Home/Rod Dreher/Living In The 8:20

Living In The 8:20

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A reader writes:
I am an educator at a Catholic school in Canada (I’ll refrain from being too specific). I’ve been at this position for about 3 years. I am a product of the Catholic education system. I never went to public schooling except for university.
At first, I was very excited to start a new job in education. I had planned to become a teacher for a number of years. I thought this would be a good experience to see if teaching was right for me.
I had also recently come back to the Catholic faith and was actively practising and volunteering within my parish. For me, this was a win-win situation as I would be able to practice my faith in a Catholic environment.
However, I soon realised that this was not the Catholic education that I was brought up in. From the get go, I could see that an overwhelming majority of my colleagues didn’t respect or even understand basic Catholic theology. To make matters worse, we were forced to hire more and more non-Catholics to help fill an employee shortage. Some of them had no idea about the Catholic faith and practices.
A majority of staff members espoused various beliefs that were in direct conflict to Catholic teaching. Almost everybody else was pro-choice, pro same sex marriage and supportive of some elements of the woke tyranny that we are now seeing. Staff members took pride in bashing the Catholic faith and calling it archaic! Almost nobody took a traditional stance on things such as marriage, gender and sex. If you did have a personal opinion that actually matched the Catholic Church’s, then you would essentially be ostracised and ridiculed.
We did have a pro life club, but it was a joke to say the least. Students were open in saying that they joined it just to get out of school. Other teachers would often mock the club and the teacher sponsors who were in charge of it. I can’t recall talking to a student or staff who legitimately believed in the pro life cause. When the heartbeat bills in your country came out, I expected various staff members to be supportive. To my dismay, almost all of them repeated the typical woke narrative that these men were just trying to control women and that America was full of misogyny and sexism that had gotten worse since Trump.
To make matters worse, there is hardly any religiosity amongst the students. Most of them don’t go to Mass, and those that do are often too embarrassed to admit it. Many openly challenge Catholic teachings in class, which is then met by teachers just shrugging their shoulders and for the most part agreeing with them. We have various LGBT students who are allowed and encouraged to embrace themselves. We have male students wearing makeup and borderline cross dressing. In response, the administration simply says that they will not police what people wear, despite there being a clear uniform guideline.
When we do have school Masses, the priests often go on about the same thing over and over again. “Be nice and help one another” sermons that don’t have any substance in them whatsoever. The one time a visiting priest came in and talked about how being a Catholic requires discipline and hardship, he was mocked behind his back and never invited back again. Our Religion classes often revolve around “kumbaya” and being accepting of everybody regardless of how they live their life. There is literally nothing substantive in the topics that we discuss. Catholicism to these people is simply believing in some higher power and being nice to your neighbour.
To make matters worse, our school has sold out to international students and special needs students. International students often pay a drastically higher tuition, while special needs students generate more funding from the government. Our staff is stretched to the max, and is seeing increasingly high turnover rates. When confronted about this, our administration simply states that our school is concerned about “equality and equity” and the whole woke education crap that has infiltrated pretty much every level of schooling in the province. Discipline is extremely discouraged and teachers have been reprimanded for rightfully putting a disrespectful student in their place. We are also discouraged from penalising students for handing in late work. People are walking on eggshells trying to please students and their parents. Oftentimes teachers will have to chase down a student to get homework or a project as we are heavily discouraged from failing a student, even if their lack of work or abilities completely warrants it!
Overall, my experience in education has not at all been a good one. Not to mention that my Catholic faith has suffered. The mindless platitudes that we hear at school Masses and the lack of any religiosity amongst staff members has me rethinking my faith. I thought Catholic education would provide relief from the woke tyranny. Instead, I found that the Pink Terror you and other readers speak of, have infiltrated the very institution that I grew up in. I have chosen not to become a teacher anymore as I don’t wish to work in an environment like this for the rest of my life. While the experience hasn’t been as horrific as the ones you have posted before, it has been eye opening and soul shattering that this is what Catholic education looks like in 2020.

I shared that e-mail with one of my Catholic teacher friends, who has been telling me similar things about his school. In his response, he said in the many years that he has been on faculty,  he estimates that maybe about one in 20 of the students his school has graduated still practice the faith. As he sees it, it’s not just the ethos of the school, but the ethos of the people who send their kids to it.

