We exist in strange times; as someone once put it, “something is afoot”. The similar remark was made that Christianity is now entering into a new age, an Apostolic age. This comes as no surprise to many of us; the general culture is undoubtedly no longer as Christian as it once was. Instead of former Christendom, we’re now moving back into the Apostolic age, closer to the early first centuries of the Church.
If this is so, what does this mean for us politically? Since politics reflect to an extent how we are culturally, is it possible we need to readdress the existing political paradigm? In previous ages, much could be argued from a theological standpoint; now, with Christianity ever on the attack, this no longer seems to be the case. If we are indeed moving back into the Apostolic Age, it might be wise to briefly reflect on what attributes were found in the early Church, and then see if those apply to our modern “political problem”.
First of all, the Church won cultural victories through two ways: personal example and baptizing the local culture. Personal example could be the early Christians going to their deaths in the Coliseum singing, or bringing joy into a culture that had largely forgotten what true joy was. Baptizing the local culture meant finding what was good in the local traditions and claiming it for Christ. Taking the pagan celebration of Saturnalia and instead replacing it with Christmas was one way the early Church would do this.
Secondly, arguments could be made about the good simply because, well, it was good. Society benefitted if a man and woman stayed in a faithful relationship, i.e., marriage; local communities would benefit from this union as the man and woman would look to invest in each other, and the local communities around them as they become more stable and began to put down roots. Similarly, a society that valued its children generally fared better than one that did not; children were formed better, thus became better adults, and would grow up to be well-formed and invested citizens. In turn, they would then pass on the gifts they had been given as children to the next generation. All this meant that society flourished, and with it, the human person. People saw that there were some things inherently good for man That is to say, these things were to be pursued by man simply because they were good for him as a human being. Because of that, things could be argued for simply by reason; we look t Aristotle, who reached that virtue was inherently good for man despite having no revelation.
So what does this have to do with Christianity, in particular the Catholic Church?
The Catholic Church brings something distinct to society that no one else has ever, or will ever, do. In this case, proclaiming human rights, individual dignity, freedom, and a call to something higher. All these will disappear if the Church is forced from the public square. The Church stands for every human being because she sees each individual person as precious. The bigger she keeps the public square open for herself, the larger it becomes for others; and the reverse stands as well. If the Church is forced from the public square, then one of the last checks on government has been removed. Men then only have the incentive of Hobbes’ Leviathan to force its citizens into quiet servitude.
Living out our personal witness is crucial for the times ahead; people are not going to be won over if we’re always moaning and dour about life. Honey attracts more flies than vinegar (not to draw a perfect analogy, but still). But even as we live out our own lives well, we need to take what is good from around us and baptize it. America’s culture still has remnants of good left in it; it’s up for us to extract what we can from the culture around us just like the early Church (if you think I’m giving up on my annual summer Marvel movie, you’ve got another thing coming).
A recent story was circulating around Facebook about a priest that had recently passed away. Fr. Arne Panula, a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei, had worked for years at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., pursuing his vocation amid professional life to bring others to Christ. George Weigel penned the following comments about him in National Review here
Father Arne became, for many, the embodiment of what Saint John Paul II called the “New Evangelization” in the nation’s capital. He could do that because, like the witnesses the Church will read about during Easter Week, he had met the Risen Lord. And that made all the difference.
An encounter with Truth can only happen if we ourselves encounter Truth, Christ Himself. Yet, even if we ourselves experience this, we cannot then shy away from it, from proclaiming that same Truth to others. Charles Chaput, then Archbishop of Denver, reflected on Pauls’ example in using the language of the times to bring the Gospel to the culture in an article for First Things here. Written shortly after Obama’s first election in 2008, he speaks tellingly to our current situation:
There is a second practical lesson we can learn from Paul, for he refused to fear. If “Be Not Afraid” became John Paul II’s motto, it is because fear is the disease of our age. And Catholics are by no means immune to it. Paul wasn’t afraid to bring to the Areopagus the new and profoundly radical idea that God and truth could be known through a person—Jesus Christ—and ultimately in no other way. Finding this one way to truth matters eternally for each of us. Elegant, academic discussions may appeal to us as an intellectual exercise. But the only thing that finally matters is truth.
I would posit that John Paul II was one of the most admired and influential men of the 20th century. Yet, here was a man who was unafraid to proclaim the Truth. In doing so, he helped to topple one of the great evils of the 20th century – Communist Russia. Proclaiming the Truth boldly, with both joy and personal witness, can do much in today’s world.
I return to my thoughts at the beginning of this essay, and close with a thought about politics. Humans are by nature political animals, according to Aristotle. We are endowed with reason, and use it in entering into political life. As the Church moves back into the Apostolic Age, those of us in the beloved US of A should not despair. Personal example goes a long way, and true, authentic joy is something our world craves. We have a vast array of knowledge at our fingertips to help us better know and understand Truth. Our Catholic Faith is something built on both faith and reason; as we enter into public discourse, let’s make sure to use both. We can argue things from reason, and thus need to be well-formed intellectually if we are to be ready to engage in debate when necessary; prudence would dictate when and how. More importantly, however, are we ourselves living out what we preach in our daily lives? If not, we fall short of being a witness to Truth. And that makes all the difference.