The Christian future – resurgence or ruin?

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In the cover story of the Easter edition of The Spectator, Luke Coppen, lately editor of the Catholic Herald and currently London correspondent for the Catholic News Agency, contemplated the strange ghostly panorama of worship around the world just now. For Christians it was, he said, an Easter like no other. It was, in some ways. However, it did resemble another Easter – the very first Easter.  

Coppen went on to look at the two interpretations which are now being offered on the subject of the future of Christianity in the light of this strange social, economic and religious landscape which we currently find ourselves inhabiting. 

He found Christian thinkers split into two broad camps: those who believe the crisis will lead to a religious revival and those who think it will hasten the demise of organised religion. Ruination or resurgence, which one will it be? 

The first of those outcomes, ruination, is not an option for Christianity because ruination and the divine are incompatible. The unbelievers around the foot of the Cross on that first Easter weekend scoffed with words that sceptics have continued to parrot ad nauseam down through the centuries:  

And those who passed by heaped abuse on Him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, come down from the cross and save Yourself!” In the same way, the chief priests and scribes mocked Him among themselves, saying, “He saved others, but He cannot save Himself!… 

But He did – and He saved us as well. 

The second option, resurgence, is a more credible outcome. But as a hope, particularly in the terms in which we think about it, it is tainted with superficiality. History is really not such a fickle thing to allow itself to be turned on events of the ultimately passing kind as is this temporary terror.  

If we are looking for a resurgence of the kind which were imagined to have occurred in the so-called Great Revivals of the past, resurgences filled with, and built on, a dreamy enthusiasm for the Kingdom of God on earth, we will be foolish – and disappointed. The work which has to be done and the power which will bring that resurgence about requires a deeper supernatural outlook and a more profound appreciation of the ways of God than are contained in this kind of philosophy. It will also require a better grasp of the long view of history and of where the false turnings of mankind have brought us. 

We might begin by reflecting on a penetrating analysis of the state of Christianity by the young Fr Joseph Ratzinger in a 1958 lecture. In that famous – long and indeed difficult – lecture, he gave us a map of what a deep and genuine resurgence of the Christian Church might look like.  

According to religious statistics at that time, he pointed out, old Europe was still a part of the earth that was almost completely Christian. But, he said, that statistic is false: “This so-called Christian Europe for almost four hundred years has become the birthplace of a new paganism, which is growing steadily in the heart of the Church, and threatens to undermine her from within.” That was 1958. We now know how the grip of that new paganism has tightened and indeed strangled whole swathes of the Christian West.   

His analysis was as stark as it was startling:

The outward shape of the modern Church is determined essentially by the fact that, in a totally new way, she has become the Church of pagans, and is constantly becoming even more so. She is no longer, as she once was, a Church composed of pagans who have become Christians, but a Church of pagans, who still call themselves Christians, but actually have become pagans. Paganism resides today in the Church herself, and precisely that is the characteristic of the Church of our day, and that of the new paganism, so that it is a matter of a paganism in the Church, and of a Church in whose heart paganism is living. 

  Summing up his description of how he saw things back in 1958, he said: 

One should speak rather about the much more characteristic phenomenon of our time, which determines the real attack against the Christian, from the paganism within the Church herself, from the “desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be” (Mk 13:14). 

In the lecture he took us through the historical process in which the Church’s mission grew and developed – the path to the era in which we now find ourselves, and from which, if there is to be a meaningful resurgence, we must emerge with a renewed co-redemptive response to God’s call to both increase and multiply and preach the Gospel to all men.  

When the Church had her beginning, he explained, it rested on the spiritual decision of the individual person to believe. There was an act of personal conversion. The Church was a community of believers, of men and women who had adopted a definite spiritual choice. Because of that, they distinguished themselves from all those who refused to make this choice. In the common possession of this decision, and based on the strength of the conviction with which it was held, the true and living community of the faithful was founded, and also its certainty. Furthermore, because of this, as the community of those in the state of grace, they knew that they were separated from those who closed themselves off from grace. Grace, and the sacraments through which grace was channelled to believers, was the sine qua non of this community. But it was a community which reached out, constantly, to evangelise those not sharing their treasures. 

