In Chesterton’s [easyazon_link asin=”1493508075″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”onep073-20″]Orthodoxy[/easyazon_link], he describes the modern mind as a sort of mental illness, and he notes how modern science approaches those with mental illness: “It does not seek to argue with it like a heresy but simply to snap it like a spell.”
To a hypothetical man who thinks himself to be Christ, he asks, “How much happier you would be, how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God could smash your small cosmos, scattering the stars like spangles, and leave you in the open, free like other men to look up as well as down!”
A vision of health and happiness that is attainable by a simple choice is how to cure a lunatic; and likewise, an uncompromised presentation of right teaching and right action is the only way to cure the modern mind. Modernity, like lunacy, does not respond to its own language. For over fifty years now we have been attempting to argue with a madman on his own terms. When he became Kantian, we became Kantian with him, and we speak of the importance of the universal religious experience rather than the deadly character of original sin. When he became humanist, we became humanist with him, and we now speak constantly of becoming “fully human” but rarely of becoming “partakers of the divine nature.” When he became socialist, we became socialist with him, and the bishops’ economic thoughts are now more likely to be heard by the public than their teaching on the gravely immoral character of contraception.
We do not dare to speak the language of St. Thomas Aquinas, for it would only be met with scorn. What have the Trinitarian processions to do with the average man? Why should we waste words describing the indescribable to those who instead need milk? Bl. Pope Pius IX condemned the proposition, “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” (Syllabus of Errors, 80) How can such a man, we ask, speak to a progressive, liberal, and modern world? How can a Church that refuses to come to terms with the times and speak our age’s language possibly be a Church that has any future?
It may seem foolish to refuse compromise with the world but it is the foolishness of the Cross that justifies sinners. The paradox is that the more the Church attempts to be “relevant” to the world, the less intriguing to the world she will become. Her differences constitute her strength and her appeal. In the long run, the Church will be more interesting as the Mystical Body of Christ or the Kingdom of Heaven than as the “people of God” or a “faith community.” The Church’s rejection of modernity in her doctrine, language, and culture is not a burden but an asset and a weapon for evangelism. If we speak the world’s language, no one will listen to us, for our preaching will fade in with the rest of the white noise projecting from modern culture. Or rather, we will be heard, but not listened to. The credibility of the Church lies in the fact that there is no institution like it. If we absorb contemporary language, philosophy, and culture, we will be just one more interest group, political lobby, or religious denomination. The Church can survive hatred, scorn, and persecution, but it cannot survive ceasing to be unique. Once the Church becomes just another organization, it will go the route of all human organizations.
So rather than be ashamed of dogma, we must proclaim it to the bewildered. There is an objective basis for our tone, our words, our philosophy; we cannot simply discard them at will when we do not think the world will understand them. Language is not neutral; it is not mere clothing that can be draped over any philosophy. Rather, language is shaped by the philosophy that stands behind the culture. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “As Jerome says, words spoken amiss lead to heresy; hence with us and heretics the very words ought not to be in common, lest we seem to countenance their error.” (Summa Theologica, III, q. 16, a. 8, corpus) To make peace with the times by changing our language is to abandon the Cross.
If we speak in a way that suggests we do not care much about abortion, the world will assume we do not care much about abortion, and then wonder how hypocritical and indifferent we are given what we profess to believe about abortion. If we speak in a way that suggests all men, if they’re generally good, get to Heaven, then the world will assume this is what we believe and then wonder how lukewarm we must be about the Church’s exclusive claims on salvation. Our language conveys a philosophy, and if this philosophy is at odds with the Truth we are attempting to proclaim, then we are simply dressing up a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Either the Church speaks as she has always spoken, accepting what is given to her in return – whether it be converts or martyrs (most likely, both) – or she will continue to crumble. It is no problem if men do not fully understand at first what we preach. We should never forget that Christ spoke in parables, and it is only proper to convey mysteries in mysterious ways.
Modern man is craving something – anything! – and the world is giving him nothing. He will not mind if we give him Truth, though it be shrouded in mystery, though our language is not identical to his. He is craving for something to bite into, for something that does not bend but will stand and fight. He is craving for tradition, though he would obstinately deny it. He is craving for liturgy, though he has never seen it. He is craving, above all, for dogma (yes, even for the little rules!). The modern world has enough tambourines, guitars, social justice advocates, and feel-good rhetoric to last us centuries, but happy-clappy Catholicism will die with the happy-clappy world. In a deep recess in a forgotten corner of his heart, modern man wants the wild adventure of orthodoxy, and if he is converted, he will rejoice in dogma, liturgy, discipline, and all those things that make the Faith different from the world as a prisoner rejoices when he leaves the prison and enters into the free and open air. We will not convert the modern world by speaking its own language, which is poisoned from within, but by speaking in the Church’s angelic tongue to prisoners who have only heard the languages that come out of Babel.
Let us speak in our rightful, foreign tongue and march beneath our alien flag. We are not seeking with the rest of men the path of Truth; no, we are by grace Revelation’s humble and sinful servants. Our mission is not to usher in global human solidarity, but to make known the Cross, “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” (1 Cor. 1:23) While certain churchmen preach compromise for fear of offense, we must always preach the Cross for fear of compromise. Christ comes not only as a King, but as a rebel against the false prince of this world, and the Church is His holy revolution. Where the world is proud, let us be humble. Where it is sad, let us be joyful. Where it is happy, let us be sorrowful. Where it is weak, let us be strong. Where it is strong, let us be weak. Where it speaks in the tongues of men, let the Church speak in the tongue of angels. Let us, without shame, present the Faith for what it is: a sign of contradiction and therefore, a beacon for lost souls.
It is high time for the return of cruciform Catholicism.
Carl Wolk lives in Wisconsin with his wife and children. He entered the Catholic Church on Easter 2012, a convert from Calvinism and before that, atheism. He has a B.A. in Medieval and Renaissance Studies from Washington and Lee University, and an M.A. in Theology from the Dominican House of Studies in DC. He is the Upper School Dean at Providence Academy in La Crosse, WI, where he teaches theology and philosophy.