The Great Chasm

The vast chasm between the modern world and the Catholic Faith is striking. There are three things which underpin Catholic culture but which the modern world finds intolerable:

1. Religious authority. Modern man likes to imagine himself a totally independent and autonomous being. What he calls his “conscience” is absolutely supreme, and if he is “spiritual”, he recognizes no religious authority higher than himself. “I’m spiritual, not religious”. “I don’t believe in organized religion.” Although he may go to church, he does so because he happens to agree with his church, not because his church has authority to teach him anything. And when he ceases to agree with his church, he simply takes up with another. (He treats marriage in much the same way.) Catholicism’s reliance upon the teaching authority instituted by Christ is therefore repugnant to him.

2. Absolute truth. The modern world is essentially relativist. It does not accept the idea of a thing being objectively true to the exclusion of other “truths” – especially when it comes to moral or spiritual things. It does not understand that an act can be morally good or evil in itself, without regard to circumstances. The Church’s absolute ban on contraception, for example, is hard for moderns to take. The same goes for divorce. What about this situation? And that? And the other one? Shouldn’t contraception then be justified? Isn’t divorce the lesser of evils?

I know of a young couple who have two children, each born with a fatal genetic disorder. If they have another child, it is likely that the next one will also have this same disease. What are they to do? They cannot divorce and find a better genetic match for themselves. They cannot practice contraception. The answer is nothing short of heroic virtue, a taking up of the Cross. They are called to stay married, no matter the hardships. They might be called to have more children with the same kinds of problems. Alternatively, they may be called – and this is what is really intolerable to moderns – to a lifetime of marital celibacy, or at least sexual restraint. There is no soft and comfortable answer. It is all the Cross … or so it seems to a world blind to the joys of obedience, ignorant of the freedom that comes only with living the Truth.

3. Miracles and supernaturalism. I’m not a Spirit Daily kind of Catholic, but there can be no doubt that the Catholic faith is both rational and mystical. The world sees a contradiction here. How can a religion which is so intractable in its insistence on earthly authority, and so relentlessly consistent in its theological and moral teaching, be the same religion that embraces miracles and signs and wonders which seem so … wild and personal and individualistic? Isn’t it afraid of the supernatural undermining the natural? Ah, but it is all of a piece! This dichotomy of the natural and the supernatural is rooted in a proper distinction, but the modern world takes it too far, compartmentalizing each, so that one may have nothing to do with the other. Yet the fact is that each depends upon the other. There would be no “nature” without the supernatural events that brought it into existence and keep it going. And there would be no miracles apart from the backdrop of nature.

Rather than being a threat to Catholic dogma, authentic mysticism is instead a threat to modern ideas of individualism and autonomy. If such things are real, then God might be real too – and much too close for comfort. As a Protestant, it was once explained to me that Protestants shy away from the Blessed Virgin Mary because she makes God too intimate. I had to admit this was true. If God could be as close to any human as He was (and is) to the Blessed Mother, then I had some explaining to do. Funny how Protestant immanentism results in a too-distant God, whereas Catholic transcendence results in the highest degree of personal intimacy with the divine. To the Protestant, God is certainly real and “close”, but He is thought of in strictly spiritual terms. He doesn’t reach out into our dirty, earthy, material world through miracles and merely human oracles.

Moderns, whose skepticism is rooted in the dichotomies of Protestantism, are therefore contemptuous and dismissive of things like the Holy House of Loreto, in which the original home of the Holy Family in Nazareth was transported by angels to the hills of the Italian countryside; the Miracle of Lanciano, a consecrated Host which has been bleeding for more than a thousand years; the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima, in which the sun was observed to hurl towards the earth by more than 70,000 witnesses; the mystical stigmata of St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Pio of Pietrelcina, and many others; Etc..

I don’t think there has ever been a time when the Church and the world were so fundamentally at odds about everything. The pagan world, though violently hostile in many ways, proved to be a fertile soil for Christianity. The ground had been prepared for receiving the Gospel. The modern world, by contrast, has rejected not only the Faith but the necessary underpinnings of Christian belief. It was a diabolical masterstroke. To paraphrase Dr. Peter Kreeft: Paganism was like a virgin, ripe for the Gospel. Modernity is like a divorcee, whose heart is hardened against her first love.

2 thoughts on “The Great Chasm

  1. Jeff-A sharp analysis. Guardini (sp?) wrote a book about the post-modern world. I can’t recall if this was his analysis too as it has been a while, but it strikes me that it has some similarities.

    America has such strong Protestant roots and influence, that when Christianity dies in this country in favor of the modern world you describe, it is (as you say) not a culture which is ready to accept Catholicism.

    I have a feeling Europe is different-or got to where it is by a different path-but I am not sure how if all the symptoms are the same.

    Anyway, food for thought–how do you evangelize the modern world?



  2. Hello Jim! I’m reading Guardini’s book right now. His analysis is much more learned and sophisticated. You’re undoubtedly right about the differences between Europe and America, but it’s anybody’s guess how that will play out in the future. How do you evangelize the modern world? I just don’t know. Hearts are much colder today.


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