Making sense of our post-Christian culture

San Galgano, Tuscany

In the West today, pessimism is warranted. Suicide, crime, and drug use are up; birthrates are down. In America, woke excess has undermined much of the progress made toward racial reconciliation over the course of the last century. The decline in religious practice has eroded those values that transcend political conflict and material consumption; we’re losing the shared cultural language with which we could talk to one another about matters touching on the common good. In the absence of a common cultural narrative and shared values, tribal loyalties have filled the void, becoming our false gods.

I don’t think it disloyal to admit that the Church has not adequately responded to the West’s malaise. Faced with Covid, we closed shop. Rome these days sometimes seems to be swimming in nostalgia for the 1960s. No doubt it was more pleasant to be a young cleric in the heady days of Vatican Council II–at least, before the seminaries emptied–but those are not our days.

Half a century ago, perhaps, Catholics in the West could still see their societies as Christian, though ones that were rapidly changing. So it seemed reasonable enough to hope that with a bit of updating around the edges, a little accommodation to the Zeitgeist, we might experience a new flourishing of Christian life. That didn’t happen, and it is no longer reasonable to expect that it will. We need a new response to today’s reality.

A recent article by Sydney’s Archbishop Anthony Fisher The West: Post- or Pre-Christian? provides a helpful, nuanced diagnosis of where we are.

Drawing on the research of the best contemporary sociologists of religion–and the occasional Mony Python reference–Fisher identifies different currents, not entirely consistent or coherent, that make our cultural moment so perplexing. In some ways, Western countries are post-Christian, with many of the most influential forces in our societies actively seek to purge orthodox Christianity from the public square. But post-Christian cultures still bear the imprint of Christianity, often deeply. Sometimes secularists carry over values that only makes sense within the Christian narrative. Absent the Christian framework, the reasons we have to care for the weak and vulnerable, for example, are themselves rather weak and vulnerable. Likewise, any notion of human equality. We are seeing these values fade with time, but their lingering presence marks post-Christian societies as different from the ancient pagan world. However, Fisher notes, we also have an increasing number of people who are rather like those ancient pagans, those almost entirely unexposed to Christianity. The conversations we have with people in all these different categories will necessarily be different.

One might nuance some of Fisher’s categories even further, but his is a good initial diagnosis. He also brings to that diagnosis a sense of history that reminds us not to panic. Christianity and the West have been through dark ages before. Sometimes the loss of comfortable structures and habits, while painful, can be purifying. It is possible to be both pessimistic in the short term and hopeful in eternity.

More can be said, of course, especially about solutions. Speaking very generally, we now live in societies that resemble the competitive religious pluralism of the Roman Empire more than the Christian kingdoms of the Middle Ages. We can deal with that. Sure, pagan pluralism was not an entirely happy thing; it certainly did not mean tolerance, and that era was a great age of martyrs. But the word “martyr” comes from the Greek for “witness”. Surely any solution must involve bearing witness with greater determination and integrity, being willing to sacrifice–even to sacrifice everything–for our faith. In the end, the early Church converted Rome. Responding adequately to our even more complicated reality will mean sharpening our message and clarifying our witness. Doing so may require rethinking the way we’ve been doing a lot of things recently–from apologetics to preparation for the sacraments–so that we are a Church capable of bearing witness in a world that has a lot of other options.

Author: Anthony Lusvardi, SJ

Anthony R. Lusvardi, S.J., teaches sacramental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He writes on a variety of theological, cultural, and literary topics.

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