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The Church in Crisis Is Like The Light of a Dying Star

Over at his blog at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher shares a couple of emails from readers about their experiences in the Catholic Church in both Canada and the United States.

The stories are awful, but they’re not surprising. The gist of it is that almost nobody at the Catholic schools these people have experienced (either as teachers or students) actually believes what the Church believes. Some of them actively mock orthodoxy and work against those teachings and beliefs.

It’s the same story I’ve been hearing for my entire life. The number of Catholics on the books in the world is around 1.2 billion, but the number of people who actually practice the faith? I’d be surprised if it were more than a tenth of that. (And some people I’ve talked to say they think I’m being overly generous with that estimate.)

Dreher goes on to share an insight with a friend he’s given the pseudonym “Mr. Smith” – a revert to the faith who had fallen away after attending Catholic schools in his own youth, and who now teaches at a Catholic school himself:

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.”

This is an idea I’ve been grappling with for a while now. Back in March, I tweeted this, which stirred up a lot of controversy:

The thing that got people riled up here (other than my obvious typo) was that I said “dead wood.” Obviously, human beings can’t ever truly be dead wood. But there’s a workable metaphor here, and it’s one Christ Himself used: “Every branch in me, that beareth not fruit, he will take away: and every one that beareth fruit, he will purge it, that it may bring forth more fruit. … If any one abide not in me, he shall be cast forth as a branch, and shall wither, and they shall gather him up, and cast him into the fire, and he burneth.” (Jn. 15:2; 15:6)

There have been, for many years, a lot of folks coming to Mass in a state of mortal sin, but receiving Communion anyway.

There have been, for many years, a lot of folks who hold heretical beliefs, who oppose the Church’s teaching, who actively promote things like abortion and gay “marriage” and freely admit to using contraception, but still wind up in that line for the Eucharist — when they happen to show up at Mass at all.

There have been, for many years, a lot of folks who self-identify as Catholics but really aren’t. And they’re padding the numbers. They may even be giving money. But when they stop coming to Mass out of habit, when they stop giving because they’re not at Church, that’s going to have real-world implications. Parishes will empty out. They will be closed down. Dioceses will implode, and may even be consolidated. What is happening will change the institutional Church, and it will do so permanently.

I came back later and tried to explain my point a bit more clearly:

All I’m saying, all I’ve been saying, is that for the Catholics who don’t really give a flying crap about being Catholic, who only do it out of habit or because it’s part of their social scene, being away from Mass for a time is probably going to break that habit. And if it does, and they don’t come back, it may be a kind of necessary attrition toward a healthier, more coherent Church. We have a lot of dead men walking, a lot of parishes kept open by people who don’t even believe what we believe. I’m not saying their souls don’t matter, I’m saying their souls can’t be reached because their particular kinds of cognitive dissonance about essential matters of faith have been accommodated by a weak Church unwilling to challenge them until their way of thinking has ossified. It’s like telling people what the Church actually teaches and they retort, “Well, that’s not what the POPE says. I’m going to listen to him and not you.” But you could insert “my bishop” or “my pastor” and its essentially the same. If the Church doesn’t cut away the infection, the wound can’t heal. But because we care about souls, we don’t force them to leave. (We don’t even apply the saving remedy of excommunication anymore.) This set of circumstances may take care of some of it naturally. I want those people back, but I want them to find a Church not so in love with the world.

We tend to view people in certain ways. “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic” is something that you’ll hear. And in a sense, that’s true. To whom much is given, much is expected. If you have the true faith and the sacraments and you walk away from it, you’re going to be held accountable in a way someone who was never Catholic ever would. But there’s another way of looking at this as well. In his 1943 encyclical Mystici Corporis, Pope Pius XII drew a line in the sand about what membership in the Church actually entails:

Actually only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed. “For in one spirit” says the Apostle, “were we all baptized into one Body, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether bond or free.” As therefore in the true Christian community there is only one Body, one Spirit, one Lord, and one Baptism, so there can be only one faith. And therefore, if a man refuse to hear the Church, let him be considered – so the Lord commands – as a heathen and a publican. It follows that those who are divided in faith or government cannot be living in the unity of such a Body, nor can they be living the life of its one Divine Spirit.