This teacher — let’s call him Mr. Smith — told me that he attended Catholic high school in a red state, and graduated decades ago. He’s bitter about it, and says that the entire purpose of that school was to train Catholics in his hometown on how to be good middle class conformists, not Christians. Not one of his religion teachers believed in the Resurrection, he said. How did he know this?

“I asked.”

Mr. Smith said he lost his Catholic faith after that, but regained it later, in the process or re-conversion. He had to teach himself all the things that he never got in Catholic school, or in his parish. Today, said Mr. Smith, he figures that 80 percent of the Catholic schools in the US are pretty much like the Canadian Catholic school the reader above describes. Mr. Smith estimates that there are about 17 percent that are wavering, but only about three percent that really teach the faith and take formation of students seriously. He said:

There’s about 3% that are rock solid, but very few of these are diocesan. Most are Ben Op independent Catholic schools. But there are literally about 100 of these nationwide. At best.

Of course you are free to disagree with him. I can’t identify Mr. Smith for obvious reasons. All I can tell you is that he is a veteran Catholic school teacher who knows that world pretty well. I would invite everyone involved in a religious school (teachers, administrators, parents, and students), Catholic or not, to reflect on the extent to which the Canadian Catholic teacher’s description of his school fits your own.

Smith and I kept texting last night. He is pretty down about the future of Catholicism in this country, post-Covid. In his view, the virus and its forced breaking of the habits of mass-going is going to devastate US Catholicism. Mr. Smith says that Covid will have been an apocalypse for the American church, because it will have revealed its true condition — something that will be undeniable once the crisis passes, and Catholics are free to return to masses unimpeded. Mr. Smith predicts that Americans will see a European-style collapse in church attendance.

We have been living, he said, in a condition “like the eight minutes twenty seconds between when the sun dies and we experience it.” He’s talking about the time it takes for light from the sun to reach earth. If the sun suddenly went out, it would take eight minutes and twenty seconds for people on earth to realize it, because that’s how long it will take for the sun’s final rays to arrive here.

That 8:20 metaphor has been sticking with me since my conversation with Mr. Smith over the weekend. An alternative title for The Benedict Option would be The 8:20 Project, given that the point of that book is that we are facing the collapse of Christianity, and that Christians should use the time we have now to prepare themselves, their families, and their communities for a situation unlike that seen in the West since the collapse of the Roman Empire. No, the Church itself did not collapse when the Roman state and economic apparatus did; my point is that there was a dramatic collapse of a civilizational ethos and system. For Christianity in the advanced industrial nations of the West, the 20th century was like the 4th century was for the Western Roman Empire: a period in which decay advanced to the heart of the civilization, but the institutions and habits of the old ways still remained, concealing the depth of the rot. Historian Edward J. Watts’s book The Final Pagan Generation is a startling account of how the world of pagan Rome declined rapidly during the fourth century, even though all the outward signs were relatively normal.

Imagine a school like the Canadian Catholic one above, but set in fourth-century Rome. Now imagine it is a school whose purpose is to educate young Romans within an ethos that instructed them also in piety towards the gods of Rome. What if that school instead made all the motions of teaching the old religion, but in truth was faking it, and even taught the precepts of the new religion? And what if deep down the parents of these young Roman children didn’t really care about this, but rather wanted their youth to gain whatever knowledge they needed to succeed in what Roman society was becoming? How likely do you think it would be that these Roman schools would successfully transmit the faith to the next generation?

That’s what Christians in 21st century America are facing. We are living in the 8:20. We are a post-Christian civilization, but most people haven’t yet realized it. Those who do must busy themselves making preparations for keeping the light alive through the long night ahead. I’ve mentioned here before, and mentioned over the weekend in conversation with Mr. Smith, the story I heard from a German Catholic I met in Rome. This man told me that he and his Catholic friends have accepted that at some point in their lifetime, and certainly in the lifetime of their children, the institutional Catholic Church is going to collapse in Germany. They are busy now thinking of ways to keep the faith alive. One thing they can do is to form their children strongly in the faith at home, and to encourage them to marry only other strong Catholics raised in the same way. Endogamy, in other words: marrying within the “tribe.”

That’s one way to live in the 8:20. There are others; there has to be. I talk about them in The Benedict Optionbut that book is not meant to give all the answers, but rather to catalyze creative thinking among Christians living in the 8:20.

