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Considering the Signs of the Time
In 1947, Archbishop Fulton Sheen declared “Christendom is dead,” and Pope Francis recently told curia staffers “Christendom no longer exists.” If the Church is going to engage effectively with the wider society in 2021 and beyond, we need to move from a Christendom mode to Apostolic Mission.
Brett Powell - “The end of Christendom: 3 critical ways to shift to Apostolic Mission” - The B.C. Catholic
Consistency for Consistency’s sake
There seems to be an inclination to maintain various transient disciplines and structures within the Church (maintenance) that are no longer relevant. I wonder if a reflection on a modern philosophy might help us understand why we might be tempted to think this way. Immanuel Kant adopted David Hume’s hyperbolic doubt in regard to the nature of things - which has led to a type of adoption of consistency for consistency’s sake. This movement of thinking often influenced schools of philosophy to disregard the Natural Law without much thought. Aquinas, who is a strong defender and developer of the Natural Law was also considered a “soft objectivist.” What that means is the Natural Law was not a rigid moral system, but something that involved a great deal of nuance to explain. I’d suggest that David Hume’s argument, adopted by Kant, has led to a very rigid approach to morality - seeking consistency as though it were the same as integrity. In this sense rigidity is modernism, not Traditionalism.
Immanuel Kant was in part concerned, however, with the ethical problems that arise from such hyperbolic doubt. Therefore he developed his own system of ethics, whereby one must develop a “universal maxim” for any given action in a particular circumstance. Simply put, when faced with a situation, we cannot look to the nature or teleology (purpose) of something, but simply must do what one ought to do as they would do if the same situation occurred at another time.
A slight variation of this philosophy has popped up within our culture and dare I say, the people of the Church, where we are looking for consistency in an excessive unnuanced way. How frequently do we witness accusations of hypocrisy for an act that contradicts a person’s universal maxim. For instance, if a government leader is against the liberal proliferation of guns, yet has employed government officials with guns, “He is a hypocrite.”
This is bad discernment. But as a Canadian I’m not really going to weigh on that particular debate - rather I’d like to shift to an example that might be a bit easier to relate to: driving. If you are on the highway, driving the speed-limit, then you are abiding by a good law. But if all of a sudden a tornado forms behind you and you continue to drive the speed limit for the sake of “consistency” there is something wrong with your thinking. Aquinas would in short simply say a secondary principle would be suspended since that law gets its force from the context which it was written in - which is to preserve life, assuming Tornados aren’t near you. When secondary laws become a rigid matter of adherence and do not admit of circumstances and variables - that is modernism - the modernism of Kant.
A Reasonable Ethic
The Church has long held that there are three parts to a moral act - nature of the act (object/means), intention (purpose of the act/end), and the circumstances (where/when/context). With Kant, however, there seems to be a narrow focus on the circumstances and means, but the purpose or intent of the action is altogether unimportant. Even the means isn’t understood in regard to nature - its understood in an extrinsic way - in terms of an external act without form (nature). Our culture seems to either emphasize circumstances too much or not enough depending on the political agenda - and people are easily duped by both absurdities.
The only time we are to disregard circumstances (in a sense) is when the act (means) is “intrinsically evil.” That is to say, there is never a right time, place or context to murder an innocent person or break any of the 10 Commandments. Positive precepts (i.e. this act is good, do this) however are not universal maxims - there are circumstances when they do not apply. For example “evangelize” but also remember to “sleep".
The New Circumstances of the Church
Why do I bring all of this up? As Catholics, we need to be discerning - we cannot use the phrase “It’s always been done this way” without perhaps appealing to a modernist attitude. The Church has, if you will, a tornado coming up from behind her (this is a time of crisis, and a time of opportunity). The speed limit (various human-traditions and disciplines) made sense in a different circumstance. But the Church has to shift gears and discern the “signs of the times.” We are no longer in a period of Christendom. Christendom is dead and trying to give her CPR decades into her death is gross, unproductive and unhelpful. We can mourn her death, but we also have to get on with it and not fall into the idolatry of nostalgia.
Since the Easter Season began, we have had rich readings from the Acts of the Apostles. The zeal, sufferings, and joy that the apostles and disciples of the Lord are teachable moments for us today. They need to thrust us out of resenting a world that is changing and demoralizing it to return to the pews. We stay in our Church buildings and lament, but do we go out - are we “sent” as the term “mass” indicates?
The call to Evangelize today means that we are not relying upon the culture to beget the faith by way of osmosis - nor are we centered on founding programs in the parish that will resolve all our problems. Rather, all the baptized need to shift in their understanding of their responsibility to herald the Gospel. Its a responsibility we’ve always had, but was largely diminished by a reliance on past structures that are now irrelevant, and dead. Let’s bury Christendom - and champion the Apostolic Era.