This loss of the sense of faith is the deep root of the crisis of civilization that we are experiencing. As in the first centuries of Christianity, when the Roman Empire was collapsing, all human institutions today seem to be on the path of decadence. Relations between people, whether political, social, economic, or cultural, are becoming difficult. In losing the sense of God, we have undermined the foundation of all human civilization and opened the door to totalitarian barbarity.
─ Cardinal Robert Sarah, The Day is Now Far Spent
A recent poll found that 62% of Americans have political views that they are afraid to express publicly because others might find them “offensive.” This is up from 58% in 2017. This poll adds to a growing body of evidence confirming what many of us began to suspect years ago – that civil discourse is breaking down.
People, it seems, are growing ever further apart. In many cases, conversation based upon common shared principles, and a basic sense of respect for the other, is no longer possible, or even desired. Respectful conversation is instead replaced with blind ideological dogmatism, a priori vilification of those with whom one disagrees, and – increasingly – violence.
This growing dearth of civility is omnipresent on social media, where people of all ideological stripes seem to delight in hurling abuse at one another. However, it is most manifest on our streets. For months now, our screens have been filled with videos of “protesters” burning and looting. In some cases, the videos look like nothing less than civil war, with people literally shooting at one another as buildings burn in the background.
In an extraordinary example of the normalization of this social breakdown, last week National Public Radio (NPR) published a laudatory interview with the author of a book entitled (if you can believe it) In Defense of Looting. The author told NPR that looting, “provides people with an imaginative sense of freedom and pleasure and helps them imagine a world that could be. And I think that’s a part of it that doesn’t really get talked about – that riots and looting are experienced as sort of joyous and liberatory.”
One can only wonder how the owners of the businesses that have been looted and burned to the ground – in some cases only after the owners were beaten senseless – feel about this “joyous” and “liberatory” side of looting. As one author wrote sarcastically in The Atlantic, “If the real, lasting change you wish to effect is burning society to cinders, then perhaps looting is the right tool.”
So Much for the ‘New Enlightenment’
In the final chapter of his bombastic anti-religion screed, God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens painted an idyllic picture of what would happen if religion were to finally be supplanted by the reign of reason. There is, wrote Hitchens, a “confrontation between faith and civilization.” In order to ensure the triumph of civilization, what is needed is a “new enlightenment” that will topple faith.
By many accounts we have already experienced – or are in the midst of – this new enlightenment. Poll after poll shows that fewer and fewer people are identifying as religious. Atheistic secularism is ascendant. In many places – e.g. our universities and newspapers – it is the norm. And yet, one wonders, where is the new flowering of civilization that Hitchens promised us?
In an extraordinary passage in his recent book, The Day is Now Far Spent, Cardinal Sarah argues that, contrary to the claims of atheists, religious worship, far from harming society, is in fact the necessary precondition for civilization. In Europe, the cardinal notes, cities were literally built around the altar, “huddled around the church that protects them.” Christian civilization, he says, “is born from the altar as from its source.”
“The sense of the sacred is indeed the heart of all human civilization,” Cardinal Sarah added. “The presence of a sacred reality gives rise to sentiments of respect, gestures of veneration. Religious rites are the mold that shapes all attitudes of human politeness and courtesy. Indeed, if every person is respectable, it is fundamentally because he is made in the image and likeness of God.”
Militant atheists like Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are scandalized by the fact that religious differences and religious fundamentalism have sometimes caused terrible violence. From this, they then conclude that religion is the source of most, or even all conflict. This is a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Worship Humanizes and Civilizes Man
You would think that the bloody history of the 20th century, especially the horrors perpetrated by the atheistic communist regimes, would have convinced them that if you expunge religion, the result is not some new flowering of reason, but more often than not the unharnessing of man’s base and fallen animal nature.
Worship of the Creator, on the other hand, turns out to be the most humanizing of all activities. As Cardinal Sarah eloquently puts it: “Adoration is the greatest mark of man’s nobility. It is an acknowledgment of the benevolent closeness of God and the human expression of man’s astonishing intimacy with God. Man remains prostrate, literally crushed by the immense love that God has for him. To adore is to let oneself be burned by the divine love.”
