Christians in the modern world: A story of conflict, engagement, and retreat

The Church has had a rocky relationship with the modern world, to say the least. It’s all the more difficult that contemporary culture arose largely in opposition to the Christian culture of the Middle Ages, putting the Church on the defensive. The Second Vatican Council sought to reset these relations through greater openness and dialogue, although in the decades following the Council, a wave of confusion swept over the Church. The Church opened her windows, following the intention of St. John XXIII, only to find smog in place of fresh air.  

Despite the opposition, the values of the modern world, like any heresy, have taken up good Christian principles and exaggerated them. Christianity teaches that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, granting them the ability to know the truth and the freedom to move toward it (or not as is often the case). Taking this reality to an extreme, modern culture asserts the absolute primacy of human freedom — the ability even to remake oneself in one’s own image and likeness. This turning away from the source of our life to assert one’s own desires has not made us any happier, although it has made life more convenient. Modern science has given us the power to think that we can control life and, of course, it has given us much for which we can be thankful.  

This conflicting legacy of the modern world — unhealthy freedom alongside of helpful scientific breakthroughs — comes out strongly in a recent book, Joseph Stuart’s Rethinking the Enlightenment: Faith in the Age of Reason (Sophia Institute Press 2020). Although Catholics can look back at the Enlightenment solely as a period of hostility to the Church, Stuart presents a more complex and nuanced portrait. He provides important positive examples of how Catholics contributed to certain elements of the Enlightenment project — advancing mathematics and anatomy, preserving art, arguing for religious liberty and advocating for the dignity of women. On the negative side, he tells the unfortunate story of how the alignment of throne and altar in the early-modern period of European history led to injustices toward non-Catholics that built up resentment toward the Church and gave impetus for revolutionary change.  

In portraying how Catholics and Christians responded to the ideas and culture of the Enlightenment, Stuart lays out three general categories: conflict, engagement, and retreat. In conflict, Catholics and enlighteners locked in a life and death struggle for supremacy in politics and culture. In engagement, Catholics, with the notable example of Benedictine monks, took up the ideas of the Enlightenment from a Catholic perspective. In retreat, Christians sought renewal by focusing on local community, especially the home, and religious revival. These types of engagement with the world are not new, of course, as even in the Bible we see the conflict of the Maccabees, Paul’s engagement of Greek thought, and Elijah’s retreat from Ahab and Jezebel.  

In fact, Stuart sees all three as essential in relating to the modern world: “There is a need for all three strategies. There was in the 18th century, and there is today. Conflict without engagement is senseless. Engagement without conflict is weak. Either strategy without retreat lacks wisdom. Retreat without conflict or engagement is stultifying” (351). Put differently, we cannot simply reject everything modern and try to destroy it. We also should not accept blindly everything modern and may need to reject certain aspects of it, even central aspects of its thinking and culture. We cannot simply remove ourselves from modern life, even as a certain distance will remain necessary to reflect, pray, and evangelize.  

The legacy of the Second Vatican Council in engaging and, over time, transforming modern culture has only really just begun. It is true that the last 60 years have been rocky and difficult for Christians to navigate. I found that Stuart’s book provided much food for thought and challenged my own assumptions on the life of Christians in the modern world. It is all too easy to blame the Enlightenment without thinking deeply of the failures of Catholics in the decline of Christian culture. We can be grateful for certain advances not only practically but also in understanding human dignity. The challenge for us as Christians today is not to simply reject or accept modern life. We are living within it no matter what, but the Church calls us to transform it from within, steering modern values back in the right direction. This is a long-term project of rebuilding that will require conflict, engagement, and retreat as we work toward a stronger Christian life in the modern world.  

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.

Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash