it almost inescapably applies with a special and wrenching poignancy for Catholics. The events of September 11 have left their mark upon the culture at large, and we are still far from grasping their full import. As tragedy unfolds in the Holy Land, the prospects for victory in the war against terrorism, much less for a lasting peace, appear to dwindle before our eyes. Closer to home, we face not merely the scandals that are rocking the Catholic Church, but the disquieting prospect of a rise in ethnic hostilities of all kinds, notably our own version of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, perhaps marked by a recrudescence of the troubling anti-Semitism that may be on the rise in Western Europe. On my bad days, I find few causes for optimism and considerable difficulty in reminding myself that despair is a sin.
It is too easy to see the problems as intractable, the challenges as insurmountable. Except during the prayers of the faithful at Mass, I have always been more inclined to pray for people -- especially for the intentions of family and friends, for those who are suffering and lonely or alone, or for the needs and intentions of my students -- than for public affairs, which I tend confidently to leave to the disposition of the Lord. During the past months, however, prayers for our bleeding Church and our priests, for peace in the Middle East, and for our president have matched the intensity of my prayers for the intentions of individuals.
The drama of the bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, followed by the escalating conflicts in the Middle East, have made us especially conscious of the ways in which the vicissitudes of the external world appear to be extending their tentacles into the very fabric of our culture. We should be hopelessly naïve to think that these events will have no impact upon our educational standards and curricula. Education has never been immune to the pressures and needs -- often legitimate -- of the societies in which it has flourished, and the second half of the twentieth century, especially the events of the 1960s and their legacy, has proven singularly vulnerable to the demands of relevance, liberation, and "identity" politics. With these lessons presumably fresh in our minds, we must recognize that the current crisis in the Catholic Church is likely to have a formidable impact upon Catholic education at all levels -- and perhaps, if in lesser measure, upon American culture and education in general. However that may be, the very immediacy of the events and our proximity to them make it impossible to offer predictions about their consequences, which will depend upon our response. Should we rise to the challenge, we may yet look back upon this dark night as salutary rather than disastrous, not least because we may learn that any meaningful evangelization must necessarily begin with evangelizing ourselves.
For numerous -- and often understandable -- reasons, we have all, to some measure, succumbed to the influence of the rapid social and cultural changes of recent decades. Many of us have made as few concessions as possible to the intellectual fashions and cultural imperatives of the times, but precious few have succeeded in making none at all, and those who have were probably, if one takes the Holy Father as guide, in error. Those of us who came of intellectual age during the 1950s and 1960s inherited a world rife with intolerance and injustice, especially, although far from exclusively, with respect to discrimination by sex and race. We also lived through a cataclysmic dual sexual and economic revolution, which simultaneously transformed social and economic expectations and behaviors. For the Church, many of those changes found expression in Vatican II, and the experience of Catholics who have grown up under the aegis of Vatican II has differed significantly from that of Catholics of previous generations.
These events either coincided with or actively promoted a growing acceptance of Catholics within American society, and the election of John Fitzgerald Kennedy to the presidency only underscored the extent to which American Catholics had become the genuine Americans they had long aspired to be. Much was gained by the translation, but some of the gains may have carried a higher price than everyone recognized at the time. What we may call the higher stage in the Americanization of Catholicism included a dramatic -- and some might, at least retrospectively, say disquieting -- number of American Catholics who placed greater importance upon full participation in American culture than upon fidelity to the teachings of the Church. The use of artificial contraception and the proliferation of divorce under the protective cover of annulments provide two obvious examples. For our purposes today, however, no less significant examples may be found in the growing insistence that Catholic schools, colleges, and universities promote the same intellectual freedom as their secular counterparts, which is to say that insofar as possible they cease to be distinctively Catholic.
Charity urges us to assume that this rush to merge with the mainstream reflected a legitimate sense of frustration at having been excluded for so long from the more prestigious and serious intellectual circles and discussions. The mainstream of American intellectual life and educational traditions had paid little if any attention to the rich tradition of Catholic learning. By the beginning of the twentieth century, moreover, the most advanced circles in American education, especially the new "professional" graduate schools, were purposefully distancing themselves from a long-standing practice of cultivating the Christian foundations of all American education. By the time American Catholics could nurture some hope of joining the American elite, that elite was increasingly promoting a culture and attendant educational system predicated upon the divorce of reason from faith and, especially, science from faith.
