Of the real and the unreal

About four years ago, a then twenty-six year old Irish writer – now world famous, if reviews of your books in The New York Times and a host of other national and international media is enough to give you that reputation – made this remark in an interview: “So yeah, I don’t know. I like Christianity. I’m a fan of Jesus and his whole philosophy, but not the social teaching aspects of it, of course.” She has said more on the topic since, most of it in the same nonchalant vein, betraying the inherent but increasingly shallow links Irish people of her generation have with the Faith of their Fathers. It also betrays an abysmal ignorance of the essence of what that religion and its practice really are. 

Who this young writer is, or why she is famous, is irrelevant in the context of what follows. She is one of several million, indeed hundreds of millions, who have lost the plot of what it is to be Catholic and Christian. Modernity is a mixed blessing – which is a way of saying that it is a blessing and a curse. It’s malefaction is its destruction of the human race’s grasp of the essence of the real world, and our place in it, by its corruption of the religious sense.

The only way back from this confused state which has suffocated the faith of so many and particularly that of the generations since the 1960s, is an effective articulation of the truth about the catholic church, what it is in its essence, and what its mission is. Only then will intelligent young people be able to break away from the prejudices about Christ’s church with which everything from shallow practice down to heinous scandals has left them. Only then will a young person who can now talk about “the crushing power of the catholic church” – another young Irish writer – come out and separate the wheat from the weeds, defend and protect the institution founded by Christ for the salvation of mankind.

We cannot talk of this being a crisis. Crises are relatively short-lived. Just as epidemics become endemic, crises can turn into something more permanent that we have to live with, cope with and build our defences against. The phenomenon which produced the response we began with is older than the ’60s. In a book published one hundred years ago, Romano Guardini wrote of the sad consequences of the failures in understanding we are looking at here. Their origins do not lie in the early twentieth century, nor even in the liberalism of the nineteenth century. They go back to early modernity and the emergence of a new  consciousness of individuality. The failure to balance this consciousness with social and communal consciousness created a rift which we can follow as it developed down through the centuries to our own time.

He wrote of this in terms of the tension which he saw then, and we see now, between the church and the individual. He connected this with a broader tension between the community and the individual which also had its manifestation in relations between the church and the individual, thereby imperilling our understanding of the very essence of the church.

In the Middle Ages the objective reality of the church, like that of society in general, was directly experienced. The individual had been integrated into the social organism in which he or she freely developed a distinctive personality. At the Renaissance individuals attained a critical self-consciousness and asserted their own independence at the expense of the objective community. By doing so, however, they gradually lost sight of their profound dependence upon the entire social organism. 

Consequently, he argued, the modern person’s consciousness of his or her own personality, no longer closely bound up with the conscious life of the community, overshot a critical mark and detached itself from its living social context. In terms of their relationship with the church, individuals began to think of the church, with its claim to authority, as a power hostile to themselves. At the time in which Guardini was writing this, James Joyce was the literary world figure deeply affected by the malaise he was describing. 

The mission Guardini envisaged for the Christian then was to foment an understanding of the true relationship between the church and the individual. It must still be so, one hundred years later. It will always be so. 

To achieve this, he maintained, our conceptions of society and individual personality must once more be adequate. To get there to any degree, self-consciousness and the sense of life within community must again be brought into harmony, and in terms of religious faith the inherent interdependence of the church and the individual must again be accepted as a self-evident truth. 

For him, modern man needed to see how the church and the individual personality are mutually bound together, “how they live, the one by the other.” It was in this context and in this mutual relationship that we could only properly explain the justification of ecclesiastical authority. This could only be done if people freed themselves from “the partial philosophies of the age, such as individualism, state socialism, or communism.” In our age there is no shortage of partial philosophies competing to warp our understanding of reality. He put it this way:

Once more we must be wholeheartedly Catholic. Our thought and feeling must be determined by the essential nature of the Catholic position, must proceed from that direct insight into the center of reality which is the privilege of the genuine Catholic.  

We agonise today, we talk and write about the atomistic disintegration of our society, and the sad consequences of family break-up, loneliness and worse which it brings in its wake. One hundred years ago he talked and wrote about the individual personality “starving in frigid isolation” if it is cut off from the living community. Being cut off from the church was even worse. The richness of the life which union with the church gives to the individual is the only true fulfilment of life, a “precondition of their most individual and personal life”. The church must necessarily be intolerable to those who fail to see this in her, to those who view her only as a power which confronts them and which, far from having any share in their most intimate, vital purpose, actually threatens or represses it. This, sadly, is the view of many today, who have not heard or understood that she is something infinitely different from that.

A person’s living will cannot accept a church so conceived… But the individual whose eyes have been opened to the meaning of the church experiences a great and liberating joy, for such individuals see that it is the living presupposition of their personal existence, the essential path to their perfection. They are aware of profound solidarity between their personal being and the church, how the one lives by the other, and how the life of the one is the strength of the other.  

He concluded optimistically that the possibility of loving and living in the church in this way is not something remote: we can love the church by virtue of a supreme grace which may be ours today, and it is the grace which we need most. But for Christians to help make this happen in our time, what he wrote back in 1922 applies even more to 2022. It must be taken into account that men and women of the present generation cannot love the church merely because they were born of Catholic parents. 

With equal force he warned that it would be folly to think that the love we are looking for could be produced by the intoxication of oratory and mass meetings. Neither would vague sentiments give us that love. He said that the young generation of his time was too honest for that. Honesty may well be a virtue more found in the young than in those of a certain age, something as true today as it was a hundred years ago.

To neutralise the atomistic process in which we still seem locked, Guardini wrote: One thing only can avail: a clear insight into the nature and significance of the church. We must realize that, as Christians, our personality is achieved in proportion as we are more closely incorporated into the church and as the church lives in us. When we address her, we say with deep understanding not “thou” but “I”. 

If I have really grasped these truths, I shall no longer regard the church as a spiritual police force, but blood of my own blood, the life of whose abundance I live. I shall see it as the all-embracing kingdom of my God, and his kingdom in my soul as its living counterpart. Then will the church be my mother and my queen, the bride of Christ. Then can I love her! And only then can I find peace! We shall not be at peace with the church till we have reached the point at which we can…love it. Not till then…”