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Dispatch From The Christian Collapse

A reader alienated from the faith experiences a spiritual rebirth -- and is mugged by reality
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It might surprise some of you to learn that I have an active correspondence with faithful orthodox Catholics — including priests — who are struggling mightily with the situation in the Catholic Church right now, and who appreciate the opportunity to vent with someone who understands what they’re going through. It is my policy never to take advantage of anyone’s crisis of faith to promote my own church. If people ask me about Orthodoxy, I’ll tell them about it, but mostly they just want to talk, and to say, one way or another, “You’re right, it’s bad out here.”

Let me say here, again, and clearly: there is no totally safe haven from the crisis that is overtaking our culture and civilization now. I don’t believe that it is equally bad in all the churches — I mean, some are in a worse crisis than others — but sooner or later, everybody (Evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox) is going to have to confront it. This is why I wrote The Benedict Option

Over the weekend, I received the following letter from a reader. I have slightly edited it to protect his privacy, and the privacy of others. I publish it with his permission. Some background: he and I have corresponded before. He had been alienated from the faith for a while, and struggled hard to regain belief. Read on:

In the last couple of months I’ve returned to Catholicism with more faith and vigor, trying to recover my faith through regular parish life, small-scale involvement (K of C, etc.), and deeper faith experiences—and it has, by and large, worked. I feel more closely connected to Christ than ever, and it has been a real blessing to me to get more involved in my parish life. For the first time in a long time, I find that I’m glad to be a Catholic, excited to go to Mass, and optimistic about the laity.

I’d like to deepen my faith further still, which is why this weekend I went to a meeting of [a lay religious order] whose charism fits in well with my own spiritual interests. I anticipated they’d be liberal, given our part of the country, but even with that anticipation I was not prepared for what I encountered. It was one of the most profound disappointments of my life, and I came away incredibly depressed about the state of the Church and virtually hopeless about its future.

After opening with a cursory prayer (no Sign of the Cross) with little more than vague invocations of peace, we moved right into criticism of the President and of our local politicians (only Republicans, of course). I looked around to see if anyone else was raising eyebrows—the agenda was supposed to be discussing ways to help the poor —but all were nodding along solemnly. Little did I know I was at the night’s high point.

Let me say that each person there was kind and decent and welcoming, and we’d probably all be lucky to have them as ambassadors of Christian peace. But as ambassadors of Christianity? Well, perhaps not. After dinner talk turned to a Saturday Mass last weekend, when a guest priest gave a homily about the Holy Family and offered a few thoughts (I wasn’t there, but they filled me in) on “the evils of contraception” and “its threat to family life and Christian belief.” Apparently there was much grumbling in the pews, and a few people actually walked out. One of our regular priests, upon being told about this, apparently said “Doesn’t he know his audience? He can’t say that!” I repeat: a priest of the Catholic Church was amazed that a fellow priest would defend Church teaching.

The people in this order were apoplectic. They couldn’t believe that a priest of the Church would dare give a homily that included basic defense of Christian teaching. This launched a long discussion about how “Catholic rules” were really just things to pick and choose from, and how you only have to embrace them if they suit your lifestyle. “Hey,” the group’s leader said, “if it’s your choice, great—if it’s not mine, also great. We welcome all.” Members of the group described the Catechism as “a nice starting point” that you could “dip in and out of as you see fit.” One person even said: “Nothing in the faith is set in stone, not even the Ten Commandments.” I wanted to scream that they are literally set in stone! Every Church teaching they didn’t like was discussed with an air of smirks, elbow nudges, and air quotes—as if to say “Sure, we don’t really believe those things. No intelligent person would.”

Yes, I get it: we could just say that these are hippy-dippy Catholics, and God-love-‘em they are just doing their thing. But these are the most involved people in our parish. They are the leaders in the pews. They are the Eucharistic ministers and bulletin columnists and what we might call “the elite” in parish culture. They set the tone for everyone else, and I note with some alarm that the dinner table included no fewer than four teachers at the parish school. If the teachers and parish leaders and even the priests (!) of the parish can’t be counted on to defend the most basic teachings of the Church, then where are we? Seriously, I’m really asking. If we just tacitly agree as Catholics that we’re just going to smirk at what we don’t like, then what the hell are we doing every Sunday?

