“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)