Each year, it seems the “Holiday Season” becomes more of a Rorschach test of the anxieties and concerns of our cultural moment.
This year, the big controversy is over the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which has been censored by some radio stations in this era of #MeToo. Admittedly, the song sounds a bit creepy in 2018, Dean Martin’s smooth voice notwithstanding. One gathers that the couple in the duet is not married – so why exactly is he so insistent that she stay?
Whatever one’s opinion of the song, this whole episode speaks to our larger bout of cultural anxiety. The song is entirely secular. It is not the product of a great composer, a rich folk tradition, or worshippers of God. It emerged from the clouds of mid-20th century Showbiz. Yet now it has come under fire from a different wing of secularism – a more moralizing version, but one in which the first commandment is not “love the Lord your God,” but “consent is king.”
In a similar way, President Trump – with his three marriages, shady business dealings, and self-marketing prowess – is the embodiment of a certain brand of secularism. And yet his most vocal criticism comes not – perhaps surprisingly – from people of faith, but from a different kind of secularist: the feminist, globalist, moralizing version.
The benefit for Christians is that the curtain is rapidly being pulled back from our “Holiday Season,” and from our culture more generally. More and more, Christians are being made to understand that their solemn feast is nothing more than a vehicle to help drive the economic engine.
Christians has been stiff-armed out of the Christmas wars. The skirmishes are now being fought in Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and Washington between people who largely could not care less about Bethlehem, Magi, or the salvation of souls.
The sad fact is that much of this secularizing trend – which is nothing new – has decimated the inside of the Church in the United States. As of the latest statistics, fully 13 percent of the American populace are former Catholics. That’s over 30 million people who used to sit in our pews as children on Christmas – gone, no longer even considering themselves Catholic. And that doesn’t include the fact that many of those who still consider themselves Catholic only come to church for Christmas and weddings.
As the various secular groups fight, Catholics have a different battle to wage – one for the hearts and souls of their own brothers and sisters who have walked away.
As much of this responsibility for this decline lies here in our parishes and schools, we Catholics – especially members of the clergy – should pray deeply this Christmas for those who aren’t with us. At the same time, we must not lose sight of the seeds of renewal present in our midst. These will be the instruments of the new evangelization as we seek to win back our own people.
The early Church – even before she had any power – had a political side, insofar as living as a Christian involved making some public decisions. What might seem to us like a small thing – whether or not to offer incense to the image of Zeus – was for the first Christians a matter of eternal significance. Saying yes to the Son of God born in a manger meant saying no to the old gods, to the political cult of the emperor, and to the slavery of living according to the pagan ways of immorality.
Yet while these were “political decisions” insofar as they took place in the public square, these matters were first and foremost about living according to the truth of the Gospel. In other words, the Church’s mandate is religious, not political. Its goal is the salvation of souls, not winning the news cycle.
This Christmas, we can let the powers of our age fight their battles without us. We can – we must – focus instead on renewal of the Church’s life in every way, both for the sake of the faithful and for the sake of those who have walked. The warmth of Christ’s love broke through the dark night of the first century, far from the self-aggrandizing gaze of the emperor and tetrarchs. May it break through into our hearts anew, so that we might share it with others. Because while the Church is always in need of renewal, the world outside is cold, baby.
Father Eric J. Banecker is parochial vicar at St. Pius X Parish in Broomall.
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Realistically, the Catholic Church has little opportunity to recoup those 30 million people in this generation, as sex abuse scandals have only been fully reported in a few states. These people might find mainstream Protestanism as they age. But we may have 45 more state attorneys general that we will hear from on sex abuse. The best bet is for the church to do a complete introspection, establish a plan and execute it. (I don’t pretend to know what that plan would be). And then hope that people 2 generations from now are still asking themselves spiritual questions.
“[W]e must not lose sight of the seeds of renewal present in our midst.” Yes, perhaps the article would be more effective if it focused on those seeds rather than the bogeyman of secularism. Slamming the culture is easy; proclaiming the gospel in an intelligent, loving, and compelling way is not. In my experience, when priests do the latter, people fill the pews. Equally important, they then go forth into our wounded world to love it as God does. If Catholics aren’t doing that, it’s not the world’s fault.
The victory of Christ on the cross was permanent, decisive and irreversible. Salvation is at hand is the message of this season. We living today are on the other side of the great divide. Feminism, globalism, secularism, scientism, however you want to characterize the illusionary opposition to the Christian message are all powerless to undo the salvific act.
Anyone, bishop, priest or laity, who portrays the world as the battle field of an ongoing struggle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light, is guilty of the heresy of Manicheism. We are not Zoroastrians: the world is not the scene of a struggle between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu with humans fighting a proxy war prior to a decisive battle at the End Times. Satan was vanquished. We living today live in the Kingdom of God, not in its fullness, which is to come, but still in a time in which we are called to rejoice at the victory of Christ. Not to be fearful, anxious, or dismayed, tallying daily events to see whether our side is winning.
Christ won. And the triumph was his alone. Human effort is not required to preserve the victory. What is required is to live as Christ instructed us to live. Politicking, lobbying, messaging, meme-creating and the whole panoply of media manipulation are not the purpose of the Church. The Christ-ordained purpose is much simpler, but much harder, the imitation of Christ in our daily lives. Anyone saying anything else has not heard the Gospel. It’s all “Good News” and it’s not fake.
Fr. Eric, thank you so much for this. I very much appreciate the way you located controversy about the song and about Trump as anxieties within secularism itself; it’s good to be reminded that secular culture isn’t monolithic and suffers from its own incoherence and anxiety, and to understand our cultural moment with clarity. And “amen” to the call to renew the Church by renewing our commitment to Christ first and foremost.
(And for the record, the other commentator “CR” is not this CR!)
Father’s heart is in the right place; however, he’s missing the center of so many of the problems related to secularism ravaging the Church: the secular decimation of a fervent devout clergy, and liturgy. While we can argue about whether or not presidents’ behaviors or moralizing secularists outside the Church wreak havoc on the Church’s believers, whose fault is the loss of faith of so many of the once faithful? First and foremost, it is the fault of the believers who allowed malaise to overtake their belief; secondly and perhaps on an equal footing, I believe the clergy are responsible. The lack of overt devotion to the hard Truths of the Deposit of Faith in so many public and sadly, private, ways, for some of them has disillusioned the public and especially Catholic faithful. Importantly, and often given less attention by mainstream Catholics, is the trivialization of the liturgy in the last half century. Whether it is banal music, the over-presence of women in ministries (where are the men?) such as altar serving, and ardent aversion to anything related to the Church’s patrimony on the part of so many priests, the liturgy has been damaged in many parishes and cathedrals, void of reverence and a sense of the supernatural. “Lex orandi, lex credendi”: roughly meaning, the law of what must be prayed shapes the law of what must be believed. How do we pray? What do we believe as reflected in those prayers? If the Mass is the summit of all prayer, as the Church teaches, what better measure of our human weaknesses when so many Masses reflect liturgical laziness and preaching that fails to catechize those in the pews. It’s still the One True Church, but let’s get to work and admit ways we’ve failed so we can more widely re-embrace the transcendent and get back to the hard work of being a cultural and moral force for the world.
… what CR said … 100% … AMEN!
CR I liked your comment. Unless the Clergy become more faithful in all things how can the lukewarm laity or others become faithful.