In the run-up to Christmas 2012 we posted an important piece which you might have missed in the pre-Christmas rush. So here it is again , and recent developments have only made it more relevant:

Friday, December 07, 2012


"You cannot please both God and the world at the same time. They are utterly opposed to each other in their thoughts, their desires, and their actions."
~ St. John Vianney

It is a great pleasure for a Blogger to have the subject for a post suggested by someone very close to him. This post grew out of a reflection on the need for the Church to realistically address the modern world.

The problem is not new, it is perennial. Our ancient Roman couple above, might just as well have been Catholics of Saint Paul's time, looking out upon the depravity of the pagan society about them.

The great vanity of every age,- no matter what the word/s employed, is  to think of its experience as unique - "modern" - in the current style. In fact the word has its origins in the Latin word "modernus" of similar meaning.It is a line of thought which usually has connotations of superiority to what has gone before - at least in recent times. This sense of superiority has only grown with the mushrooming of our electronic technologies, and has coincided with the zeitgeist which is convinced of its own freedom from the concept of truth and revels in  the convenience of relativism.   

But let us consider the Catholic Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, the Kingdom of God -  with her great Commission to go into the whole world:

" Baptising them in the Name of the Father
   and of the Son 
   and of the Holy Spirit,
   teaching them to observe 
   all that I have commanded you;
   and lo, I am with you always,
   to the close of the age." Matt. 28 : 19-20 RSV.

She makes her way down through the centuries bearing the unchanging teachings of Jesus Christ and safeguarding and administering the Seven Sacraments He instituted to give His Grace to Man until He comes again.

She has always had the same problem: the immutable teachings of God and the inexhaustible sources of His Grace deployed for Man's Eternal Salvation, confronting an ever "modern" world. How has she fared? Are there lessons for us to-day in the evolution of her pilgrimage?

Has it been one long 2,000 years old procession in splendour down through the ages?

That great and perceptive writer, G.K.CHESTERTON thought otherwise in his book " Orthodoxy" (1908) :

" She swerved to left and right,so as exactly to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on the one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly.

It is easy to be a madman  : it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the world have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one's own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any one of these open pits of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom - that would indeed have been simple . It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles from which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages , the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate , the wild truth reeling but erect." 

Amen!! And he had no way of even contemplating the wake of the Second Vatican Council - " reeling but erect" indeed!


In Ancient Rome, the Church confronted the seven headed monster of the Apocalypse in his very lair - the Roman Empire at its seven hilled heart.

Modern as could be, Rome bestrode the world like the colossus she truly was - and modern? - she was the source of everything modern and the cynosure of all eyes. And who were these early Catholics who would not worship the Gods of Rome, not even the " Divine" Emperor himself? Rome proposed every type of sexual depravity, but these Catholics proposed love within Christian Marriage. Rome proposed glamour, ostentation, but these Catholics proposed beauty and modesty. Rome practised the barbarity of slavery whilst these Catholics regarded every individual as equally a child of God.Rome practised cruelty in the Arena, in the streets, in her colonies, but these Catholics espoused Mercy, Kindness and respect for all human life.

Yet there was here a dramatically serious problem for the infant Church.Slaves are said to have numbered up to 25% of ancient Rome's population estimated at up to 1,000,000  at her peak. Roman Law was rigorous in its penalties for any apparent tendency of slaves to revolt. In early Christian times, memories of the massive Servile Rebellion led by Spartacus ( 109 -71 B.C.)were still strong. Up to 70,000 slaves led by Spartacus had wrought havoc throughout much of the Italian peninsula until they were finally routed and defeated by the Roman Army under Crassus. Most were killed on the field of battle, but for 6,000 taken prisoner, Crassus reserved the punishment of death by crucifixion, lining the Appian Way between Rome and the city of Capua with the dying rebel slaves. So to challenge the institution of slavery was to invite a radical and ruthless response.What to do?

Roman Slaves at work in the Kitchen
In our age ( Nostra Aetate) we have become accustomed to the American democratic pattern of political moral activism. But ancient Rome was no modern democracy, and there was no concept of freedom to promote moral activist causes.The approach of the Church was to promote rigorously within her communion the teachings on the equality of the dignity and rights of every person before God, whilst refraining from any external challenge to the system of slavery.  Saint Paul's Letter to Philemon, concerns Philemon's runaway slave Onesimus, not only a runaway, but apparently a thief also. Onesimus has gone to Paul after his escape,has confessed his wrong doing and has become a valuable assistant to him. But Paul recognises that Onesimus' situation is a legally dangerous one. So he sends him back to Philemon, offering to pay Philemon whatever Onesimus owes him.Saint Paul makes it clear that he could morally command Philemon to free Onesimus , but endeavours to shame him into doing the right thing by forgiving and  freeing his former slave.