When I got into the car to drive home I just sat there in stunned silence. I felt like I’d had the rug of faith pulled out from under me. I sought this group out because I wanted to deepen my spiritual life and participate in the activities of the Church, and what I found was two straight hours of widespread mockery and general undermining of that Church. I get it now: you can’t assimilate, because it’s a road you can’t go down halfway. Once you start down that path, there’s no rationale for stopping—indeed, it’s probably impossible. Once you have Obergefell, of course you’ll end up with polyamory: you leave yourself without an epistemological leg to stand on. I mean, look at Anglicanism, or even all of Mainline Protestantism. It’s a joke, because when you believe in everything you end up believing in nothing.

The thing I wanted to yell at these people is that the very same rule book they were mocking was the rule book that also gives us, for example, the preferential option for the poor and care for our common home (environmentalism) — two things that progressive Catholics really embrace. The two are inextricable. When you commit to belief in something, you either commit to it or you don’t. Look, I wish my tax dollars didn’t pay for bombs and guns and drones. But I consent to the tax system, so my dollars do in fact pay for those things. It’s the price I pay, as it were, for my dollars also going to the programs for the poor.

I’ll tell you, Rod, I just don’t know what to do. I’m really trying hard to be a good Catholic, but you know who’s making it hard? Other Catholics. Even the priests themselves. It’s like we’re living in some bizarro world where we pretend to believe something even as we all mock it. There is no looming collapse of Christian culture—we’re there. We’re post-collapse. Putting the pieces together, in as humble and local a ways as we can, is now the top priority. The only priority, in fact. I just wish we had some help from, you know… the Church itself.

I get at least one letter a week along these lines — sometimes from priests — but rarely do the letters come so well written. Pray for this man.

I had a conversation last week with a conservative Catholic reader of this blog, who told me that he was sick and tired of arguing with his oldest kid, who comes home from their local Catholic high school spouting heresy (he gave me examples) taught by their religion teacher. He told me that he and his wife have realized that they cannot trust their local Catholic school system to teach the faith — that they (the parents) are going to have to assume full control of their children’s religious education, so that their kids will know what the Catholic Church teaches. He has not yet read The Benedict Option, but I told him that the book was written for Christians like him.

I know that many of you get this, but I should say it one more time: Catholics are by no means the only Christians suffering from this meltdown. The Catholics who, in my experience, are hardest hit are the converts from Protestantism (especially Episcopalians) who thought they were escaping this by going to Rome. I am deeply grateful for my local Orthodox parish, which is as solid as a rock, but I hear from US Orthodox priests and theologians who tell me about others in American Orthodoxy who are trying liberalize our Orthodox institutions in the same way.

It has to be resisted, and resisted without hesitation or apology.

This passage from The Benedict Option is what believers like my disillusioned Catholic reader are coming to realize about the reliability (or rather, the unreliability) of churches, schools, and other Christian institutions today:

Not only have we lost the public square, but the supposed high ground of our churches is no safe place either. So what if those around us don’t share our morality? We can still retain our faith and teaching within the walls of our churches, we may think, but that’s placing unwarranted confidence in the health of our religious institutions. The changes that have overtaken the West in modern times have revolutionized everything, even the church, which no longer forms souls but caters to selves. As conservative Anglican theologian Ephraim Radner has said, “There is no safe place in the world or in our churches within which to be a Christian. It is a new epoch.”

Don’t be fooled by the large number of churches you see today. Unprecedented numbers of young adult Americans say they have no religious affiliation at all. According to the Pew Research Center, one in three 18-to- 29-year-olds have put religion aside, if they ever picked it up in the first place. If the demographic trends continue, our churches will soon be empty.

Even more troubling, many of the churches that do stay open will have been hollowed out by a sneaky kind of secularism to the point where the “Christianity” taught there is devoid of power and life. It has already happened in most of them. In 2005, sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton examined the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers from a wide variety of backgrounds. What they found was that in most cases, teenagers adhered to a mushy pseudoreligion the researchers deemed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD).

