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The Cost Of Christian Denial

Why US Christians cannot afford to minimize the current crisis
The Cost Of Christian Denial

I’m not sure what Catholic writer Phil Lawler thinks of The Benedict Option, but I know for a fact that he is not fooled about the seriousness of the crisis, at least in his own church and archdiocese. Excerpts:

[I]n the past 50 years, the Archdiocese of Boston has opened zero new parish churches. Over the same span, roughly 125 parishes have been shut down or merged into “cluster” units.

This might be understandable, if the Boston’s Catholic population had disappeared. But it hasn’t—at least not according to the official statistics. On paper, it has grown. There were about 1.8 million Catholics registered in the area covered by the Boston archdiocese 50 years ago; today the official figure is 1.9 million.

The trouble, of course, is that most of those 1.9 million Catholics aren’t practicing the faith. Consequently it should be no surprise that their sons don’t aspire to the priesthood. There were just over 2,500 priests working in the archdiocese 50 years ago; now there are fewer than 300. That’s right; nearly 90% of the priests are gone. If you can’t replace the priests, you can’t keep open the parishes.

Let’s be frank. These figures are not a cause for concern; they are a cause for horror. Panic is never useful, but something close to panic is appropriate here. Things have gone terribly, terribly wrong.


Although the situation in Boston is unusually bad, it is not unique. All around us, the same sad trends are in evidence. Parish closings and wholesale diocesan retrenchment programs have become familiar. How should we respond?

Here are two possible responses:

A) “This is a disaster! Stop everything. Drop what you’re doing. “Business as usual” makes no sense; this is a pastoral emergency. We don’t just need another “renewal” program, offered by the same people who have led us into this debacle. We need to figure out what has gone wrong. More than that. We know that the Gospel has the power to bring people to Christ; therefore it follows that we have failed to proclaim the Gospel. The fault lies with us. We should begin with repentance for our failures.”

B) “Don’t worry. Times change, and we have to change with them. Religion isn’t popular in today’s culture, but the faith will make a comeback sooner or later. We just need to keep plugging away, to have confidence, to remember God’s promise that the Church will endure forever.”

You see what’s wrong with argument B, don’t you? Yes, the Lord promised that the Church would last through the end of time. But he did not promise that the Archdiocese of Boston (or your own diocese) would last forever. The faith can disappear, indeed has disappeared, from large geographical areas—northern Africa, for instance.

Moreover, it’s both presumptuous and illogical to assume that the faith will make a comeback in another generation or two. The young adults who today don’t bother to marry in the Church are not likely to bring their children there for Baptism (if they have children). Those children, years later, aren’t likely to feel the urge to go back to their parish church (if it still stands), since they were never there in the first place. The Catholic faith is passed down from generation to generation. If parents stop teaching their children, those children have nothing to teach the grandchildren. In two generations, a thoroughly Catholic society can become mission territory. Look at Boston. Look at Quebec. Look at Ireland.

Read the whole thing. It’s important.

This is not only true about the Catholic faith, but also true about all forms of the Christian faith. Do not take what you have for granted. I highly recommend The Final Pagan Generation, by Edward J. Watts, a historical work explaining how fourth-century Roman elites who had been educated in classical paganism had no idea that their world was about to vanish.

A reader e-mailed from an Evangelical school yesterday to say that from what he can tell, the Evangelical right hates the Benedict Option book because it calls out the failure of the Religious Right. The Evangelical left hates it because they are ready to compromise (quietly) with the culture on moral theology. And most of the people who actually read the book but disagree with it don’t really think the situation on religious liberty and the rest is as bad as Rod Dreher does.

I’m not sure how true any of that is — you Evangelical readers tell me what you think — but it sounds plausible. I don’t take seriously (as a challenge to the Ben Op) the Christian left’s reaction, because what Christians like me see as evidence of decline, they see as evidence of progress. Their spiritual progeny will not last in the world to come. Note well that I am not talking about left-of-center Christians whose leftism is found in their economic views. I am talking about those who compromise on moral teaching, especially on sex and sexuality, and on the nature of religious authority. Ultimately our division is on metaphysics, but that’s an argument for another time.

I do take the old-line Christian right’s views more seriously, because in some real sense, these are my tribe. I take this Amazon reviewer of The Benedict Option to be typical of their view of the book:

The writer makes timely observations about the deterioration of our culture and the decline of Christianity’s influence. Yet his solution elevates just one school of Christian discipline as the solution, that of the Benedictines.
Mixed with the good there is a whole lot of man-made dross, lifting liturgy & other catholic ideas like celibacy to the level of Biblical teaching. Better stick to Scripture and continue its solution – the Great Commission of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But not retreat. Never, ever retreat.