Do you not believe that we are living in the 8:20? Please explain yourself.

If you accept that we are living in the 8:20, what are you going to do about it? Can you point to rallying points for the faithful? Here’s one: Martin Saints Classical High School in suburban Philadelphia, a strongly Catholic, Benedict Option-style Catholic school started by laity who are completely supportive of the Catholic Church’s Magisterium.

This is not, by the way, a questions for Catholics only. The sun that is going into eclipse by our godless civilization is not just a Catholic sun.

UPDATE: Great comment by reader Annie of Arc, who is a Catholic convert:

In the last ten years I have met a half-dozen people employed by the Catholic Church who do not seem dead set on destroying the Church, or who do not consider it their personal middle-class fiefdom with a few hymns. What does one do when one is raising small children, but every single authority figure from the Church to the Government to Education to the Media, seems absolutely hellbent on smashing everything around them? I pray everyday for either a miracle by which my family will have enough money to go buy land and a well in some quiet place, or for a tragedy to come sooner rather than later so that perhaps there is something left to pick up.

There are a great many people who read you with an angry eye, looking to scorn the people who say “the sky is falling.” This is because the sky has not fallen for them, and thank goodness they have been so blessed. There are people who accuse those of us who are worried of merely pining for Eisenhower and public Christian prayer. My goodness, what a joke. It is not “mere Christianity” which is vanishing before our eyes, it is the shared trust and structures and pace of life which allow people to be mentally healthy.

Over the weekend I was asked to talk with some young women trying to navigate the culture and figure out how to build families (no adult entrusted with their education ever considered it important!), and when I talked about my fear of raising daughters in a culture saturated with porn they became despondent: they’re living it. They’re living the brutality, the lovelessness, the dull glaze of addiction which overtakes the victim as much as opiates. They talked about how the culture is so rootless, you make friends for 2 years and then 90% of your friend group has relocated. These were strong, healthy, inquisitive, bright young women, certainly not all Christian, completely capable of navigating the urban coastal scenes, and they are saying behind closed doors that what once was natural and normal has been decimated. It takes angelic strength to do what almost everybody once did. Young people don’t know how to form relationships let alone families. Young men don’t know how to build intimacy. Young people are having pills pushed on them from every angle, and who are they not to take them when everything is so broken and they really are hurting?

The public Christianity of my grandparents generation was a joke, a wicked joke that ushered this age forward. Nonetheless it was still a real structure, not totally melted by the French philosophers or the American cults of speed, power, control. Without the public Christianity the rot has come to the surface and we see it in millions of suffering mentally ill young people who are absolutely lost. God have mercy on us.

UPDATE.2: I’ve been reading for the past three days a book recommended by a reader: The Revolt Of The Public And The Crisis Of Authority In The New Millennium, by Martin Gurri. It’s really eye-opening. So far in the book, it’s an analysis of how and why the Internet is so politically revolutionary, like nothing we’ve ever seen. It’s about information theory and the radical undermining of traditional hierarchies and authorities by the Internet. I’m not too far into the book, but it helps me understand why, for example, same-sex marriage went from being unthinkable to inevitable almost instantaneously. Yes, it took about twenty years of sustained campaigning by its supporters, but to make a social change as radical as changing the definition of marriage in such a short time is virtually without precedent.

I have said since the mid-2000s that same-sex marriage is inevitable because it depends on what most people already believe that marriage is: a contract between two people who love each other, and wish to formalize their commitment. Marriage was believed to be something more than that up until around the middle of the 20th century. That’s why the divorce culture was so quick to be accepted. You cannot separate marriage and divorce from the Sexual Revolution, and as Philip Rieff and others plainly saw, there is an inverse correlation between Christian faith and the Sexual Revolution.

By the early part of the 21st century, traditional beliefs about marriage had grown very thin. When the news and entertainment media began campaigning to normalize homosexuality, the mass audience began to see that an alternative to the status quo was possible. Yes, it is certainly true that the news media had no interest in presenting the traditionalist case fairly or with balance, and it is unquestionably the case that the entertainment media propagandized for the cause. But we must not neglect the fact that they were planting seeds in soil that had been well-tilled by forty years of Sexual Revolution, with its valorization of sexual individualism and autonomy. What the masses needed to see was that the way things were, in terms of marriage, did not have to remain that way.

