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The Spiritual Economy Of The Olive Grove

Rebuilding the faith in a time of spiritual collapse
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Our frequent commenter Carlo makes a couple of very good points here:


I read Carlo’s tweets just before I saw this new George F. Will column about a coming “epic economic collapse.” Will talks about how we are almost at the point where the current bull market will have been the longest one in American history. Will cites no data to say that the bull market is going to end; he only points out that its end is inevitable — and when it does end, the US will be especially vulnerable, because of our staggering deficit. Excerpt:

Another hardy perennial among economic debates concerns the point at which the ratio of debt to GDP suppresses growth. The (sort of) good news — in that it will satisfy intellectual curiosity — is that we are going to find out where that point is: Within a decade, the national debt probably will be 100 percent of GDP and rising. As Irwin M. Stelzer of the Hudson Institute says, “If unlimited borrowing, financed by printing money, were a path to prosperity, then Venezuela and Zimbabwe would be top of the growth tables.”

Jerome H. Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve, says fiscal policy is on an “unsustainable path,” but such warnings are audible wallpaper — there but not noticed. The word “unsustainable” in fiscal rhetoric is akin to “unacceptable” in diplomatic parlance, where it usually refers to a situation soon to be accepted.

A recent International Monetary Fund analysis noted that among advanced economies, only the United States expects an increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio over the next five years. America’s complacency caucus will respond: But among those economies, ours is performing especially well. What, however, if this is significantly an effect of exploding debt? Publicly held U.S. government debt has tripled in a decade.

I’m reminded of Warren Buffett’s quip: “You find out who’s swimming naked when the tide goes out.” He meant that hard times expose fundamental weaknesses in the economy.

It’s certainly true for the spiritual economy too. The US Catholic hierarchy is suffering through a Lehman Brothers-style collapse — the 2008 investment bank implosion that was the largest bankruptcy in US history, and which helped lead to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Except it’s worse than that for the hierarchy, which is the whole megillah in terms of the Catholic Church’s leadership class.

Granted, many, probably most, Catholics wouldn’t know their bishop if he walked up to them on the street and bit them on the nose. That’s not the point. The bishop symbolizes Church authority. The moral collapse of the US hierarchy, which has proven unable to contend effectively with clerical sexual abuse, is not the kind of thing that can be ring-fenced. You can certainly conclude, as a Catholic, that your bishop is no damn good, and should be prayed for but ignored, and get on with your spiritual life. The Church is far more than the clergy and episcopate.

The problem with that, though, is that you can’t separate the Church entirely from the clergy and the episcopate. Bishops matter, and always have within the Catholic, Orthodox, and some Protestant churches. If you have enough bad bishops, or if even the good bishops can’t effectively deal with corruption in the ranks, the respect the laity has for the Church as an institution ebbs. If these guys don’t take what they profess seriously, why should you? (And let’s face it, functional indifference to child sex abuse and chronic sexual corruption within the clergy isn’t a good sign that bishops don’t take what they preach seriously, what is?)

Well-catechized and well-formed Catholics will remind themselves that the sins of the clergy do not negate the teachings of the Church. But iron logic is not an indestructible cage that keeps the great white at bay. If the shark is big enough, strong enough, and persistent enough, he might break through them. Or the battering that the diver takes, even as the bars hold firm, might be so terrorizing and enervating that he concludes that the underwater exercise is intolerable, and, having lost faith in its purpose, has himself raised to the surface. That is what happened to me in 2006.

Catholics who have not been well-catechized and well-formed — dare I say the majority of them, at least since the 1960s — are left with far weaker defenses against despair, and the dissolution of their bonds of belief in Catholic Christianity.

What does this have to do with the George F. Will column, and Carlo’s observations? I’m getting to that.

