Sunday, October 6, 2013
Suppose we discover an advanced human civilization on another planet marked by a great divide between economic and educational classes but suffering at both ends of the spectrum from a quiet desperation caused by a gnawing emptiness and hunger that grows continually deeper despite continuous consumption of everything from the latest technology to cheap and often vulgar entertainments to food to sex. An almost endless array of choices faces members of this society with no concrete criteria by which to choose among goods. Loneliness abounds. This civilization’s mythical religious traditions of the past no longer provide meaning and guidance in their lives. Although “reason” had always had a tough time supplanting the impulse of arbitrary power, “power” now reigns supreme in the face of collapse of faith in reason. The family structure is fractured as are the political structures. Social bonds have become completely untethered. In this “civilization” many employers view workers as disposable means to the end of production and the fetus in the womb is often viewed as a disposable by-product of sexual autonomy.
As we begin a natural process of interacting with these neighbors, Pope Francis encourages missionary orders to proclaim the Gospel to this newly discovered civilization. How to bring Christ to this particular world with its myriad problems and dysfunctions? As the missionaries discern how to preach the Gospel to this particular people at this particular time, they begin to realize the daunting nature of the task. But, they have a powerful ally – the law written on the heart - on their side. Even if the people of this planet deny it, these missionaries know and trust that the natural law resides deep within each person. Following the tried and true method of Alcoholics Anonymous, and risking the label relativist, the missionaries will take the people of this civilization and their consciences as they are, trusting that with this starting place, these consciences will develop to conform to the objective truth as their world is re-enchanted with the message of a God of mercy; a God who is Love – who loves so much that He sent His only Son to be one with them and to suffer and die for them.
The missionaries know that to be successful they must live the Gospel and literally become Christ for these people. As hope comes to this lost people, the missionaries know that they will be open to hearing about the authentic freedom and happiness that comes from living according to God’s design. Although it will happen in fits and starts (after all, how many centuries did it take for the Christian West to root out the evil of slavery?), license – the false freedom of choice – leading to emptiness and despair will be replaced with living a moral life. For these people who breathe the narcissistic air of their culture, the saving hope of Christ must precede the Church’s moral teaching just as the adulteress experienced the loving gaze of and act of mercy from Christ BEFORE He tells her to go and sin no more.
This alien world is our world, or at least I suspect that Pope Francis thinks so. Despite the multiple signs to the contrary, many of us live, breathe, and operate as if this post-Christian civilization can be re-Christianized from within by re-membering our Christian, including moral, heritage. Pope Francis, I suspect, thinks we are wrong. He thinks that that this iteration of Western Civilization – the civilization that emerged from the ashes of the Roman Empire – is dead. We may not see it yet, but the dual projects of Reformation and Enlightenment, which have taken root over the last 500 years with the accompanying divorce of faith and reason and ultimate collapse of both, have run their course effectively destroying this iteration of Western Civilization.
Vatican II prepared us to respond to this reality, but we needed 50 more years or so to make clear that the Church was not changing its fundamental teachings before we could begin to proclaim the Gospel to this alien civilization in which we live. As this iteration of Western civilization dies and a new one rises from the ashes, we can rest assured that Christ will not abandon the Church. Come Holy Spirit!