Now, progressives flatter themselves, and make a serious mistake, by believing that History is unfolding according to a plan, and that History’s plan favors their beliefs and priorities. The election of Donald Trump and the victory of the Brexit referendum are two counterexamples to the “right side of history” thesis. Nevertheless, events rarely come as a bolt out of the blue, even if they feel that way to many of us, owing to our own epistemic bubbles. One reason many conservative Christians have rejected the Benedict Option diagnosis (i.e., that Christianity in the West is in what might be a terminal decline) is because they still see people showing up at church on Sundays, and most people they know still more or less believe in God.

A small but telling example: Just last night I was talking to my mom, who is in her 70s, and she said that she was appalled that an obituary for a friend of hers did not mention that the woman was a member of such-and-such church. I knew the lady too, and I knew that she had not been to church for half a century. My mother said yes, that’s true, but the lady had been baptized in that church, and was therefore a member. I’ve noticed this is a fairly common view among my parents’ generation: that to be formally a member of a church, however tenuous the connection, is the same thing as being a Christian. And in some sense, they’re right: to have been baptized is to be in some mystical sense part of the universal Church. But sociologically speaking, it’s not very meaningful. The lady who passed away did not raise her children in any church, and none of them, and none of her grandchildren, to my knowledge, are churchgoers. Christianity has de facto ceased to exist in that family’s line.

In 2002, I went to Catholic mass near Amsterdam (I was Catholic then). There only people among the small congregation who didn’t have gray hair was a family. We introduced ourselves to them, and they invited Julie and me and our toddler over to dinner. We talked about their experience as practicing Catholics in the Netherlands, a profoundly post-Christian nation. The father said that he was one of eleven children born to a Catholic family in Rotterdam. He must have been in his mid-40s when we met, and he told me he was the only one of his siblings who still practiced the faith. Eleven children baptized into the church, but only one still Catholic in any socially meaningful sense.

Anyway, my point is this: when people conceive of an alternative to the status quo, and experience it as a realistic possibility for themselves, it undermines the status quo. This is pretty basic stuff, I grant you, but social change can happen in the same way that Hemingway’s character said he went bankrupt: gradually, then suddenly. In the Netherlands, the middle-class consensus behind the Christian faith collapsed suddenly in the 1960s. It had been shattered by the war and the Nazi occupation, and people tried to rebuild it afterward, but their hearts weren’t in it. When the first winds of the counterculture began to blow, the whole thing fell apart.

Mr. Smith, above, believes that the Covid crisis, which has halted churchgoing in many places, will prove to be one of those events that causes most Catholics to recognize that they have been going through the motions for a long time, regarding mass attendance, and that they won’t feel any special obligation to return when things get back to normal. I hope he’s wrong, but I’m strongly inclined to believe him. And I bet other churches — non-Catholic ones — will suffer something similar. I really hope I’m wrong about this, but reading this Gurri book makes me think that Covid will have proven to have been a real crossroads moment in which a whole lot of churchgoing people reckon with their lack of conviction, and slough off their commitment to church.

UPDATE: Amazing comment by reader Heidi:

I haven’t been adding to the conversation in many months now, but I’ve been keeping up with you, with us, this group of radicals and our very real concerns. I want to give you a small positive note, based on my personal experience of this last weekend and in response to this post. I’m sure you don’t remember, but last year, prior to the current state of affairs, I had been in very serious spiritual trouble and was at the point of leaving the Catholic church after all the scandals. I had, in fact, stopped going to mass and was very vocally angry about how I felt about the church and how I “didn’t care what happened to her” any more. Well, and isn’t God just the funniest…enter Covid and now Heidi *can’t* go to church and isn’t going to church just exactly the thing she wants The Most in Life At The Moment. Yes, yes…a master of irony is our God.

Anyway, the lesson was not lost on me, praise the Lord. At any rate, our churches only began to be open to mass in June-ish and there were very strict limitations on attendance and meanwhile I’m beating my breast in repentance over my flippant attitude and berating myself on a regular basis about taking church for granted. Cathedrals! Shuttered! Locked doors! What had we done?!? And wasn’t this anti-constitutional?! There were protests and riots but locked churches?!?

