Christian Optimism and Realism
Back a few Years, the historian James Hitchcock wrote a piece for the Catholic World Report in which he lamented the superficial optimism regarding the world that seemed to have gripped many of the powerful and more influential bishops at Vatican II, especially many bishops from the so-called first world countries. He particularly noted the way this optimism penetrated the documents dealing with the modern world and relations with other religions, and none more so than Gaudium et Spes, The Church in the Modern World.
There was no issue for Hitchcock regarding the doctrine enunciated or the general goal to open a dialogue with modern cultures that the Church must engage in order to proclaim the Gospel. The problem was the way the Council documents seem to understate the depth of evil in today’s cultures worldwide while focusing on the more positive developments in various areas of contemporary societies and cultures. It was as if these powerful conciliar and post-conciliar optimists were so taken with the positive advances of technology, science and cultural institutions that the great evils that were deeply planted in this same soil were of much less significance for them than the positive aspects they focused on in their analyses.
Was this super-optimism simply the result of the euphoria left over from the victory over a monstrous evil called Nazism that had generated this burst of enthusiasm for the “world” at Vatican II, and afterwards? But then we know that while all this euphoria was growing, death camps were still in full tilt in communist countries. Men like Solzhenitsyn were already at work detailing the horrors that went on during and after the great war in Communist Russia in its gulags. His Gulag Archipelago was published just after the Council in 1968 and detailed the deaths of tens of millions in Russia from 1917 to that point, and then there was China. What had happened to the realism of the Church’s opposition to communism under leaders like Pius XII? Was this optimism part of the reaction against the so-called Pacellian Church?
Clearly, the Gospel is profoundly optimistic at its core, preaching the facts of the good news, that God became flesh, died for the sins of all mankind, and opened the gates of heaven to all who would turn to God for forgiveness and forgive their neighbors offenses against them, the most powerful incentive to world peace ever. But until Vatican II, the leaders of His Church also had always been profoundly realistic, understanding that this Gospel had to be preached to and lived in a world deeply wounded by sin, as Paul stated to the Philippians, “prove yourselves innocent and straightforward, children of God beyond reproach in the midst of a twisted and depraved generation. Would speaking those final words today about living in the midst of a twisted and depraved generation cause today’s Church leaders to wince as if one had gone way too far in proposing such a negative view of the modern world? Are we still living in the aura of that superficial optimism that has distorted the view of the world’s real condition among all too many Church leaders for the past 50 years?
But how can any superficial optimism regarding the modern world still survive today after the horrors of the new culture of death, the slaughter of many more millions of innocent human beings in the last 40 years than in the incessant wars of the Twentieth Century. When the laws of western nations reversed centuries of common law and common sense by legalizing the killing of the unborn, the danger was – and this should have been obvious to Church leaders – that their flock would soon grow quietly accustomed to living within this culture of death – that the faithful would be tempted to adopt a non-judgmental attitude toward those who were involved in any way in this monstrous crime against humanity, for the sake of tolerance and societal harmony and that in the end they – or their progeny – would gradually succumb in great numbers and become participants in this business of dealing death to the innocent. That was the reality, and today that has all come to fruition.
It is certainly a fact that the Popes and many bishops and priests throughout the world have preached the moral condemnation of this crime, but then many, too many leaders, clerical and lay, have remained silent as well, or have been actually teaching falsely on this and other moral issues related to life while endlessly demanding tolerance as the proper response to these evils. Meanwhile, the valid principle that we should hate the sin but love the sinner has become twisted into the rule that we must tolerate the sin and never condemn the promoters of the sin. For instance, Catholic politicians who promote abortion are never to be condemned as sinners, and why not? The co-principle of tolerance, private conscience, now trumps everything else and has taken deep root in the thinking of untold numbers of Catholics, again both clerical and Lay Catholics. After all, who can know their subjective guilt?
So we Catholics too live in a world that is morally “twisted and depraved,” and live in a (western) Church environment where a significant segment of the Church will now tolerate virtually any moral aberration, even if it is officially condemned by our Church’s teaching. Polls reveal that a huge majority of Catholics in the western world now have an ingrained contraceptive/abortion mentality. And the results of this mentality are in: Catholic birth rates are now below replacement; Catholic divorce has exploded; Catholics abort just as often as the godless in society. But the most horrific consequence of all of this silence and so-called tolerance and non-judgmentalism has been the loss of faith. Look at the Anglican Church today, 80 years after it surrendered to the values of modernity, empty churches, religious impotence, homosexuality in their ministry, etc. Maybe its time to recognize that a twisted and depraved generation is part of the true picture of the world in every age, and it will not be changed simply by adopting the therapy of Norman Vincent Peale.