How we got where we are, and the value of the past
“The failure of medieval Christendom was not a function of the demonstrated or demonstrable falsity of central doctrinal truth claims of the Christian faith … It was, at root, a botching of moral execution, a failure to practice what was preached.” – Brad Gregory, “The Unintended Reformation”
“We are waiting, not for another political savior or television personality, but for a Dominic or a Francis, an Ignatius or a Wesley, a Wilberforce or a Newman, a Bonhoeffer or a Solzhenitsyn. Only sanctity can justify Christianity’s existence; only sanctity can make the case for faith; only sanctity, or the hope thereof, can ultimately redeem the world.” – Ross Douthat, “Bad Religion”
In early September, the Gallup Organization found that 60 percent of Americans – a record high — have little or no trust in the mass media’s ability “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly.” The sharpest decline in trust occurred among political independents, the least partisan American voters.
This isn’t much of a surprise. Media coverage of religion, for example, has been eroding in both quality and fairness for years, as tracked by excellent web sites like getreligion.org. But the shift to social advocacy and the decay of professional standards have hurt the credibility of journalism on a whole range of issues. For Gallup, the trend “poses a challenge to democracy and to creating a fully engaged citizenry.”
Why should this matter for Catholics? Two reasons.
First, especially in an election year, we need to bring a healthy dose of skepticism to what we read in The New York Times or Newsweek magazine. We need to do the same in watching CNN, Fox or MSNBC. On disputed moral and social issues, none of these press organizations is, on its own, an adequate source of good information. Each has its biases. And too often those biases include a disdain for Catholic belief.
Second, today’s news media are, in a sense, victims of their own urgency; crippled by their appetite for the next breaking story. But we can’t understand the present climate in our country without understanding the past. Politics is important. How we vote in November will help choose the course of our nation, for good or ill.
But as Christians, our story began long before this campaign season. It will continue long after. Our task is to reform our own lives even as we witness Jesus Christ to the world — not just by our words, but by our actions. We can’t do that alone, as freelancers. Catholic discipleship is a life in community, the community we know as the Church, guided by her teachings.
Over the past few months, two books have left a deep impression on how I see the world we Christians today are called to evangelize. Each illuminates the present through the lens of the past.
The first (Bad Religion), by columnist Ross Douthat, traces the course of Christianity in American history especially since World War II. “While the United States remains a deeply religious country,” Douthat writes, real Christian faith has gradually been displaced by forms of spirituality tailored to personal convenience, with devastating results.
The second (The Unintended Reformation), by historian Brad Gregory, follows the step-by-step growth of today’s aggressive unbelief and moral confusion from the breakup of Christian unity in the Protestant-Catholic struggles of the early modern era.
Neither book is anything like a voter’s guide. Neither is “political” in any practical sense. But for any reader who wants to understand how we got to the conflicted moral landscape of the world we now inhabit, these two extraordinary books are a great place to start. In helping to explain the present, they help us see the kind of Christian charity and witness we need to shape the future. That makes them invaluable.
Ross Douthat, “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” Free Press, New York, 2012; and Brad S. Gregory, “The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society,” Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2012.