Anyway, once it opened, my regular church was only open to allowing people in on an alphabetized schedule and the weekend that our letter came up, we were out of town. The images of the service online were shocking. In a church that once had hundreds of parishioners on a weekend there were 13, yes 13, people. And a priest in his undershirt. I just don’t know what to say about that. I can say that on-line mass ain’t cutting it. Period. And I did try.

At any rate, I searched and found a church in a neighboring town which had fewer restrictions on attendance and went. Lo and behold it was a Tridentine mass and there were…dozens of people. I started counting and had to stop at 70 because I couldn’t very well crane my neck during the gospel to see who was behind me. I’m going to say between 70 and 80 people. And! There were several large families with lots of children, small children! Dressed up and quiet! They had clearly been here before… The age mix was very healthy; it was definitely not just a blue-haired service. And it was the third mass of the weekend! I’m not ashamed to say that I cried during the Eucharist; fortunately the mask hid my tears pretty well.

Part B of this story is that I came home and was singing the praises of the mass to my now non-church going family (yes, it’s true, you can lead a kid to church for their entire lives and they will still give it the back of the hand when they are 20 and your spouse will get disillusioned and decide they aren’t going anymore etc. etc.) and one of my young adult children said that it sounded amazing (there was organ music and singing and gorgeous light streaming in through the stained glass windows) and then asked me the name of the church because her boyfriend’s father wanted to go. He’s not Catholic, but, because his life-long Presbyterian southern father has been attending Catholic mass in TN and had been speaking so positively about it he was interested. So, there you have it. All is not lost, although it may be greatly diminished.

I’m not even remotely suggesting that Christendom is not in deep trouble. We are. But we do need these bits of hope.

UPDATE.2: Another hopeful comment, this one by Frances Moyer:

All this is very painful to read. One thing I hate to read it that all of anything is true. All Catholics are this, all schools are that. So I will tell you about my parish. My husband and I retired to this county four years ago. We had visited relatives in this state for 45 years, but never lived in it. We were convinced to choose this specific town because of a Mass we attended. We had attended fairly liberal churches for 25 years, but believed and felt that they failed to emphasize the Eucharist and many important tradition, as well as ignoring all Catholic teachings on sexuality, pro-life, etc.. This church is conservative: large families: a thriving K-8 school; good sermons by all three priests (in the case of the pastor, superior); very pro-life.

Ours is the only church in the county and has 10,000 members. After our first year the young pastors were transferred and the elderly, ill pastor moved to a smaller parish and then retired. Our new pastor is a dynamo. I’ve heard him talk numerous times and he is quite aware of the state of the Faith among Catholics and is determined to evangelize them. He has a dedicated staff and many active parishioners. He is transforming this parish. He knows that the foundation of the faith comes through the parents and has brought two people (a priest and a lay person) from the Augustinian Institute 2000 miles away to establish a solid four year Bible Study as well as a program for parents. He has established a summer camp for young children, the main purpose of which is to evangelize the older high school students and college students who teach and lead the camp through: prayer, adoration of the blessed sacrament, and classes. Several times a year the Institute of Catholic Culture offers dinner and an educational talk. Our church offered a retreat for those suffering deep emotional and spiritual pain. I really feel that our pastor is building a Benedict Option Community in that all his programs have a clear goal of building the Faith in adults and the younger generation,.

Our church has a Spanish mass and ministry; a more traditional mass; a mass that appeals more to those accustomed to the reforms of Vatican II and subsequent hymns; and a Latin mass.

The Knights of Columbus operate a Wednesday Soup Kitchen and a weekly donation of food and toiletries to 70 people. And they do so much more charity work. Eight years ago our parishioners started a home for homeless pregnant women and their children. It takes about 60 volunteers to support all the needs in small and large ways. Our pastor just blessed a second home the board just purchased.

I would like to inform you of nationwide Catholic apostalates. Look them up: FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students): Students for Life; Walking with Purpose: The Modern Woman’s Guide to the Bible (40,000+ Bible students throughout the US including 50 last year in our parish). And there are web sites such as Bishop Baron and Magis; the later has solid science articles as part of its focus on faith. Then there are The Augustinian Institute and the Institute of Catholic Culture.

PS I am in a Book Club of some parish women and I have suggested The Benedict Option which I have read. We will read it in September!

I feel much hope in my parish and I am so sorry so many people feel disappointment and despair in theirs.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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