Life in the ‘Kingdom of Whatever’

The Reformation unintentionally undid the medieval synthesis of faith and reason. Now we romantically seek a spiritual life free from authority and tradition, or rationalistically seek truth as if human beings were autonomous and self-sufficient.

The day may come when Catholics can support neither of the main American political parties or their candidates. Some think it’s already arrived. Alasdair MacIntyre, the Notre Dame philosopher, argued along those lines a few years ago, explaining why he couldn’t vote for either a Democrat or a Republican.

I don’t know what Professor MacIntyre will do this year. For my part, along with my brother bishops in Pennsylvania, I believe it’s important to vote today and on every election day. A well-formed Catholic conscience can choose wisely between the candidates. And this year, vital issues are at stake.

Still, elections are tough times for serious Catholics. If we believe in the encyclical tradition–from Rerum Novarum to Evangelium Vitae; from Humanae Vitae to Caritas In Veritate–then we can’t settle comfortably in either political party. Catholics give priority to the right to life and the integrity of the family as foundation stones of society. But we also have much to say about the economy and immigration, runaway debt, unemployment, war and peace. It’s why the US bishops recently observed that “in today’s environment, Catholics may feel politically disenfranchised, sensing that no party and few candidates fully share our comprehensive commitment to human life and dignity.”

Any committed Christian might be tempted to despair. But the truth is that it’s always been this way. As the author of Hebrews wrote, “here we have no abiding city” (Heb 13:14). Augustine admired certain pagan Roman virtues, but he wrote the City of God to remind us that we’re Christians first, worldly citizens second. We need to learn–sometimes painfully–to let our faith chasten our partisan appetites.

In the United States, our political tensions flow from our cultural problems. Exceptions clearly exist, but today our culture routinely places rights over duties, individual fulfillment over community, and doubt over belief. In effect, the glue that now holds us together is our right to go mall-crawling and buy more junk. It’s hard to live a life of virtue when all around us, in the mass media and even in the lives of colleagues and neighbors, discipline, restraint, and self-sacrifice seem irrelevant.

Brad Gregory, the Notre Dame historian, seeks to show how we got this way in his recent book The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. His answers are surprising, and for some readers, controversial. But his book is also important–and in its explanatory power, brilliant.

Gregory argues that today’s relativism and cult of the consumer–what he ironically calls “the goods life”–have roots that run centuries deep. He wastes no time on nostalgia for a golden age that never existed. But he does show with riveting clarity that in the sixteenth century, Protestant Reformers unintentionally set in motion certain ideas that eventually enabled today’s radical self-centeredness.

Gregory also shows that while the Reformers lit the fuse, medieval Catholics laid the dynamite. Late medieval laity were, quite often, profoundly pious. And because they were pious, they minded when their leaders weren’t. Pious laypeople had an appetite for reform precisely because of their devotion. Late medieval clergy too often preached one thing and did another. Greed, simony, nepotism, luxury, sexual license, and schism in the hierarchy created an intolerable gap between Christian preaching and practice.

Many Catholics worked for reform from within. Some had success. Franciscans, Dominicans, and Cistercians owe their origins to medieval reform. Humanists such as Erasmus and Thomas More were part of an international community of letters determined to renew Christian life from the inside. Saints such as Catherine of Siena and Bernard of Clairvaux spoke truth to ecclesiastical power.

But one key difference separated these Catholic voices from the Protestant Reformers: The Catholics believed that the Church had her teachings right. She just needed to actually live them. The Catholics believed that Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and other sacraments, in the Scriptures, in the saints, and in the Church’s historic doctrines offered an authentic, all-encompassing Christian way of life sufficient to sanctify human existence–if it was actually embraced and shorn of its abuses.

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Archbishop Charles J. Chaput


Charles Joseph Chaput, O.F.M. Cap. is the ninth and current Archbishop of Philadelphia, serving since his installation on September 8, 2011

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  • Part of the reason many of the clergy lived lives so incompatible with Christian
    teaching was that too many of them really didn’t have a true vocation; many of
    them were forced into it by their families for various reasons, most of them
    social or economic. In a time when primogeniture was the rule, a second son was the “spare” in the old phrase “an heir and a spare;” a third son was superfluous. The “spare” often received the mother’s dower-lands as his share of the inheritance; there was nothing left for the third or any subsequent sons, unless the inheritor chose to give him something for his own. This left the younger sons with nothing to offer any prospective wife, so they were essentially unmarriageable. Their only option was the priesthood. It was a means of survival, rather than a vocation. It’s no wonder so many of them were bitter and cynical. Of course, this does not excuse them for their excesses; an unmarried layman is required by the Commandments to live as celibate a life as that required of a priest in the Western tradition. It is not meant as an
    excuse, but only a partial explanation. It did not help that those who entered the priesthood with a true vocation often became discouraged at seeing what their comrades in Orders were getting away with.

    The same was true for women. Until as late as the 1960s, a woman pretty much had two options: Marriage or the convent. In the late medieval period, a woman could
    not be married without some sort of dowry, so if, for whatever reason, she did
    not have one, her only choice was the convent. Many women grew embittered as a result; it’s a partial explanation of why some of the teaching Sisters of later ages went beyond strict to downright abusive.