This Catholic crisis is not happening in a vacuum. As I write about in The Benedict Option, American Christianity as a whole is in severe crisis — a crisis masked by the fact that the tide of professed belief has been slower to recede in the US than in Europe. But the fundamentals are weak, especially among Catholics (if you haven’t yet followed any of my links to Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith’s work studying young Catholic America, now’s the time to acquaint yourself with the grim reality). The moral collapse of the US bishops comes at a time when the Catholic spiritual economy, so to speak, is stretched very thin. Like the rest of the Christian West, Catholics of the past few generations have spent down the spiritual capital their ancestors built up over centuries past. They — we, but here I’m focusing on Catholics — have been too dependent on structures and habits that have allowed them to “deficit-spend” in the spiritual economy.

The tide has been going out on Christianity in the West for a very long time; the 19th century poet Matthew Arnold uses that very metaphor in his famous poem “Dover Beach.” The current Catholic crisis will reveal fundamental weakness in the US church. If the episcopal failures were revealed during a time of relative strength in the broader church, they wouldn’t be so severe. But that’s not the time and the place in which we live.

So, Carlo. He points out quite rightly that the rot that stands exposed now set in long ago, but was concealed by clerical and institutional structures. Rebuilding out of the ruins can’t be a matter of attempting to reconstruct those structures. It is understandable, for example, that Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston exhorts his fellow bishops to rebuild the reputation of the Church. If I’m reading Carlo correctly, though, he’s saying that doing so, while important, is not the most important task facing his fellow Catholics. True renewal and reconstruction has to happen at a more fundamental, local level.

This is what I’ve been banging on about with The Benedict Option. As I keep telling people, the Benedict Option is not about running away from the world, end of story. It is about withdrawing strategically from the world so that we can prepare ourselves and our children, through spiritual disciplines that build resilience, both for the attacks of the world, and also to represent Christ faithfully to the post-Christian world.

In economic terms, you might say that it’s about revaluing a depleted currency. Or, you could say it’s about Catholics having to barter and use other ultra-basic forms of economic exchange to get them through a general collapse of the spiritual economy.

As usual, I turn to my dear friends in Italy for an example of what this can look like. The Tipi Loschi are faithful Catholics. But they perceived some time ago that if they were going to endure the rot in the system, and even thrive spiritually in it, they couldn’t wait for the parish, the clergy, and the episcopate to get their acts together. They knew that they were going to have to live far more intentional Christian lives, and do so in community. From The Benedict Option:

In my travels in search of the Benedict Option, I found no more complete embodiment of it than the Tipi Loschi, the vigorously orthodox, joyfully countercultural Catholic community in Italy recommended to me by Father Cassian of Norcia. Motoring with Tipi Loschi leader Marco Sermarini through the hills above his city, I asked him how the rest of us could have what his community has discovered.

Start by getting serious about living as Christians, he said. Accept that there can be no middle ground. The Tipi Loschi began as a group of young Catholic men who wanted more out of their faith life than Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

“That used to be my life,” said Marco. “I didn’t know the teaching of Jesus Christ was for all my life, not just the ‘religious’ part of it. If you recognize that He is the Lord of all, you will order your life in a radically different way.”

What Marco and his friends found, to their great surprise, was that everything they needed to live as faithfully together had been right in front of them all along. “We invented nothing,” he said. “We discovered nothing. We are only rediscovering a tradition that was locked away inside an old box. We had forgotten.”

Driving through the achingly beautiful towns and fields overlooking the Adriatic, Marco pulled his SUV over on the side of a narrow country road and led me to a steeply plunging hillside. It was covered with olive trees. This was the Sermarini family olive grove. As a boy, Marco’s ninety-one-year-old father helped his own father harvest olives from these trees. Marco was raised doing the same, and now he and his own children collect olives yearly and press their oil for the family’s use.

This, I said to Marco, is stability.

He shrugged, then looked out pensively over his trees.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen next in life, but in the meantime, we have to fight for the good,” he told me. “The possibility of saving the good things in the world is only that: a possibility. We have to take the chances we have to set a rock in the earth and to keep this rock steady.”

We walked back to the SUV, climbed in, and drove on. My friend continued to wax philosophical about stability in a world of change.