MTD has five basic tenets:

 A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
 God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world
 The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
 God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
 Good people go to heaven when they die.

This creed, they found, is especially prominent among Catholic and Mainline Protestant teenagers. Evangelical teenagers fared measurably better but were still far from historic biblical orthodoxy. Smith and Denton claimed that MTD is colonizing existing Christian churches, destroying biblical Christianity from within, and replacing it with a pseudo-Christianity that is “only tenuously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition.”

MTD is not entirely wrong. After all, God does exist, and He does want us to be good. The problem with MTD, in both its progressive and its conservative versions, is that it’s mostly about improving one’s self-esteem and subjective happiness and getting along well with others. It has little to do with the Christianity of Scripture and tradition, which teaches repentance, self-sacrificial love, and purity of heart, and commends suffering—the Way of the Cross—as the pathway to God. Though superficially Christian, MTD is the natural religion of a culture that worships the Self and material comfort.

As bleak as Christian Smith’s 2005 findings were, his follow-up research, a third installment of which was published in 2011, was even grimmer. Surveying the moral beliefs of 18-to-23-year-olds, Smith and his colleagues found that only 40 percent of young Christians sampled said that their personal moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible or some other religious sensibility.4 Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that the beliefs of even these faithful are biblically coherent. Many of these “Christians” are actually committed moral individualists who neither know nor practice a coherent Bible-based morality.

An astonishing 61 percent of the emerging adults had no moral problem at all with materialism and consumerism. An added 30 percent expressed some qualms but figured it was not worth worrying about. In this view, say Smith and his team, “all that society is, apparently, is a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life.”

These are not bad people. Rather, they are young adults who have been terribly failed by family, church, and the other institutions that formed—or rather, failed to form—their consciences and their imaginations.

MTD is the de facto religion not simply of American teenagers but also of American adults. To a remarkable degree, teenagers have adopted the religious attitudes of their parents. We have been an MTD nation for some time now, though that may have been disguised.

“America has lived a long time off its thin Christian veneer, partly necessitated by the Cold War,” Smith told me in an interview. “That is all finally being stripped away by the combination of mass consumer capitalism and liberal individualism.”

The data from Smith and other researchers make clear what so many of us are desperate to deny: the flood is rising to the rafters in the American church. Every single congregation in America must ask itself if it has compromised so much with the world that it has been compromised in its faithfulness. Is the Christianity we have been living out in our families, congregations, and communities a means of deeper conversion, or does it function as a vaccination against taking faith with the seriousness the Gospel demands?

The reader who sent in the long letter is right to look at his local church (the part of it he tried to join with) and see disaster. That group is irreformable, because they don’t want the true Catholic faith. But there have to be Catholics like him in his city, who recognize the catastrophe that has overtaken them, and who don’t want to surrender.

They need to find each other — and not just Catholics finding Catholics. Recently I met through my children’s school a conservative Catholic dad and mom who just moved to town. Their kids will be going to our classical Christian school this semester. As the dad and I were talking, we decided that we needed to start some kind of book group for small-o orthodox Christian men who share a Benedict Option outlook. I told him about the Hall Of Men concept from the Eighth Day Institute in Wichita (I wrote about it in The Benedict Option). A screenshot from their web page:

I’ve been to one of the Hall Of Men meetings, and it really is the best kind of small-o orthodox ecumenism. Maybe we can’t do something exactly like that here in Baton Rouge — or maybe we can! We need to try. I’m real good about coming up with ideas, but terrible in the execution (it’s time to re-read Leah Libresco’s Building The Benedict Option, which is full of practical ideas).

(Note well that I’m not saying that men are the only ones who need to do something like this; the Hall Of Men idea came up as the Catholic dad and I were talking about building bonds of male friendship, and raising faithful sons.)

Honestly, I grieve for what my correspondent above is suffering. He fought like crazy to regain his faith, he goes back to church, he tries to get involved and … this. But he is not alone. 