    So what’s the excuse for priests and nuns today? I blame poor religious formation in their childhood, a situation which became the norm in the heady aftermath of Vatican II, when all sorts of weird concepts that council never taught were introduced “in the spirit of Vatican II,” a phrase which wiser Catholics today have learned to run from as fast as they can. “Conscience” became the guideline, and that conscience was usually poorly formed, or, worse, misinformed. It’s the reason we have the phenomenon some
    have dubbed the “cafeteria Catholic.”

    In the end, this and the other problems introduced by the Reformation are still very much in evidence today. As a resident of the so-called “Bible Belt,” I see new Protestant churches springing up nearly every week, as portions of one congregation or another split off from one church to form their own because they don’t like something the preacher teaches. Drive down a country road in some counties, and you’ll find churches dotting the roadside like mile markers on the Interstate, most of them having
    only two things in common: Jesus Christ, and hatred of Catholicism, two things which are mutually incompatible, yet they exist side by side in these churches.

    In some form or another, the problems which led to the Reformation in the first place still exist today, fueling that hatred. Those problems will continue to exist, simply because man is a fallen creature. The resultant concupiscence is a burden against which we all must fight. Any attempt to live a life of sanctity is, by definition, a battle, one which will not end—cannot end—until death.

    We have two threads of hope held out to us, if we will only take hold of them. The first and most important is Jesus Christ himself. His salvific act opened the gates of Heaven
    to us, which had been closed by Adam and Eve’s fall. Throughout His life, he gave us the seven Sacraments as a source of grace, without which we are powerless even to attempt to follow Him. The second is Our Lady. The Rosary has been recognized
    throughout the ages as the single most powerful prayer there is, second only to
    the Mass itself in its efficacy. If you follow Our Lady, she will inevitably lead you to her Divine Son.

    And this brings us to Fatima. At Fatima, the Blessed Virgin gave to three shepherd children the secret to world peace and an end to the war between culture and faith. It’s so simple that mankind cannot believe that it’s that easy to solve all the world’s problems. The biggest part of it lies in the hands of the Pope: Together and simultaneously, he and all the bishops of the world are asked to perform the Consecration of Russia. Fear has prevented a century’s worth of Popes from doing this, fear of “offending” the Russian Orthodox metropolitans and Russia in general. Fear so great that Pope John Paul II performed a consecration of the world in 1983 (or 1984, I’m not certain which anymore), a consecration which was accepted by Heaven and was enough to prevent war from breaking out when Russia, arguably accidentally, launched a missile at America. But in the prayer immediately following that consecration, the Pope alluded to the “people still awaiting”the consecration requested at Fatima. The fear was so great that he dared not name Russi aeven then! Pope
    Benedict has since confirmed, indirectly, that the consecration of Russia has
    not yet taken place, and that the Third Secret has not been revealed in its
    entirety. Successive popes, and cardinals who have read the Secret, have attempted to hint at its contents; thus we have the belief that Vatican II was the “evil Council” mentioned by Our Lady; the statement, “The Great Apostasy begins at the top;” and the
    soul-shaking statements issued by Pope Benedict in response to the question of
    whether or not the recent clerical scandal was predicted in the Third Secret.

    But the entire solution is not solely in the Pope’s hands. He needs our help, and Our Lady gave us the means to do that. Pray the Rosary daily. A simple twenty-minute prayer. If you can’t find the time in your day to say it all at once, say a decade here, a decade there, whenever you can grab five minutes. (I’ve known people who would go
    to the bathroom just to have a few minutes alone to pray.) Hand in hand with that is to make the five First Saturdays. This means going to Confession and Communion on the first Saturday of every month for five consecutive months, with the specific intention of reparation for sin. This is so important that, if you live far enough from a church that making the extra trip may lead to grave hardship, you can commute that observance to the first Sunday. The benefits to you personally are, as one pro-Christian bumper sticker has it, “out of this world:” If you make the five First Saturdays even ONCE, Our Lady will provide, at the moment of death, all the help necessary to resist the last great temptation that the devil will foist on you. It’s a literal GUARANTEE that you will go to Heaven!

    The Reformation itself was predicted in the visions of St. Mary of Agreda, just a few years before it actually happened. (So was today’s War on Terror, by the way.) The solution was given four hundred years later at Fatima. The rest is up to us.

  • yblegen

    Based on your recommendation, I have ordered the book and will suggest it be bought by my library, Thank you.

  • chaco

    WHAA-HOO ! ! ! I found a “Gold-Nugget”. Do you realize how exceedingly sweet it is to experience another soul who is “Tuned in” to an understanding of “Heaven’s Peace Plan” ? It’s like a tastey hors d’ oeuvre before the sumptuous banquet. Precious-Precious Truth that sets us free. Part of this sweetness is the yearning Hope, that those who have not yet partook, will nibble at Heaven’s offer and thereby add to “Thy Kingdom Come” (the throngs of souls united in Joy beyond measure). Peace on Earth begins in individual Hearts. Thank God for Archbishop Charles & Jake; They have been used to create a surge of delight in me !

  • Annamarie

    Thank you Archbishop, for a most needed insight into just what is wrong with society as a whole, and me as an individual. As a single Catholic (divorced against my will 4 years ago after 32 years of marriage), and one living in the South, with a Baptist mother, no less, I am often confused and left feeling adrift, with nothing to anchor to but the Faith. This is so hard, as I have no vocation as do Religious, but must try to find some companionship in this 21st century world. In short, most days I feel I am too young to be expected to act so old.
    God bless you, and Jake Duncan, too.