It’s not just about being baptized, it’s about actually professing the true faith. It’s about being willing to hear the Church and obey, not hear her and then go around opposing her at every turn. I’m not talking about sin here – we all sin, we are all hypocrites, and we’re all on the same humbling redemption arc that leads us through so many falls towards salvation. But I am talking about the two pillars of belief and practice. Even though we struggle with them at times. Without those, what are we? In a very real sense, many of the people out there who call themselves Catholic…aren’t. 

There’s another layer to this 8:20 concept, and it’s this: the churches that are burning throughout the world. I know they are being vandalized by people who hate us, but a grim thought occurred to me last night:

I also noted that “our clergy have been doing far worse than these church burnings for decades. Who can be surprised that God has withdrawn his protection?”

That’s the feeling I have. We’ve been so depraved for so long, the Church has been so unrelentingly infiltrated and compromised, that God has withdrawn His staying hand. These treasures of the faith, many of them so ancient and beautiful, are being destroyed. We have taken them for granted. Many of them have been desecrated for decades by the stripping of altars and artwork and anything sacred, by abusive liturgies, profanation of the Eucharist, and sacrilege by a body of the faithful that no longer believes.

They are being taken away from us, because we did not respect or care for them. Because we are guilty of grave ingratitude.

But even so, all this talk of dead men walking and the moments between the dying of a star and the darkness that follows misses a critical point: the Church on Earth may very likely collapse to only a tiny fraction of its former glory, but it will not die. I am reminded of the words of St. Athanasius, applied when he said them to a rather different situation, but still no less applicable to our own:

May God console you! …What saddens you …is the fact that others have occupied the churches by violence, while during this time you are on the outside. It is a fact that they have the premises─but you have the apostolic Faith. They can occupy our churches, but they are outside the true Faith. You remain outside the places of worship, but the Faith dwells within you. Let us consider: what is more important, the place or the Faith? The true Faith, obviously. Who has lost and who has won in this struggle-the one who keeps the premises or the one who keeps the Faith?

True, the premises are good when the apostolic Faith is preached there; they are holy if everything takes place there in a holy way …You are the ones who are happy: you who remain within the church by your faith, who hold firmly to the foundations of the Faith which has come down to you from apostolic Tradition. And if an execrable jealousy has tried to shake it on a number of occasions, it has not succeeded. They are the ones who have broken away from it in the present crisis.

No one, ever, will prevail against your faith, beloved brothers. And we believe that God will give us our churches back some day.

Thus, the more violently they try to occupy the places of worship, the more they separate themselves from the Church. They claim that they represent the Church; but in reality, they are the ones who are expelling themselves from it and going astray.

Even if Catholics faithful to Tradition are reduced to a handful, they are the ones who are the true Church of Jesus Christ.

Unless it truly is the end of days — and personally, I don’t believe it is — these words will come true once again. We will be stripped of our churches, it’s true, and a great many souls will fall away. But the embers will still burn in the hearts of those who keep the faith, and Catholicism will rise again from the ashes, as it always has since its founding by Our Lord. We will have our churches back, or we will build new ones. The faith will blossom again and flourish. God will be worshiped as he ought, and souls will attain salvation through His Mystical Body.

Christ’s promise that the gates of hell would not prevail was not just idle talk. It wasn’t meant to make us comfortable, or to reassure us that things couldn’t really ever get too bad. It was a warning, coupled with a guarantee. He was warning us that a time would come (multiple times would be more accurate, historically speaking) when we would need to remember His Divine promise, because it would appear to our human eyes that all was lost. And it would be in those moments, when we were most tempted to despair, that His promise would give us the confidence that hope yet remains.

The Church — Christ’s True Church — will exist on Earth until the Earth passes away. And it will continue to exist in Heaven long after the dying of every star.

UPDATE – 8/4/2020: If you want more evidence for the thesis laid out above, look no further than the website for St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Arguably the most famous and iconic Catholic church in America, St. Patrick’s is openly advertising that they are facing a financial crisis due to lost revenue.

The screen capture below might be a bit too small to read, but this is what the text says:

St. Patrick’s Cathedral still needs your support.

With the church closed for 14 weeks, between 90-95% of our income was lost. Since we have opened, only about 10% of our usual income is coming in. The impact of COVID-19 continues to challenge our community every day.

The Cathedral is not funded by the Vatican or the Archdiocese of New York, nor do we have an endowment to support our operations. As of today’s projection, we are facing a shortfall of 4 million dollars.

Please support with a gift today.

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