Well, the reviewer is simply wrong. In no way do I do that to liturgy or celibacy in the book, though I do talk about sexual discipline (which is a Biblical teaching!), and I discuss the role of liturgy in forming the imagination. If you are an Evangelical reader of the Protestant philosopher James K.A. Smith’s popular books on cultural liturgies (“Desiring The Kingdom,” “Imagining The Kingdom”), the discussion will make sense to you. This reviewer reads it through ideologically Evangelical eyes, and rejects any claim, or any discussion of any claim, that doesn’t make 100 percent sense to him as an Evangelical.

Most telling is his idea that the “solution” is evangelizing, and not doing anything that even looks like retreat. I admire the reviewer’s zeal, but this point of view is like encouraging soldiers armed with swords and clubs to charge into a machine-gun fusillade, on the theory that it’s better to die being ineffective than to live to keep fighting in the long war.

A close observer of Evangelical theology and culture wrote me to reflect on why there is so much Evangelical pushback to the Ben Op book [Note: I should say here that it’s also the case that Evangelicals have overwhelmingly been the most enthusiastic receivers of the book.] He told me that there’s a self-critical saying among Evangelicals holding that their typical strategy is, “Ready, Fire, Aim.” That, coupled with the fact that Changing The World is in their missional DNA, renders them susceptible to jumping to conclusions about anything that challenges their model.

The observer adds that many Evangelicals view conversion not as a lifelong process of steady repentance and dying to self, but rather as a singular moment in time. The kind of thing I discuss in The Benedict Option — the necessity of incorporating the Gospel into a holistic and disciplined way of life — doesn’t make intuitive sense to people who believe the summit of Christian activity in the world is preaching the Word and leading people to accept Jesus as their Savior.

I think this point has been one that I have been slow to grasp, given that I have no Evangelicalism in my own background and experience. The idea that Christians can or should cease to evangelize is bizarre to me, and nowhere in my book do I claim it. To cease to evangelize is to disobey the Great Commission. Yet as I write in the book:

But you cannot give what you do not possess. Too many of our churches function as secular entertainment centers with a religious moral slapped on top, when they should be functioning as the living, breathing Body of Christ. Too many churches have succumbed to modernity, rejecting the wisdom of past ages, treating worship as a consumer activity, and allowing parishioners to function as unaccountable, atomized members. The sad truth is, when the world sees us, it often fails to see anything different from nonbelievers.

Christians often talk about “reaching the culture” without realizing that, having no distinct Christian culture of their own, they have been co- opted by the secular culture they wish to evangelize. Without a substantial Christian culture, it’s no wonder that our children are forgetting what it means to be Christian, and no surprise that we are not bringing in new converts.

The point is, evangelism is largely pointless without discipleship: the sustained and continuous formation of the individual Christian into the disciplines of the Christian life. Evangelical professors keep telling me that the typical student at their Christian college is one who is filled with strong emotions about Jesus, but with little or no formation in the habits of Christian thought and living. Their faith is built on sand, which is why it is not likely to survive the rising floodwaters of liquid modernity.

This is a point that cannot be emphasized strongly enough. After one accepts Christ, then what? That is not the end of the journey, but rather the beginning. Very few of us will be called to be Benedictine monks, of course, but all of us are called to lives of discipleship. Benedictines have a rigorous model of Christian discipleship that they, as monks, follow. The Benedict Option explores what we lay Christians have to learn from their example, for the sake of strengthening our own discipleship. Because here’s the deal: if we Christians today do not embrace lives of ever more radical discipleship, rooted firmly in Scripture and in historical Christianity, we are going to cease to be Christian. 

It’s like this. The great historian Robert Conquest said that this is his Second Law of Politics: “Any organization not explicitly and constitutionally right-wing will sooner or later become left-wing.” Adapted to Christianity, this might say, “Any Christian individual, church, or organization that does not understand itself as orthodox and live accordingly will sooner or later become heterodox.” (A helpful variation of this is Neuhaus’s Law: “Where orthodoxy is optional, it will sooner or later be proscribed.”)

It is also true that given the nature of post-Christian culture, to affirm heterodoxy is to cross a Rubicon that will eventually cause the evaporation of faith. A Christianity that has fully accommodated itself to this post-Christian culture of the West does not have the resources to withstand it. Read Phil Lawler! His lesson is by no means limited to Roman Catholics, but is valid for Protestants and Orthodox as well. Lawler’s “Answer B)” is what I hear, more or less, from Evangelicals like the Amazon reviewer of my book I cited above. Lawler:

“Don’t worry. Times change, and we have to change with them. Religion isn’t popular in today’s culture, but the faith will make a comeback sooner or later. We just need to keep plugging away, to have confidence, to remember God’s promise that the Church will endure forever.”

Yes, it will endure forever, somewhere in this world. It seems to be doing well in Africa, for example. But if you really think the church will endure forever in the West, or in the United States, I invite you to write to the chancery office in the Diocese of Hippo Regius to ask how things are going for them.

