A Fate Worse than Persecution

“The only thing that a person can do alone is perish.”

– Russian proverb

Among committed Christians of all kinds, Catholic and otherwise, it is not uncommon to hear predictions of a “coming persecution of the Church in the West.” Such talk is not limited to the fringes: the prospect is raised by prominent and respectable voices, based on the study of cultural and historical trends.

At times I have tended toward this kind of thinking myself. Lately, however, I have grown less concerned about the prospect of persecution. I am more concerned about a different and arguably more serious threat facing the Church in Western nations.

This threat is isolation. We are at risk of a twofold isolation: isolation of believers from each other, through the erosion of Christian community; and the isolation of Christians from non-believers and members of other religions, through growing alienation and mutual incomprehension.

At first glance, this scenario may not seem worse than persecution. Some may ask: Couldn’t the forces of aggressive secularism, and ideological conformity, lay waste to many of the Church’s ministries and threaten the public expression of our faith? Isn’t that the gravest danger today?

Those scenarios are possible, and my purpose is not to attack those who put their focus there. Still, I believe the most serious threat for Christians will not come from outside.

We will become our own worst enemies, if we let the Church’s communal dimension disintegrate, in favor of a fragmented association of individualistic “spiritual consumers” whose supposed unity is mainly external and institutional.

Likewise, we will lose touch with the Church’s very reason for being – the announcement of the Gospel to all creation, in word and act – if we allow our relationship with the world to become an unfruitful stalemate, defined by ideological gridlock and sloganeering crosstalk.

The Church does have enemies. But the forces that truly choke the Church, and destroy faith, are not the forces of external opposition.

Historical and global evidence suggests that a true persecution of Christians in the West – as distinct from the relatively small instances of unjust discrimination we now see – would not cause faith to die out, or the Church’s vitality to wither. The opposite is probably true.

The worst threats to faith are spiritual: apathy, isolation, joylessness; mistrust, a lack of love, mutual incomprehension. These threats combine into what I see as our worst-case scenario: a drifting-away from each other, and the outside world, on the part of those still abstractly and theoretically committed to God.

*

We can see the gravity of this prospect by asking: What would the Church’s common life be like, in such an outcome? What would the life of the individual believer be like? We can see its possibility, too, insofar as the symptoms of this dual isolation are already present.

The Church can never lose her fundamental character – which includes the bond of supernatural communion between believers, and the evangelistic orientation that makes missionary outreach possible. God will never withhold these gifts of grace from his people.

In practice, however, individuals and whole communities may lose touch with the realities of Christian communion and mission. Individualism, and even a kind of spiritual consumerism (in both “liberal” and “conservative” forms, to use an unfortunate shorthand) can infect and cripple the Mystical Body of Christ.

When Christian community breaks down, the Church – in practice – ceases to function as a body. It becomes more like a loose association of spiritual consumers: individual users of a religious “product,” which comes in varying forms according to one’s preferences.

Some of these consumers want ideological uniformity and a defense against modern evils; others want a more vague and malleable set of assurances and aspirations. But the problem is the same in either case: both are consumer groups, looking to the Church to fulfill a private preference.

Consumers of the “spiritual product” have little real connection to one another. They go through the motions of a common life, but this life is hollowed-out: propped up by sporadic enthusiasms or gestures of ideological agreement. Yet the most essential things – love, trust, solidarity – are in short supply.

The deformation of Christian life into an association of religious consumers, goes hand-in-hand with the other catastrophic form of isolation: the isolation of the Church from the outside world. This isolation destroys the dialogue of evangelism, just as the mutual isolation of believers destroys true communion.

This isolation occurs for different reasons. The Church may lose touch with the world through a scolding moralism that ignores the good in the other – a mindset driven by, and focused on, a litany of accusations against the unbelieving world. The world may well be right not to see the face of Christ in this approach.

But the Church may also lose any meaningful relationship to the world by losing its own distinctiveness: then no dialogue, relationship, or exchange occurs, because no difference is acknowledged between the Church and the world. Reduced to a bland humanism, Christianity offers the world nothing redemptive.

Either way, the outcome is the same: the Christian ceases to be the one who mediates and communicates God’s grace to the world through his own communion with the one Divine Mediator and the members of His Mystical Body. The believer becomes only the increasingly isolated consumer of a religious product.

Is this the future of the Church in the West? I hope not, but I am concerned.

*

We can see why this prospect is alarming, if we consider what Christian life is like for the one in this situation. Stuck at a painful distance from others in the Church, and from those outside her visible bounds, what does he experience?