“Nothing we make in this life will be eternal, but we have to build them as if they will be eternal,” Marco continued. “That’s what God wants. If you promise yourself to a woman for a lifetime, that is a way of making the eternal present here in time.”

We have to go forward in confidence that the little things we do might, in time, grow into mighty works, he explained. It’s all up to God. All we can do is our very best to serve him.
Sometimes Marco lies in bed at night, worrying that his efforts, and the efforts of his little Christian community, won’t amount to much in the face of so much opposition. He is anxious that the current will be too strong to resist and will tear them apart.

“I know from the olive trees that some years we will have a big harvest, and other years we will take few,” he said. “The monks, when they brought agriculture to this place a thousand years ago, they taught our ancestors that there are times when we have to save seed. That’s why I think we have to walk on this road of Saint Benedict, in this Benedict Option. This is a season for saving the seed. If we don’t save the seed now, we won’t have a harvest in the years to come.”

UPDATE: It’s a comment from another thread, but I wanted to share it with you on this one. It’s from reader Gerard, and it’s very good:

One of my kids — all of whom are grown-up, observant Catholics — wrote to me a couple days ago with two questions: 1) What can any single Catholic do in the face of this unending river of slime?; and 2) What will happen to the Church?

Here’s the response I sent to her and the rest:

(Name), your reference to an “iceberg” is apt. In fact, Mom and I used that very word in our letter to Archbishop Lori. The iceberg is a culture of corruption and lies that has its origin in a relativist mindset holding the eternal moral law to have become somehow outmoded or optional in our day. Basically, it’s a variant of the most ancient heresy of all: Man worshiping himself.

You ask excellent questions. What can we do? Well, we can’t control the actions of corrupt priests or hierarchy. The only thing we can control is what we do. And we are called by God to be faithful, to obey the moral law, to live according to the Truth as we have been taught it. And to raise our children to do the same. That’s it.

If we do those things, we will shine a light in the darkness. And if enough people do those things, well, the Church (and the world) will be a little brighter. I guess that’s why Jesus used similar imagery in calling his disciples to be the light of the world.

As for the Church, the only way out is through. This is an historic crisis, but if you look at the history of the Church, you see that every 500 years or so She seems to undergo trials of great magnitude — where Her very survival seems even in question.

In the case of the present crisis, more pain is in prospect. Many will lose their faith. The process of decline, already well advanced in places like Europe and elsewhere, will accelerate. A considerable portion of the hierarchy will defect, and in fact has already defected, to the Enemy. There is no way to put a happy face on any of this or dress it up as anything other than the disaster it is.

In short, this catastrophe has considerably longer to run. The Church that rises from the ashes will be smaller in numbers and weaker in the eyes of the world. But She will be purified by fire and suffering. And She will again be the light that Jesus called Her to be.

I’ve told you guys before that I find myself praying to Saint Michael a lot these days. As someone fascinated by military history since childhood, I’ve always had a special devotion to the angelic commander who won the greatest battle of all time.

There’s a scene in The Lord of the Rings where the doomed survivors of Rohan have fled to Helm’s Deep and are surrounded there by a vast horde of the Forces of Evil. Riding away in a desperate bid to find help, Gandalf has these parting words for Aragorn: “Look to my coming at first light on the fifth day. At dawn look to the East.” Aragorn’s mission, then, is to somehow hold the line for five days.

I sort of feel like one of Rohan’s defenders at Helm’s Deep these days. The Enemy is powerful. The Sarumans of our day have defected to him. We’re outnumbered, outgunned, and surrounded. The Wormtongues in our midst counsel surrender. Yet, I keep hearing a voice in the stillness, and I think it’s that of the majestic Saint Michael: “At first light on the fifth day…look to the East.”

The fifth day could be 5 or 50 or 500. However long it is, alive or dead, I intend to be at my post when Saint Michael arrives with reinforcements. I take heart in knowing all you guys will be there with me. Have no doubt: in the end, our side is going to win. We have the word of the Son of God on that.



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