And again, in Saint Peter's Epistles we see him urging : 

" Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

   Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to the      kind and gentle, but also to the overbearing."     1 Peter 2 : 17-18 RSV 

This Epistle is particularly rich and deserving of reading and re-reading as Saint Peter entreats the early Catholics , and in effect us, to be more Christ-like in enduring suffering and injustice both for personal reasons and for our Faith in Christ.

We see clearly presented the counter- cultural reality of of our Faith.

Our Faith is not framed in reaction to the age, any age. It is a Divinely given integral reality to be cherished and devoutly adhered to , propounded and defended through all times. The means adopted will change with the age but the content and substance will not. Our understanding of it will develop but it will never be contradictory. For " lo , I am with you always .." .

Saint Peter's entreaty was more than appropriate; for the Church was then entering upon some 300 years of persecution of varying intensity from the time of the Emperor Nero until the victory of Constantine, under the sign of the Cross, over Maxentius in A.D. 312. Through all that time the Church faced the modern age with great Faith and courage, and the blood of her thousands of martyrs was to become in Saint Augustine's great phrase " the seeds of the Church".


In God's good time, the Roman Empire itself died. Its demise can be attributed to various causes, internal dissension, barbarian invasions and assimilations, the collapse of trade,  financial collapse, and the exhaustion of its pagan ethos .

Pope Leo the Great Dissuades the Barbarians from Taking Rome.

The Church was again forced to come to terms with the latest  "modern" age. The State had collapsed, law and order dissolved, the civic culture crumbled before the eyes of the citizens. There remained one source of order, organisation and hope - the Catholic Church. The citizens of Rome turned to the Pope to organise their protection.It could be argued that this was not the role of the Church, but as both Mater et Magister she could not turn her back on the dreadful plight of the faithful.Over time, and in the face of continuing woes from external forces, this added role  came to be seen as normal. And in due course, as the power of the Franks began to rise, King Pepin gave to the Pope the lands which became the Papal States . 

Through this period we can see a clearly radical alteration in the way the Church related to changes in the society around it.It had advantages which obtain even until this very day , and disadvantages which came to an end  in 1870 when the Holy See was dispossessed of the Papal States, in what at the time, seemed a catastrophe.It was in fact a brilliant blessing. The advantage of the Papal States was, that protected by their sovereign status, the Holy Father was, in most times, able to conduct the affairs of the Church largely free of political duress.That same advantage has been preserved in the sovereign State of the Vatican City.

But to a large extent the existence of the Papal States brought with it the heavy burden of entanglement in international affairs, and relations with other States - sometimes inevitably leading to War. And even well short of war, it was from time to time, seen to be compromising, or at least complicating, the role of the Holy See. To-day, the State of Vatican City is so very small that all of those real complications no longer exist. Nevertheless it has sufficient substance to guarantee its place in international forums.And the Holy See is free to act as it will. The result is truly ideal.


But we are getting ahead of ourselves. For in 1517 a heavy drinking German Augustinian, Martin Luther, lumbered onto the stage of history and with his heresies, blasphemies and sacrilege he started the Protestant Deformation of Christ's Church.The " modern " age of the day featured two heady developments : the printing press and the renaissance in Classical learning. Looking back from that date over the extended Medieval period, we can see that the embrace of the idea that " error has no rights" was a natural belief in a world that was wholly Catholic.The reasoning is automatic: if everyone practices the true Faith, anyone who preaches error is leading souls to perdition - which no-one has the right to do. There were of course, always dissenters of one stripe or another, but the strength of Monarchical Kingdoms meant that such  a dissenter was readily suppressed with the co-operation of the State.

But now, a variety of rulers of differing degrees of importance, weighed down by the costs of protracted periods of war,had begun to eye the wealth that the faithful had built up in Church properties and assets, as a source of fresh financial enhancement. When Luther  would nor recant his errors, blasphemies and sacrilege, and fell foul of the Holy See on matters of Doctrine and Discipline, some of these rulers began to support him and attack the Church.

Luther and his fellow heretics were quick to adopt the Printing Press to spread their new teachings. And the novelty guaranteed a wide audience. The response of the Church was firstly to present and publish Rebuttals of the heretical works - an effort in which Saint Thomas More was so ably involved at the behest of the English Bishops. The further effort to attempt the exercise of Authority to ban the printing and distribution of these works, and where the perpetrator could be apprehended, to try him for Heresy, was less than productive. To-day of course, in the face of more widespread, subtle and devious heresy, our response is essentially an educational and Apologetic one.Only rarely are heretics works condemned and their authors forbidden to teach.

But, even in the Deformation times, we can see that the initial attempts to come to terms with their " modern " times failed sadly. We can understand the perplexity of the Church authorities of the time - the customary order of over 1,000 years had been overturned.Unlike us, they did not live with rapid social, intellectual and technological change.  The heretics could act without responsibility for any established order, whereas the Church had everything to defend. To compound her woes, many Monarchs who had been faithful enforcers of the Truth and its defenders, became either enemies or wobbly/ weak reeds at best.