Pope Francis gave a good description of the isolated believer, in paragraph 83 of Evangelii Gaudium:

A tomb psychology thus develops and slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum. Disillusioned with reality, with the Church and with themselves, they experience a constant temptation to cling to a faint melancholy, lacking in hope, which seizes the heart like “the most precious of the devil’s potions.” Called to radiate light and communicate life, in the end they are caught up in things that generate only darkness and inner weariness, and slowly consume all zeal for the apostolate.

Without meaningful Christian community, or fruitful connections to the wider world, the believer is thrown back on himself – conducting what often seems like a lonely, joyless religious project. Committed to the Church, he feels alone within it; desiring the world’s salvation, he cannot connect with the world.

Such a person’s faith becomes increasingly abstract, perhaps all the moreso as he attempts to fill the human deficit with intellectual substitutes: learning all about the world he cannot reach; communing with venerable names of the past, whose printed presence offers a simulacrum of living Christian community.

In place of a proper “dual-belonging,” there is a twofold lack of belonging: the world recedes into a blurry distance, the Church into lofty abstraction, and he feels homeless – despite his commitment, in different ways, to the Church and the world. It is perhaps the worst scenario for the Christian of the future.

Of course, I am writing partly from my own particular experience. Yet I know it is the experience of others as well. I hope it will not come to be the general or dominant experience of Christians in the West.

But the erosion and breakdown of relationships – within the Christian community, and between the Church and the world – is already a fact. Unchecked, it will destroy faith in a way that persecution cannot.

The worst outcome is not for us to suffer: that has happened before, and the Beatitudes tell us how to regard it. The worst outcome is for us to fail to love one another, and the world, in a meaningful and transformative way. A blessing rests upon those persecuted; it does not rest upon those who fail to love.

Isolation is not inevitable. Through God’s grace, we can always rediscover the neglected virtue of solidarity: a solidarity within the Church, which overflows into a truly Christian solidarity with the world, in imitation of Christ himself.

In the long run, the only alternative to solidarity is imprisonment: a self-imprisoned Church, made up of self-imprisoned spiritual consumers. Such confinement is worse than any fate our earthly adversaries could devise.

To avoid it, we must become truly open and available to one another – letting God free us from the “prisons of ourselves.”

… the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction. True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness. (Evangelii Gaudium, 88)

Benjamin Mann

By

Benjamin Mann is a Byzantine Catholic, former journalist, and incurable philosopher. He is preparing to enter monastic life at Holy Resurrection Monastery in St. Nazianz, Wisconsin.

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  • JMC

    This is exactly the sort of scenario Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI warned us about two years ago when he said that the Third Secret of Fatima contained warnings that the church’s worst problems would come from within. There is only one solution to this, and that is the Consecration of Russia. Personally, I don’t expect that’s going to occur until more of us pray the Rosary daily, sacrifice for the conversion of sinners, and make the five First Saturdays of reparation. In two approved Marian apparitions since Fatima – namely, Akita and Hungary – Our Lady told the respective visionaries that almost no one is heeding those requests. For some, it’s a matter of health and/or distance from a church – and in these days of low income and skyrocketing gas costs, distance is a grave concern for many – is keeping them away; however, for most of us, there’s no real excuse for avoiding an extra Mass once a month. The fact that so many don’t want to “bother” is, I believe, a direct result of the isolationism Mr. Mann is talking about. Doing the minimum required has always been a problem among all of us, but it’s worse now than ever before, and it’s only going to get even worse before it gets better. It won’t be until evil will seem to have won that Our Lady’s triumph will finally occur, unless we do something about it. Our Blessed Mother gave us the means; it’s up to us to make use of them.

  • Sergei Andrade

    The author of this article worries desperately to support that the relation with the world is the most important thing for the Church, and suffers – like many others that have brought in in the confusion from the Council Vatican II – of the habit of naming to the doctrine of the Church like “ideology” putting at the same level the ideologies of the world with the doctrine revealed by Christ to its Church, and in this baneful error there becomes clear an absence of a serious doctrinal formation and an experience of religious life that leads it to comprising really the catholic faith, and while – the author of this article – does not manage to do the religious experience and to get in touch with Christ’s real experience it will not manage to understand the truth of that phrase of Santa Teresa “who has God he lacks anything, only God is enough”. Until it should not manage to experience the deepest faith of a way it will continue that with its leave you ideological putting at the same level things that there are not at the same level, that is to say the things of the world and the God’s things. It will have to understand Christ’s words “do not worry if the world hates you, since earlier he hated me but I extracted you of the world, that’s why the world hates you, do not be afraid I have won to the world”. When the author of this article manages to understand that only the God’s opinion is the one that matters, newly then he will stop worrying for the opinion about the world.