Worship puts a man in touch with that part of his nature that is most like his Creator and cultivates that part by calling down upon it the stimulating rain of God’s grace. It reminds him, too, that each of his fellow human beings shares in this likeness to God. In the light of right worship, it is no longer possible to see one’s neighbor as a rival; instead, he is a fellow god (small g), with a profound dignity and value, worthy of being loved.
“Man’s dignity,” writes Cardinal Sarah,
is an echo of God’s transcendence. But if we no longer tremble with a joyful, reverential fear before the greatness of God, how can man be for us a mystery worthy of respect? He no longer has this divine nobility. He becomes a piece of merchandise, a laboratory specimen. Without the sense of the adoration of God, human relations become tinged with vulgarity and aggressiveness. The more deference we show to God at the altar, the more tactful and courageous we will be toward our brethren.
The Culture of Death and the Breakdown of Civilization
Pope St. John Paul II, much like Cardinal Sarah, recognized that the fight against the culture of death, and for what he called a “civilization of love”, is primarily a spiritual battle.
At the heart of so many of the worst evils of the culture of death – abortion, embryonic stem cell research, inhumane reproductive technologies with their eugenic undertones, and euthanasia and assisted suicide – is this treatment of humans as merchandise and specimens to be manipulated in a laboratory, instead of immortal beings made in the likeness of the almighty God. The inevitable result is, as Cardinal Sarah warned, the sea of vulgarity and aggression in which we are increasingly immersed.
We are seeing and experiencing what happens when Truth – as Pope St. John Paul II taught in Veritatis Splendor – is rejected and replaced with relativistic values and the “godlike” elevation of human freedoms. Reason is replaced with emotion, which easily shifts like the wind and is manipulated like clay. Objective truth no longer exists. People no longer hear or see. They are deaf and blind. The common good and solidarity are replaced with individual and self-consuming motivations. “Who is my neighbor?” is unanswerable, because the only person we see is “me.”
What we are seeing is what happens when the true Good is rejected. There is no civility, but chaos and insanity. Human life has no value. Every life is threatened under this mindset.
Enter the Battle Strengthened by Prayer
In the face of this madness, it is understandable – indeed praiseworthy – that we often feel called to do something about the evils we witness – to combat them through action. Cardinal Sarah, however, reminds us that first and foremost we are witnessing a spiritual problem, and that action not rooted in prayer is worthless.
In The Day is Now Far Spent, the cardinal quotes this passage from St. John of the Cross:
Let those, then, who are singularly active, who think they can win the world with their preaching and exterior works, observe here that they would profit the Church and please God much more, not to mention the good example they would give, were they to spend at least half of this time with God in prayer… They would then certainly accomplish more, and with less labor, by one work than they otherwise would by a thousand. For through their prayer they would merit this result, and themselves be spiritually strengthened. Without prayer they would do a great deal of hammering but accomplish little, and sometimes nothing, and even at times cause harm. God forbid that the salt should begin to lose its savor. However much they may appear to achieve externally, they will in substance be accomplishing nothing; it is beyond doubt that good works can be performed only by the power of God.
As disciples of the Lord Jesus and pro-lifers, we must anchor ourselves in the mind and heart of Christ. Our call is to detach from the noise that wishes to engulf us. Then, filled with Him – and Him alone – we can go forth to fight the good fight. Evil would have us cower from the battle or enter the battle ill-prepared so as to be overwhelmed. But when the Lord fills the cup, all is possible.
What makes the pro-life and family movement fruitful, with the ability to transform culture, is its radical vision of the human person, of the family, and of neighbor. This vision, grounded in Christ, is what makes the transformation possible. Without Him there is nothing.
In these unsettling and uncertain times, let us turn to the Lord with an intense desire to deepen our prayer lives. Let us draw near to Him in Eucharistic Adoration, in greater devotion to the Holy Mass, by reflecting on the mysteries of our salvation in Christ through daily recitation of the Rosary, in practicing Lectio Divina by reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating Sacred Scripture, by studying the lives of the saints and learning from their example, by performing acts of sacrifice and charity, and by receiving the Sacrament of Penance frequently. By civilizing our own unruly hearts, exposing them to the burning love of the Father, we will be empowered to bring true, lasting peace into the world around us – cultivating and building a true “Civilization of Love.”