Adapting Lawler, I strongly urge all my Christian readers to understand that the Christian faith is passed down from generation to generation. If parents stop teaching their children, those children have nothing to teach the grandchildren. If pastors, churches, and Christian schools stop teaching and discipling their children, those children will think Christianity is about nothing more than assenting to general propositions, and arranging their emotions to make themselves comfortable. In two generations, a thoroughly Christian society can become mission territory.

This is happening now. We are living through this. Those who think the religious liberty situation isn’t all that bad should reflect on the fact that the ACLU is now suing California Catholic hospitals for refusing to do transgender surgeries. Maybe the ACLU will not prevail. One certainly hopes not. But this assault on religious liberty will never, ever end. The left does not for one second intend to agree to live and let live. In a post-Christian culture, one that is both increasingly secularizing and that has come to see sexuality is constitutive of identity, you’d have to be a fool to think that courts are going to uphold a strong religious liberty wall of protection in the long run. We may have some victories in the short run, but the law does not exist in a vacuum. If culture changes, so will the law and its interpretation. Yesterday a reader who is a law student e-mailed to say:

I was just reading education chapter of The Benedict Option over lunch. You hit the nail on the head when discussing the total ignorance students regarding the history of Western thought. You might think it would be different in law school because we at least have to learn about the Common Law. Sadly, no. Law school is a seminary of modern progressivism. First principles are rarely worthy of discussion. Only relevance matters. The mysterious science of the law is described as neither mysterious nor science but simply prejudice wrapped in the cloak of an undeserved constitution. And it’s important to emphasize that, though the faculty deserve some blame, this trend is largely driven by students, who care only about advancing their self interests while engaging in various virtue signaling rituals to demonstrate the depth of their devotion to the anti-culture.

You really think the coming generation of lawyers and judges will care about defending religious liberty when they see it as nothing more than a cloak for bigotry? Are you willing to stake your future on that?

Moreover — and this is even more important — the churches themselves may capitulate. Look at these 2016 Pew numbers on the views held by self-identified Christians on religious liberty and government coercion on policies related to sexuality. Chart here:

Note that a very strong majority of Catholics do not even support the religious liberty position of their own church on mandatory birth control. A majority of Evangelicals do, and generally hold the line for religious liberty, but they’re the only ones. This poll does not break out white Evangelicals into age groups, but do any conservative Christians really believe the trend lines among Evangelicals (or anybody else) are headed in a direction favorable to religious liberty?

If you want to see a glimpse of our potential future, see this story from Belgium, in which parts of the Catholic Church are surrendering to the culture of death:

Brother René Stockman is the superior general of the Brothers of Charity, a “congregation” of the Catholic Church which cares for the poor and the needy. Although residing in Rome in recent years, he has been one of the leading voices in Belgium opposing legalised euthanasia. This week the Belgian region, where the congregation started in the 19th Century, announced the startling news that its hospitals would offer euthanasia to non-terminally-ill psychiatric patients who request it. This was big news in the Belgian media because the Brothers are a major player in Belgium’s healthcare system, with 15 psychiatric hospitals and a number of other projects.

More, from the interview with Brother René:

Is this a world-first as the official position of a Catholic institution?

No, we know that in Belgium there are individual psychiatric centers where euthanasia is done, but the fact that a group with 15 psychiatric centers and with a so-called authority in the field of mental health care is doing that in a formal way is unique.

What proportion of places for the mentally ill are run by the Brothers in Belgium and in Flanders?

As said, we have in Belgium 15 psychiatric hospitals (13 in Flanders and 2 in Wallonia), with 5,000 patients.

The refusal of the Brothers to allow euthanasia in their institutions has been described by critics as a major obstacle to the growth of euthanasia. So will this change in policy, if it goes ahead, have a big impact on psychiatric care in Belgium?

Yes, of course. All those who were against us are now singing that finally the group of the Brothers of Charity capitulated and came into their camp.

As this story explains, the board governing the Brothers of Charity facilities is now constituted by a majority of lay persons. As the culture has secularized in Belgium, so have Christians. Though we are farther behind the Europeans, it is happening here too. 

Phil Lawler is right. The Catholic Church — and all the Christian churches — in America are in crisis. Now is not the time to live in denial — and denial includes assuming that continuing to do the same thing that we’ve been doing is sufficient to meet the grave challenges of our time and place. “But not retreat. Never, ever retreat,” says the Evangelical reviewer. Keep thinking like that, and you will not notice that your supply lines have been extremely thin, as they now have, and vulnerable. When they are cut, what will you do, having advanced so mindlessly, without noticing how radically conditions on the battlefield have changed, and how thoroughly the hearts and minds of our own troops have been colonized by the barbarians who have been ruling us for some time?




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