  • John Keating

    Interesting thoughts, though you clearly did not read the article and merely heard what you wanted to hear and painted the author as a Vatican II Modernist. I bet he even likes the liturgy in the vernacular, the cad!

    “The author of this article worries desperately to support that the relation with the world is the most important thing for the Church”

    Nowhere did he say that. At all. Again, you seem to be reading what you want to read, and why do you call the author “it”.

    Mr. Mann is discussing the isolation and atomization that occurs in Christian communities, which means that people literally don’t belong to one and get turned into mere consumers. I’m sure you can see this at work around you.

  • jim v

    Fabulous insights, but so depressing because it speaks the truth. I can easily identify with this because my first reaction is mostly “what he says appears inevitable, it will play itself out to its miserable end.” How’s that for standing accused?

    So why would I say that? Because like most Catholic Christians in the West (that is, those who truly love their faith and make more than minimal efforts to serve the Lord’s wishes) our main focus and efforts is dealing with our spouse and children and trying to get them to be good Christians themselves. That either is all encompassing or we perceive it as such and don’t have much left to offer our neighbor.

    So this isolation he speaks of settles in. And then the author goes further to distinguish a few types of mindsets and outcomes.

    Some of these consumers want ideological uniformity and a defense against modern evils; others want a more vague and malleable set of assurances and aspirations. But the problem is the same in either case: both are consumer groups, looking to the Church to fulfill a private preference.

    Consumers of the “spiritual product” have little real connection to one another. They go through the motions of a common life, but this life is hollowed-out: propped up by sporadic enthusiasms or gestures of ideological agreement. Yet the most essential things – love, trust, solidarity – are in short supply.

    Yes, so true and undeniable! But what can we do? You told us. But what if we do not do so and fail? Well if you ask me, I am hoping it is long purgatory sentences for both the isolated believer and the secular humanist who never was properly witnessed to. I hope. I have no idea who may condemn themesleves for all eternity – - no one does. The Church is its true wisdom is clear on that. Which is why any Christian getting too vocal or condemning of those ideas and people “on the outside” are guilty of “judging” in some sense working for the enemy?

    The Lord knew most of us would miss the mark, especially and most sadly those who thought they were doing the Lord’s will but were in effect hurting the cause. Why does it have to be so discouraging? Why does the vast majority of humanity (believer and unbeliever alike) appear so lost?

    Finally I ask, to whom will such a heady sermon connect with? Maybe only to those who are already approaching themselves and the world in the proper way already? That is, those who are humble, kind, giving, patient and understanding, not accusing. Maybe it will increase efforts on those good Christians’ part, but will it rally many more troops? I fear not. But I thank this author for reminding us.

    PS – I loved the following quote from Francis. Thanks.

    A tomb psychology thus develops and slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum. Disillusioned with reality, with the Church and with themselves, they experience a constant temptation to cling to a faint melancholy, lacking in hope, which seizes the heart like “the most precious of the devil’s potions.” Called to radiate light and communicate life, in the end they are caught up in things that generate only darkness and inner weariness, and slowly consume all zeal for the apostolate.

  • Kim in California

    So important and well-said. Thank you.

  • Rosemary58

    Perhaps alienation from the world would be a better word than “isolation”. Christ was alienated by his own people. Not even God in the flesh could convince the Pharisees, so we should not be disappointed at Christ’s ostensible failure then and ours today.

    I would agree that it is not the world per se that works against us so much as do our own. Where are our shepherds? I believe that the temporal situation of the Church reflects their devotion to Christ’s Body – or the lack of it.

    The teachings of Christ and His Church are repulsive – yet, irresistible. Man hates truth but he can’t live without it.

    The Church does not always have to be “on”; sometimes there is ebb and flow to live, and for the Church this may also be true since it is organically bound with mankind. We may have to accept that there will be an “ebb” time ahead that will nonetheless give us some space to stand back, reflect, and examine our collective conscience.

  • Steve

    Good article, Ben. I have seen firsthand, the kind of things you describe. It saddens me when, after I sit down at Mass, the people next to me get up and move, presumably due to my appearance of poverty. A Church without koinonia is merely a building.

  • chaco

    For me, the way to safeguard against isolationism is to possess an ability to empathize with those who haven’t yet experienced the “Amazing Grace That Saved a Wretch Like Me” ie; St. Augustine, St. Paul , St. Peter etc. All these can look at the “Unsaved” and say; “I too was once as you are.” Possessing this ability will arouse a Spirit of longsufferring patience & hope when encountering those alienated from a union with Jesus & His Bride/ Church.

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