On 5 November 2005 our Institute organized with the Oxford Catholic Chaplaincy a study day on the New Evangelization. The keynote speech was by Javier Martinez, the Archbishop of Granada.
Christianity on the Defensive
A YouGov survey on the state of religion in Britain at the end of the last century, the results of which were widely reported in December 2004, showed that while 64% of respondents seemed to think they were still Christian, half of those went to church only for christenings, weddings, and funerals, and a third could neither name one of the Gospels nor bring themselves to affirm the Resurrection. Only 29% of so-called Christians had realized that the Millennium was supposed to mark the anniversary of the birth of Christ, 60% did not believe in Hell and 15% of Christians (according to the survey) did not believe in God.
The European Values Study 1999/2000 tells us that 21% of Europeans think religion is important, but only 15% attend religious services. In Ireland regular Mass attendance has fallen from 84% to less than 50% over the last ten years. There are few vocations to the priesthood or religious life. As we know, religious houses and seminaries all over Ireland and England are being closed, sold, or converted to other uses.
Christianity is on the defensive in Europe. The mainstream culture is aggressively secularist. Persecution by political correctness would be the next logical step. The mainstream culture is also fundamentally consumerist in nature, which means morally degenerate, since a culture obsessed with material acquisition, entertainment, and image is one that has little place for the hierarchy of values and the discernment of proper from improper ends. Most European Christians, having accepted the separation of sex from procreation via contraception, have increasingly unstable marriages and fewer children. Increasing pressures on the family and a declining birth-rate indicates a civilization in decline, and one that may be laying up for itself a major economic crisis in years to come.
Islam, on the other hand, is on the rise. This is partly due to immigration and partly to the higher birth-rate among the Muslim population. But there are also many instances of conversion to Islam which indicate the appeal to modern Europeans of a religion with clear beliefs and the will to reject both secularism and moral corruption. One popular argument among conservative Christians is that the rise of Islam and the decline of Christianity can be reversed only if Christians take a leaf out of the Muslimsí book (so to speak) and reassert their own traditional beliefs and values with greater confidence perhaps even more "aggressively" opting out from the mainstream culture and creating enclaves where its influence can be resisted.
The Roots of the Problem
Our study day on evangelization touched on the roots of the problem. Archbishop Javier Martinez of Granada traced them to Francisco Suarez (1548-1617), a Spanish Jesuit scholastic born in Granada. Others, including Louis Dupre (in The Passage to Modernity) have gone further back, attributing the decisive shift to the Nominalist philosophers of the fourteenth century such as William of Ockham, who rejected the "Moderate Realism" of Aquinas, Bonaventure and Duns Scotus (though Scotus himself comes under fire from the theologians associated with Radical Orthodoxy). Whoever is to blame, the essential point, as Archbishop Martinez emphasized, is that at some point between the fourteenth and seventeenth century it became conceptually convenient not merely to distinguish but to separate even to divorce nature from grace, natural from supernatural.
The French Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac has analysed the process in some detail. As scholastic philosophy became more systematic and rationalistic, less mystical and intuitive, it became convenient to divide human nature into two compartments that could be studied separately. We were created by God with a set of natural needs and yearnings. These could be fulfilled in this world. Only subsequently, it was assumed, had God called us to a supernatural destiny and made available to us the means to achieve that destiny (the sacraments of the Church). This supernatural end was the concern of theologians, while "natural man" remained the province of the emerging natural sciences.
This division of labour between science and theology came at a high price the price of falsifying the truth about human nature. In fact, as the Church Fathers and even St Thomas Aquinas (according to de Lubac) knew perfectly well, we have no natural end. We were made from the very beginning for one end alone, which is union with God. Not only is there no ultimate happiness for us in this world separately from the "other" supernatural world, but it is not even possible to understand humanity scientifically without taking the supernatural into account. A purely "natural" science is therefore doomed to frustration if it does not pursue its studies in close alliance with theology mediated by philosophy.