Currents of rationalism
Since the emergence of modernism, sometime between the waning of the nineteenth century and the dawn of the twentieth -- in Virginia Woolf's arresting formulation, "On or about December 1910" -- if not since the Enlightenment, secular culture has increasingly defied the Church at every turn. And here it is essential to note that a capacious understanding of culture encompasses more than literature, music, and art, more even than food and folkways. When the Holy Father speaks of "the culture of life" and "the culture of death", he is designating the entire complex of expressions and practices through which we live and give meaning to our lives. Among these expressions and practices, religion has traditionally enjoyed a privileged position as the gateway to the sacred -- to non-material reality, to the transcendent purpose that should inform and guide human lives, and to the divine commandments that govern the relations among human persons and between humanity and God.
The currents of rationalism, scientism, and individualism that have swelled the rising tide of modernism have, in various ways, identified religion as the primary obstacle to their triumph. Karl Marx notoriously referred to religion as the "opiate of the masses". But many, who expressed themselves with less concern for working people than he, increasingly viewed religion as irrelevant to the most important aspects of life and knowledge, while others viewed it with outright hostility as incompatible with the progress of human freedom and knowledge. Religion, according to these apostles of modernism, embodies and seeks to perpetuate everything they deplore, notably intellectual bigotry, the subordination of women, sexual repression, and a host of related and outmoded values. In this view, the traditionalism of religion -- and its allegedly uncritical loyalty to the past -- represent nothing more nor less than the determination to perpetuate ignorance and prejudice -- the crushing of the human spirit and the shackling of human nature, especially in its sexual expressions. Thus do the apostles of an enlightened and unfettered modernity cast religion as the most dangerous enemy of human freedom -- and cast their own interpretation of freedom as the ultimate human good.
This woefully inadequate sketch of the relations between religion and modernism distorts much and neglects more. Although scornful secularist dismissals of religion have abounded, they have not, as a rule, predominated, especially not in the United States, which has not known an established church since the first third of the nineteenth century and which has zealously sought to protect against the re-establishment of any church in particular. For this reason and others, the United States has, however improbable it may seem to some, remained a country of more widespread claims of religious faith and much greater church attendance than most other "developed" nations, notably in Europe where both attestations of belief and church attendance rank dramatically lower than they do here. If anything, the increasingly materialistic and individualistic values of the secular culture have permeated American religion more than they have waged war on it, and their strategy has earned them a victory that is all the more impressive because of the extent to which even professed believers appear to take the claims of materialism and individualism as incontestable.
Saint Jean Vianney once wrote that the real problem with temptation was less the difficulty of resisting it than that of recognizing it, or, to rephrase slightly, our greatest difficulty in combating the temptations of the world derives from our growing inability to see sin for what it is and hence to see the desire to engage in it as a temptation to be resisted. In the liberal and mainstream Protestant churches, the tendency is unmistakable, and James Davison Hunter and his associates have compellingly analyzed it. Perhaps most dramatically, they found that with respect to moral issues, notably abortion, Americans express deep reluctance to impose their own moral standards on others. Thus even a person who considers abortion morally wrong is unwilling to tell a woman not to have an abortion on the grounds that no one else can judge how the woman feels -- how the moral problem looks to her.1
The personalization of morality figures among the most dramatic and corrosive inroads of secular values into religion. Visceral materialism figures as another. The danger of both of these widespread attitudes -- and they are far from alone -- lies in the ease with which so many people, including those who sincerely believe themselves people of faith, take them for granted. Today, few beliefs command broader adherence than the belief in the right of the individual to autonomy and freedom -- to make personal decisions free from the intervention or judgment of any external authority. Even many Catholics, whether openly or in private, bristle at the notion that their priest, much less the Magisterium, has the right to tell them what to do. And in recent years, many priests, registering the challenge, have backed away from instructing their congregations in the obligations of the faith. Many admirable priests have proved themselves staunchly pro-life and have made every effort to teach their parishioners about the meaning, value, and obligations of the Church's position on artificial contraception, abortion, assisted suicide, embryonic stem cell research, cloning, capital punishment, and more. Many, however, find the challenge daunting and their faithful doggedly and sullenly resistant.
