As Gregory details, when the sacraments are no longer public patrimony but merely private practices, culture inevitably changes. Westerners used to believe that the world was part of a spiritual cosmos, but after the Reformation, that confidence is no longer shared. Consequently, modern merchants, universities, and intellectuals have developed the habit of seeing matter as spiritually inert, which means it is available to be manipulated to serve human desires.
But real science never has proven, and never can prove empirically, that nature is spiritually inert. To the extent secularists (or religious fundamentalists) insist upon that, they are ideologues, not scientists. Catholics have always believed God works in and through natural causes. He revealed himself to us in his son, Jesus Christ. But God also exists utterly outside creation. He is wholly Other. He is not merely the biggest Sky Fairy or Super-Being in the heavens. In other words, the Christian God is not the kind of God who can be “disproved” by anything we might see under a microscope or through an experiment. Yet many today, indebted to an anti-sacramental metaphysics, insist that a conflict must exist between science and religion. This is false. And it didn’t have to be this way.
In some ways, Gregory’s book could be subtitled “the West’s crisis of faith and reason.” The Reformation–sincerely, zealously, and with the best intentions–unleashed centrifugal forces that undid the medieval synthesis of revelation and philosophy. Ever since, our culture has gone down one intellectual dead-end after another, romantically seeking a spiritual life free from authority and tradition, or rationalistically seeking truth as if human beings were autonomous and self-sufficient. The great Western marriage of faith and reason–the shared confidence that faith is personal but also communal, that reason isn’t against faith but extends it–that is what the Reformation cost us.
Catholics have made terrible and costly mistakes in this story. As noted, the Reformation happened for good reason. Every point Professor Gregory makes is told with balance, respect for all sides, and historical detail buttressed by nuance; 145 pages are devoted to endnotes. Gregory’s account of the Galileo crisis is especially interesting. He explains how Church leaders, having rightly understood the Reformation’s threat to sacramental metaphysics, overreacted and misjudged Galileo’s significance for theology.
In our own day, of course, Catholics have continued to find plenty of ways to bring the faith into disrepute. The Church took too long to articulate her own theologically-grounded doctrine of religious liberty. The sexual abuse crisis has earned many priests and bishops a millstone around the neck for wounding the innocent and causing good people a crisis of faith. And ordinary lay Catholics have let themselves be colonized by the greed, sexual anarchy, and materialism of the culture around them. In too many instances, if we look at the way American Catholics actually live, we consume, relativize, and trivialize like everyone else.
To cultivate virtue, to pursue a life of self-sacrifice, to live joyfully and infused by the sacraments is not something anyone can do alone. It’s too hard. We need grace. We need companions. We need to be taught and trained. This is why God gave us the Church. Too often flawed and all too human, she is nevertheless our Mother, and always, always a gift.
Modern Western political theory tries (or pretends) to steer clear of prescribing morality. Because our society divides so bitterly over matters of truth and ethics, modern lawmakers tend to enshrine individual privacy and autonomy. But in doing so, they diminish the life-giving social importance of religious faith. This legal “neutrality” isn’t so neutral. In feeding the sovereignty of the individual, our public leaders fuel consumer self-absorption, moral confusion, and–ultimately, as mediating institutions like the family and churches wither–the power of the state. The Reformation has led, by gradual, indirect, and never-intended steps, to what Gregory calls the “Kingdom of Whatever.” It’s a world of hyperpluralism, where meaning is self-invented by millions, and therefore society as a whole starves for meaning.