Institutionalized adultery, incest, infanticide, shameless sexual abuse of children, and homosexuality. After about a hundred pages of overlap with Catholic truth, the fifth book of The Republic reminds one of the dark side of paganism.
The shock of reading Plato talk so uninhibitedly about what we now know as horrific vice is refreshing, like a cold shower. Western civilization is in a halting, halfhearted plunge back into the kind of practices and attitudes readily accepted and even encouraged by Plato, retaining just enough of its Catholic roots to make its slide painfully slow, but inevitable nonetheless.
As the lukewarm person is worse than the truly good or bad, so too is the lukewarm society. There is a kind of sincere ignorance in the pagans, providing a stark contrast to the Christian euaggelion as it swept through Europe.. G.K. Chesterton, in his magnum opus, The Everlasting Man, generalizes that pagan poetry was haunted by a sort of sadness. Is there any doubt this is because they took for granted what Catholicism, in its otherworldly dignity, illuminated as cruelty? Culture today isn’t sad; it’s cynical. If paganism is a kind of childhood, and Christendom is adulthood and marriage, the modern West is a dilapidated, tired divorcee.
No doubt Catholic evangelization has to glean what perspective it can from this state of affairs. The overall evangelization of the West is really the reconciliation of a ruined marriage, with all the bitterness, mistrust, and misunderstanding implied. The current “New Evangelization” project was ostensibly devised to confront this reality. More subtly, so was the Second Vatican Council.
Most of this is fairly obvious, or should be.
Now a more controversial opinion. After the Constantinian era, during which the Church wedded culture, she grew accustomed to operating in close synergy with both state and society. Together they governed and guided the West, through better and worse, for about fifteen hundred years. This went on for so long that the Church began to assume that she would be always working with a partner; even when that partner was holding her at arms length. The West’s radical divorce of Catholicism came in stages, beginning in the Reformation and coming to completion last century. Over this period of about five hundred years Mother Church was slow in realizing the full gravity of the change at hand. This was not just another heresy, another internal problem, but the dawn of another age, as monumental a change as that of pagan Greco-Roman culture to Christendom. It thus requires a new approach.
Vatican II “got it right” insofar as it was the Church’s first substantial attempt to grapple with the change. The flaw lies in its response. In speaking in almost unconditionally positive terms, without any condemnation or correction — and in hastily conceding everything that could be conceded without substantially ruining the Catholic religion — the Church went well beyond a tender invitation to come back home. She became truly vulnerable, opening herself to abuse and mockery. John XXIII’s open window was more of an open door, which Mother Church threw ajar in her bedclothes, out of which she bolted, begging to be taken back. Like a newly separated wife overcome by weariness, she surrendered her dignity, groveling and pleading and assuming fault.
In 1968, Paul VI observed with concerned horror that the Church was in self-doubt, even self-demolition — and he was right. That self-doubt and self-demolition is ongoing. This is why rather than asserting the Church’s unique dignity and liberty, the bishops of the United States ask simply for equal treatment under human law. They should be doing both. Since the Council the West has responded with nonstop contempt, persecution, and invasion; it is abuse the Church has literally asked for. By invasion I mean that faithless children of the West have passed themselves off as children of Mother Church and sown terrible corruption in the Church, some of it institutionalized corruption. One example of this is the clerical sex abuse scandal, a kind of pagan sexuality. Another is the liturgical destruction Benedict XVI so decried.
Incidentally, this is perhaps the surest critique of Francis’ pontificate. Not since the Council itself has the Church more humbly prostrated herself before the secular world, and followed after the new paganism in hopes of winning it back. The desperation is palpable. Bishop Athanasius Schneider, one the greatest voices of our time in the Catholic episcopate, strongly urged young people to “refuse to conform to the neo-pagan spirit of this world, even when this spirit is spread by some bishops and cardinals,” for which he lambasted progressive clergymen who brought it fully to bear in the Synod on the Family.
In her 1977 book The Sin Eater, Alice Thomas Ellis wrote of the modern approach of the Catholic Church that
“it [was] as though…one’s revered, dignified and darling old mother had slapped on a mini-skirt and fishnet tights and started ogling strangers. A kind of menopausal madness, a sudden yearning to be attractive to all. It is tragic and hilarious and awfully embarrassing. And of course, those who knew her before feel a great sense of betrayal and can’t bring themselves to go and see her any more.”
The Church simply must stop this perverse groveling and reassert herself as the innocent party. She must do so without becoming jaded and cynical like the West, keeping hope of true reconciliation alive. Only by acting in a truly dignified and worthy fashion will she inspire Western civilization to treat her like the wife she was and is, and not like a whore. Why should he treat her with respect now? She doesn’t respect herself.
When this happens — when the Church regains her sense of dignity, of self-respect — the New Evangelization will begin in earnest.
Unfortunately, this moment may only come to pass once the West begins to physically beat the Bride of Christ, and she at last awakes from her stupor, recoiling in the shock of shed blood.
Originally published on November 17, 2014.
Jonathan Pierre Cariveau is a Minnesota native and a convert to Eastern Catholicism from Evangelical Protestantism. He writes on Eastern Catholicism, Church history, liturgical theology, and Catholic life in the 21st century.