But by the Middle Ages, as Fr Ratzinger described in his lecture, this dynamic changed. The Church and the world now became identical, and so to be a Christian fundamentally no longer meant that a person made his own decision about the faith. Being a Christian became, a political-cultural presupposition. Today, this outward identity of Church and world has remained. What has disappeared is the conviction that in this, that is, in the “unchosen” belonging to the Church, also that a certain divine favour, a heavenly redemption lies hidden. By which I think he meant, so called nominal Christians have neither an interest in nor any sense of grace. 

What he proposed back in 1958 is as pertinent today as it was then:

It must become clear that Sacraments without faith are meaningless, and the Church here will have to abandon gradually and with great care, a type of activity, which ultimately includes a form of self-deception, and deception of others. In this matter, the more the Church brings about a self-limitation, the distinction of what is really Christian and, if necessary, becomes a small flock, to this extent will she be able, in a realistic way, to reach the second level, that is, to see clearly that her duty is the proclamation of the Gospel.  

In short, resurgence will be a matter of depth before it becomes a matter of   expansion. He added to this the ideal that, naturally, among the faithful,

… gradually something like the brotherhood of communicants should once again be established who, because of their common participation in the Lord’s Table in their private life, feel and know that they are bound together. This is so that in times of need, they can count on each other, and they know they really are a family community. This family community, which the Protestants have, and which attracts many people to them, can and should be sought, more and more, among the true receivers of the Sacraments. The individual Christian will strive more earnestly for a brotherhood of Christians, and, at the same time, try to show his shared humanity, to unbelievers around him, in a truly human and deeply Christian way. 

In other words, it will become a resurgence of evangelisation, of mission, as well as of personal conviction and commitment of love. This, of course, echoes what Karl Adam wrote in The Son of God back in 1934 (Scepter Publishers, Princeton, N.J. 1992, p 14):

The third mark of Christianity is its sociological  form. Because the Man Jesus, the personified “ We ” of the redeemed, embraces in his Person the whole multitude of those needing redemption, Christianity is essentially a union of the members with their Head, a Holy Community, a Holy Body. There is no such thing as an isolated and solitary Christian, for there is no isolated and solitary Christ. This interior and invisible union of the members with the Head necessarily presses for an exterior unity equally close-knit. Hence Christianity in the world of time and space has existed always as an exterior unity, as a visible community, as a Church. Christianity has always demanded that its interior unity should be embodied and exhibited in an exterior unity. Christianity has ever been an ecclesiastical Christianity; it has never been anything else.  

 So, post-Corona will there be a resurgence? There will, but it will be so because resurgence is in the DNA of Christianity. Resurrection is something Christians profess and proclaim every time they attend Mass. But it will be a resurgence founded on more than the simple goodness and generosity, wonderful though that may be, of the thousands, hundreds of thousands indeed, now responding so heroically to the needs of their fellow-human beings in this Covid-crisis. 

The salvation of mankind is a divinely wrought-thing – with which everything that is human in us must cooperate. But without our recognition and acceptance of that divine intervention – and the sacramental signs it has gifted to us – Christianity has no meaning. Without this, our lives and our actions might for a time remain christian but they will not be Christian. 

The terms and conditions for a Christian resurgence are encompassed by the words and spirit of the collect prayer of the Mass of Divine Mercy Sunday: 

God of ever-living mercy, who, in the very recurrence of the paschal feast, kindle the faith of the people you have made your own, increase, we pray, the grace you have bestowed, that all may grasp and rightly understand in whose font they have been washed, by whose Spirit they have been reborn, through whose Blood they have been redeemed.

(This post was first published in the May edition of Position Papers)

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