|President Eisenhower meeting Pope John XXIII|
What has caused this slide into the post-Christian West? First of all, it probably wasn’t quite as sudden as the preacher claimed. Its roots can be found in the rationalism of the scholastics, in the nominalism of William of Ockham, in the Reformation’s challenge to Church authority, certainly in the Enlightenment, in the French Revolution’s ending the alliance of “Throne and Altar,” in the anti-clericalism of 19th century Freemasonry, in the nihilism of Nietzsche, and the materialism of Marx. There are no sharp curves in history—or at least very few of them. But still, for those of us old enough to have lived through the Eisenhower years, there is a very different tone in America today and it is troubling to those of us who feel alienated from the cultural mainstream because we hold on to our Christian faith not simply as private devotion but as a set of practical teachings which we believe that are individually and collectively in our best interest as a society.
Some put all the blame on the Second Vatican Council and claim that the Church itself has abandoned its traditional values, but in fact it is not Catholicism that has lost its influence, but Christianity. Religious groups, and particularly so-called “Evangelicals” who experienced nothing at all like the Council and its revision of teaching and practice, are as culturally alienated as are the most committed Catholics. The cultural attempts to push religion out of the public square are not limited to Catholics—or, for that matter, Christians. Muslims and religious Jews find it no easier in America today to fit in culturally. The ascendant culture is a type of secularism that does not treat the various religions as on a level field—it is a rabid secularism that wants to sweep all religion from the public square.
When one recalls the role that religion, and especially Christianity, played in the Civil Rights movement and has played in the peace movement, the loss of the religious voice in the public square would not only be unfortunate, it could be dangerous. Admittedly Catholicism was late in coming to both movements—and admittedly mainline Christianity did not have a mitigating influence on the introduction and maintenance of slavery into this country, but you can tell neither story of the Civil Rights Movement nor of the Peace Movement without talking about Christianity and Christians.
I think Christians need to take a long serious look at the compromises we have made with what is termed “liberal” society and ask ourselves if we really want to go down in complacent acquiescence with this ethically bankrupt culture that has taken over our lives. On the other hand, to hold on to the shreds of Eisenhower’s America is no way to go morally. The “Christian” America of Eisenhower years allowed for racism; it allowed for sexual violence within the family, the military, and even the Church; it allowed for glass-ceilings that prevented women from rising in the professions; it caricatured Jews; it limited the opportunities for Latinos, Blacks, and immigrants. Men were held to different (and lower) moral standards than women. Justice was not equal for all. Lives and careers were destroyed by rumors and blacklists that had nothing more for basis than rumor or revenge.
If we want to re-introduce Christianity to the predominant culture in our society we are going to have to take a radical re-look at many of the ideas we take for granted. We are going to have to develop an authentically Christian feminism and this has to go way beyond the pious prattle that a women’s highest vocation is motherhood. We are going to have to critically reexamine how we can stay faithful to our understanding of human sexuality and yet not foster discrimination, much less violence, against those whose gender identity doesn’t fit our concepts. We are going to have to look at marriage and family in far more complex ways than we have looked in the past. We are going to have to evolve a theology of the human person that doesn’t incorporate cookie-cutter “givens.” In other words, if Christianity is going to influence our culture in the future, it will have to be a very different Christianity than that of a generation ago. This doesn’t mean it will forget its Tradition, but that it will see Tradition as a living, therefore evolving, reality.
Perhaps the key to this new Christianity that is needed if we are not to be swept off the stage of public life is found in the thought of Avery Dulles. In his book The Catholicity of the Church Dulles asserted that the first thousand years of the papacy was about evangelizing; the second thousand about power; and the third thousand will be about service. We are on that tectonic plate—it is time to shift from the power model to the service model. While Dulles explicitly speaks of the papal office, I think it about the Church as a whole. If we want to be players in the next thousand years, we must become the servants of all. Actually, I think Jesus said something to that effect.