How many priests that you know are prepared to tell a young cohabiting couple seeking to marry that before they may be married in the Church they must live apart and chastely for six months? Ann Douglas, a prominent scholar of American Studies, has argued that as early as the third decade of the nineteenth century, the newly disestablished Protestant churches, which were becoming dependent upon their congregations for financial support, began tailoring their sermons to respond to the sensibilities of their increasingly female congregations. In this instance, Douglas argues, the process led to a drastic "feminization" of American religion and culture, which traded a demanding Old Testament and masculine morality for a mess of female sentimentalism. This new religious sensibility eschewed demands and chastisements, favoring instead an appeal to the emotions.2 The trajectory from this sentimentalization of religion leads directly to the contemporary preference for individual conscience over ecclesial discipline, not least because the emphasis on individual conscience virtually erases the acknowledgment of sin and, yet more portentously, the very notion of Evil itself.
Conversion carries demands
Protestant evangelization, which continues to thrive, appeals directly to individual conscience and conversion. The convert accepts Jesus Christ as his or her personal savior, but makes few commitments to accept the discipline of the pastor, whom the congregation normally selects in any case. Discipline may be imposed by one or another body of the church, but in many cases it is neither strictly enforced nor observed. Catholic evangelization faces somewhat stiffer challenges, although it too emphasizes the obligation to accept Christ as one's personal savior, for Catholicism retains a significantly more hierarchical and authoritarian ecclesiological structure than even the more conservative Protestant denominations. Today, in contrast to the past, Catholics are warmly encouraged to read Scripture for themselves and to study its meaning in private or in groups. Yet they still owe at least nominal obedience to their priest, who hears their confessions, pardons their sins, and assigns an appropriate penance.
As a rule, our priests appear to ask little of most Catholics by way of penance, except in the case of grave sin, and the emphasis falls on love and mercy rather than on judgment and damnation. But the hierarchy persists and exercises considerable authority in matters of faith and morals. The priesthood remains exclusively male and celibate, which leads many to see it as unrelenting in its commitment to the subordination of women.3 Not surprisingly, many have taken advantage of the recent scandals to press arguments for admitting women to the priesthood and permitting priests to marry. Yet more radical groups will find the hierarchy's protection of abusive priests to provide strong justification for a radical democratization of Church structures and a systematic dismantling of the authority of the clerical hierarchy and the Magisterium. In my judgment, such suggestions constitute precisely the wrong response and, if implemented, would likely lead to a weakening of the Church and a dramatic loss of communicants. They show no promise of generating a wave of evangelization, especially among the young, who are beginning to manifest a deep hunger for a faith of substance, including the imposition of moral and spiritual demands.
Signs of change
In the spring of 2002, Survivors, a group of college students from California, mounted a tour of fifteen colleges to bring a forceful pro-life message to their peers, claiming, they say on the basis of information from the Centers for Disease Control, "One-third of our generation has been killed before birth". In general, college students are demonstrating a declining enthusiasm for abortion and a greater interest in marriage. Serrin Foster of Feminists for Life evokes impressive enthusiasm among college audiences.
On the educational front, there appears to be some evidence of a growing interest in "great books", political and diplomatic history, and, in general, a more traditional curriculum. None of these signs should be granted any special weight since the numbers fluctuate and many such attitudes are notoriously difficult to document precisely. It will take several years before we may safely assert that we are witnessing a strong tendency or trend.
What we indisputably are witnessing is a breathtaking presentism among our students in particular and throughout the culture in general. For all faiths - but perhaps especially for Catholicism - presentism constitutes a danger of the first order. The danger does not merely consist in a pervasive amnesia about the history of the faith and its traditions, although that amnesia impoverishes us all. More important, it consists in an inability to understand the abiding aspects of the human condition or, not to put too fine a point upon it, an inability - or refusal - to understand that there may be truths of human experience that have been obtained throughout the millennia and are not determined by the accelerating rate of technological change. Presentism encourages the young to consider their own experience unique and to deny the relevance of accumulated wisdom or even the experience of others as pertinent to their situation. Such attitudes reinforce their inclinations to brush aside the advice of their elders, which they may well take to include organized religion. Many young people give ample evidence of some form of spiritual yearning, but as the label "new age" suggests, they often pursue it in radical, highly personal, and experimental forms.
Meanwhile, the most important rival to evangelization will doubtless remain the pursuit of material prosperity. In an environment in which something over ninety percent of American students admit to having cheated at some point during their educational careers and apparently as many as seventy percent with the complicity of their parents, we cannot doubt that we are looking at a culture in which the majority shun Jesus' warning, as recorded in the Gospel of Saint Matthew, "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon" (Mt 6:24). Under prevailing conditions, we have little to expect from pious injunctions about the virtues of honesty and honor, much less asceticism, sacrifice, and self-denial. Surely one of the many causes for the current problems in our priesthood must be sought in the power of the secular culture to infect even the inner sanctums of the Church with its premises and values.