A recent Editorial in Touchstone by Thomas S. Buchanan (October 2005) puts this point succinctly, if rather bluntly. "The circular logic of modern science is designed to provide an explanation for how all the processes understood in biology, chemistry, and physics could have developed without God, not to seek the truth of how they actually happened."
The general acceptance of the nature/grace division, consolidated by philosophers such as Descartes, Hume, and Kant, laid the foundations of the European Enlightenment, and of secularism. It meant that people could safely leave questions concerning God and the supernatural to the theologians, as a kind of private hobby, while they themselves got on with the serious business of working out how the world worked. Since "knowledge is power" this meant getting on with the serious business of controlling it by means of technology. It, and us. That is to say, the ability to control nature, including human nature, soon meant the aspiration on the part of those who held the technological advantage to control those who did not (as C. S. Lewis pointed out in his essay The Abolition of Man).
Religion, as the province of the supernatural, could be privatized as a lifestyle accessory, the Church could be definitively separated from the State and even excluded from the public square, and eventually religious persecution would be justified by the new secular world order on the grounds that all religious convictions, if they cannot be reduced to the status of consumables themselves, threaten the freedom of the market.
The Christian Response
Christians are in a pickle, and no mistake. To live in England is to know that Christianity now flourishes only in small pockets and networks. The handing-on of the faith from mother to child, generation after generation, is a wonderful thing. But it is simply not going to happen the way it used to, in a world where the electronic media insert themselves between mother and child within the home itself. Before the faith has time to set down its roots in the soul, a new culture has already colonized that soul, with alternative values, aspirations, and heroes.
Having understood this, there are many ways to take action. But the most effective way in the long run will not be a more aggressive reassertion of Christian values, however tempting (and even necessary) such assertiveness may be. The most effective response is to tackle the problem at its root, which implies an intellectual apostolate. The assumptions of the Enlightenment have to be overturned. Or rather, the lessons of the Enlightenment have to be learned. For these two statements do not mean the same. The Enlightenment cannot simply be destroyed and our philosophers transported back to the thirteenth century. The Enlightenment happened for a reason, and that reason was partly a set of weaknesses in the preceding scholastic philosophy.
That is why Archbishop Martinez spoke against the over-reliance on plans and strategies for evangelization. The way to evangelize, he said, was simply to love. That is, to reconstitute a worldview, a culture, a civilization from the ground up starting with the fundamental Christian experience the encounter with Jesus Christ, God incarnate, the source and enabler of human love. The intellectual apostolate that will transform our modern philosophies is not the kind of rationalism that deduces everything from a few key ideas, but an intellectualism that thinks with the heart as the Church Fathers and great saints did. All human philosophies can be assimilated, understood, and converted by use of that single crucible.
This is not emotionalism. If it sounds that way, it is because we have accepted the modern divorce between feelings and thoughts. Thinking with the heart can be as rigorous and precise a process as thinking with the head. In fact, with all the human faculties in play, the heartís thinking can be more balanced and more discerning than anything the head alone is capable of. This great need of our time for a reintegration of head and heart is presumably the reason the Holy Spirit has given us Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI to lead the way in the post-conciliar period both masters of philosophical discourse and familiar with the currents of modern thought. (The encyclical of John Paul II on philosophy, Fides et Ratio, was one of the most important of his pontificate.)
As many are now beginning to realize, John Paul IIís extended catechesis on the theology of the body was a stunning example of creative synthesis, involving biblical exegesis, anthropology and psychology in equal measure, demonstrating a method that can be applied to other disciplines too, whilst deepening the Churchís understanding of human bodiliness, sexuality, and freedom. In this work, which has been taken up and developed further by the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and the Family, some of the deepest human needs and the underlying challenges of our age are addressed. That is why we plan to devote our next study day to the theology of the body, further unpacking the legacy of this great Pope according the intentions of his successor.