We have to find each other. No white knights are riding in from Rome or anywhere else to save the local church and its institutions. It’s down to us. I need to check in with the folks who are working on building a Ben Op website for networking purposes. It’s a spiritual emergency.

UPDATE: An excerpt from Matt in VA’s comment. I can’t remember if Matt identifies as a Christian or not:

That law about how if orthodoxy is made optional, it will ultimately be proscribed — at what point is that YOUR fault? At what point is that a choice you are making? The reason that orthodoxy ultimately gets proscribed is because conservatives are not interested in fighting for it. Making arguments is not good enough. No piece of land on this earth was ever taken or seized with an argument. Even the far-flung islands of the South Pacific settled by Polynesians — the first people to set foot on those shores — were claimed by a willingness to risk it all.

There is no way out for conservatives. You are trapped inside a perfect prison in which you have pre-emptively discarded the actions you will need to take to try to reverse or even just change this trajectory. And suggesting even MORE retreat, to intentional communities or whatever, is just more of the same. I’m sorry, but it’s true.

There are a lot of people out there who are gettable. I mean gettable for you. I often think you have no idea. There are so many lost souls out there in this vale of tears who are looking, really looking. But one of the things that I think conservatives do not understand is that when you combine endless tedious arguments with an unwillingness to risk anything for what you believe, it gives people no reason to trust you or see hope in you. Too often conservatives act as if they see the right approach to being either a political OR religious conservative as what I’ll call the Robert George approach. But there is nothing there. Indeed, one might say that the approach is self-refuting. Here is a man who enjoys a lifetime sinecure thanks to a thoroughly secular-liberal elite institution, and who can make these arguments precisely because he’s been given a safe playpen in which to make them by the very society he’s supposedly “arguing” against. Is Robert George going to protect YOU if you make the same arguments and you get blacklisted or fired? Of course not. I mean, he might publish a concerned letter to the editor, but you know, even if Respectable Conservatives like him don’t, that that’s not exactly going to cut it. You can see the same thing in the way all of these “free market conservatives” who couldn’t stand Tucker Carlson’s monologue work at non-profits, at places where they cannot fail — only the people can fail them. Did you launch an Iraq War? No problem. Are you yourself at your billionaire-donor-funded think tank or magazine isolated from market pressures that poor people in flyover country get the brunt of? That’s different–National Review may have been “Going out of business since 1959” but to ask NR writers to make a profit is too much, that would be wrong in their case, because they are making ARGUMENTS. You may be economically redundant in a postindustrial society, but here’s a Robert George natural law argument to feed your kids with.

Maybe conservatives could think a little harder about the fact that black Americans are the most religious Christians in our country, and black Americans are the ones least interested in or under the sway of this “retreat, surrender, be passive, muh free market, muh job creator” mindset. Or maybe conservative Christians could look at the way Judaism and Islam both actually seem to understand that if you want men to keep the faith, you need to offer them something that speaks to them AS MEN, and this constant message of retreat, surrender, just take it, if your community is decaying that’s because you guys are making bad choices and in fact you deserve to see your community disappear because the market is never wrong… it is not what is wanted, to say the least.

Why aren’t the people who oversaw the collapse of Christianity’s numbers to blame? Why are people so unwilling to consider alternative approaches? I mean, these are very, very rhetorical questions, and I know the answers. But I do think it all comes down to bourgeois-ness. Bougieness is killing Christianity, and that means that it would be at least a good start, I think, to consider ditching anything that smells like the approach political conservatives have been taking for the past decades.

Lots to think about, as usual, but I think your theory is not as universally applicable as you think. For example, how does a Catholic “fight” in his parish, in the way you suggest? I have no doubt that Catholics who are orthodox ought to stand up more than they do, but note from the reader’s letter that a lot of people in that particular parish do not want orthodox Catholicism. It is really difficult as Catholics (Orthodox would have very similar problems) to work outside the system, because we all believe that the institutional Church is irreplaceable.

One useful and practical response would be to do with the Tipi Loschi did. They are the Italian lay Catholics I wrote about in my book. They didn’t wait around for the Church to get its act together. They built something on their own — and went out and established a relationship with the monks of Norcia. What’s wrong with that?



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