The need to be countercultural
In the early 1960s, before the real explosions that wracked the end of the decade, a revue entitled Beyond the Fringe took London by storm. I was fortunate enough to be doing some research work in Oxford for my father, who decided that my efforts warranted a weekend in London, including tickets to the revue. The evening passed in a transport of infectious laughter, but one skit so impressed me that it has remained clearly in my mind until today.
The skit featured a single actor, standing on the steps of an Anglican church and haranguing an imaginary group of passers-by. In sonorous tones, he pursued the work of evangelization, doing his best to return the erstwhile parishioners to the pews they had vacated and to attract a new constituency of urban toughs. His efforts climaxed in the passionate appeal, "Let's bring the violence off the streets and into the church".
Here, my point is not to suggest that the Catholic Church has intentionally followed that strategy, although some parishes have listed more in that direction than others and a significant number of Protestant churches have taken giant strides toward embracing even the most radical features of modern life and culture. It does, nonetheless, remain difficult to deny the general tendency of all Christian churches, including the Catholic Church, to compromise in small -- and occasionally large -- ways with the culture they are enjoined to purify and sanctify. Consequently, we now face a situation in which a radically individualistic, materialistic, and liberationist culture is doing more to evangelize the Church than the Church is doing to evangelize the culture.
If that reversal were the entire story, we should be justified in viewing these as the worst of times, but I do not believe that it is. The signs of the times may seem unusually ominous and lowering, but they also offer the promise of new opportunities, provided we know how to seize them. In that seizing lays the true work of evangelization in our time, but we shall fail to realize its promise unless we acknowledge that it cannot be other than profoundly countercultural work. Rather than cowardly acquiescence in the mantras of individual choice so beloved of those who defend abortion, assisted suicide, and all the rest, we must counter with the insistence that no person may claim the right to decide who shall live and who shall die. The work of evangelization must include the repeated insistence that true respect for others rests upon the recognition that no person may be treated as a means rather than an end and that the myth of individual autonomy is, precisely, a myth.
Americans find it easy to forget that in our time Catholicism's greatest vitality lies in the developing rather than the developed world -- in Africa more than in the United States. We have no grounds for condescending sentimentality about the Catholicism of the non-Western world, which has demonstrated its own capacity for brutality and abuse. We do, however, have reason to delight in the genuine diversity of our Church even as we defend its hierarchical centralization. For the one, true, Catholic and Apostolic Church to be truly universal, it must also remain one, which means grounded in the papacy and the Magisterium. To remain Apostolic, it must also retain the male priesthood. Were we to repudiate the aspects of Catholicism that contemporary culture deplores, we should by the same token sabotage any work of evangelization to which we might aspire. There is no way to escape the truth that you can never evangelize by repudiating your own history and beliefs.
Every institution bears the scars of the abuses and injustices it has perpetrated, and the Catholic Church has its share of occasions for shame and regret. But it does not overmatch other churches -- or other long-standing institutions -- in this regard. Especially in recent years, the demonization of the Catholic Church has primarily derived from the widespread conviction that it is defending values and traditions that fly in the face of contemporary sensibilities. A close look at the tenor and content of contemporary sensibilities -- from rampant commodification to the proliferation of pornography and sexual degradation -- might almost lead one to take conflict with our dominant culture as a source of satisfaction. And we might do well to recall that that is how Saint Stephen saw it when he was being stoned to death for his loyalty to "the name".
My story assuredly raises more questions than it answers, but I will claim for it one redeeming virtue: its moral is simple. The work of evangelization is inescapably countercultural since its purpose is to transform the culture, and since the work of true transformation requires conviction, our efforts at evangelization must begin with ourselves. We must, without pride or self-aggrandizement, live and embody our faith, which, quite simply means we must believe what we profess. For if we do not, how can we expect to evangelize others?
1. James Davison Hunter, Before the Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America's Culture War. New York: Free Press, 1994.
2. Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977.
3. The rule of celibacy is waived for married Protestant or Orthodox ministers who convert to Catholicism and join the priesthood.
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, a member of the Voices editorial board, is Eleanor Raoul Professor of the Humanities in the history department at Emory University in Atlanta, and writes frequently on topics relating to women, with a particular emphasis on feminism. She is married to Eugene Genovese, a retired history professor. This is her first contribution to Voices.
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