On this occasion even the most heroic efforts of the foreign educated Martyr Priests in England were twisted by the Protestants  to argue that these were traitors to the State and to the Crown -  like all loyal Catholics. The new age had begun! The Spin Doctors were hard at work. 

Not until the Council of Trent did the Church get back onto the front foot.And then she did it in fine style. The production of the Catechism of the Council of Trent,and the Dogmatic Canons of the Council clearly defined and re-affirmed the Church's teaching and discipline . Along the way, that discipline was tightened up and renewed and the proper establishment of Seminaries was required. The life of the Church was overhauled and re-invigorated. Not only was there no compromise with the heretics , but rather a vigorous and robust re-affirmation of authentic traditional Catholic practise. The glories of the new Baroque architecture everywhere proclaimed that the Catholic Church was in no doubt about her very nature and mission and her fundamental difference to the deformers.  She stood in glorious defence of all she had received from Christ! . She had met "modern " times and came through with her Divine deposit of Faith intact and Christ's Seven Sacraments fully employed and
protected, and embarking on global missionary efforts.


But the tectonic plates of history had been set in motion, and there was no longer to be a once and for all solution.France had historically been held to be the Eldest Daughter of the Church, in unbroken communion with the Holy See since the second Century, but in 1789 Satan himself seemed to roam the streets of France promoting a blind unreasoning paroxysm of merciless hatred. Not only was the political order overturned and the nobility effectively destroyed, and the King guillotined, but the Church herself was singled out for particular attention: Bishops, Priests, Religious , Laity, Churches, Monasteries Hospitals - everyone and everything felt the venom of the mindless masses.

How did the Catholic Church address these " modern times", which even had the now Protestant British Monarchy and Government across the Channel quaking and looking over their shoulders? Largely unable to function publicly, when even great Notre Dame de Paris was desecrated and left a ruin, and the Clergy who survived were forbidden to wear clerical attire, and if identified attacked and beaten up, she resorted to secret celebrations of Mass, the promotion of private prayer and teaching, a zero profile was all that was possible.A measure of how difficult Catholic life had become is the fact that 30,000 Clergy were exiled from France and hundreds more were killed during the revolutionary period.

But once again, the blood of the martyrs proved to be the seeds of the Church. Only some 70 years later , in 1858 the Apparition Of The Blessed Virgin to Saint Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes seemed to completely ignite the spiritual fires already enkindled by Our Lady's earlier apparitions in 1846 to Melanie Calvat and Maximin Giraud at La Salette and in 1830 to Saint Catherine Laboure' at Rue du Bac in Paris - the Miraculous Medal. In addition , the ground had been prepared by three mightily holy men - who lived partly contemporaneous lives : Saint Jean Baptiste Vianney (1786 -1859) the great apostle of the Sacrament of Penance, Saint Marcellin Champagnat (1789-1840) Founder of the Marist Brothers and Saint Peter Julian Eymard ( 1811-1868)Founder of the Blessed Sacrament Fathers. And the crowning jewel of this renaissance of French spirituality was the life of Saint Therese of Lisieux - so short in itself ( 1873 - 1897)- and lived in obscurity, but flowering so brilliantly after her death.

How did the Church in France react to the "modern times" she faced. To tell the truth she barely had a chance to react. She was very nearly obliterated by the whirlwind of diabolical insanity. But she was always under the tender care of her Master who sent His Mother to reach out and inspire, and comfort, and He sent his saints to reconcile tormented souls to Himself, to provide for the instruction of the young in the knowledge of the Faith, and to draw the faithful to greater devotion to Himself in the Blessed Sacrament. 

So, when the Church is so decimated she can scarcely react to " modern times" we see Christ Himself intervening to restore and to guide her.

If we step forward again to the 1890s we see yet a further evolution in " modern times" - once again the Church reacts. By the 1890s the social revolutions caused by commercialism and by the industrial revolution had caused havoc throughout the Western world. The great cities of the  new era drew unto themselves millions from the countryside and even from far distant countries.This led to the decimation of traditional village life throughout Europe and the United Kingdom, with its strong cultural and religious certainties.

The workers in these newly industrialised environments lived in appalling conditions, the wealthy owners of the plants lived in circumstances of great grandeur. Social unrest was growing and many demagogues were emerging to  foment revolution against the State including Monarchs, and sought to identify the Church as merely an instrument in the repression of the working class, for the benefit of the Upper Classes.

The Church under Pope Leo XIII saw the need to examine and react to the new ideas that were circulating and threatening to disturb the minds of many as well as to foment rebellion against all authority.In the past, matters of social justice had not been of great moment because nothing  changed in society for hundreds of years, or if it did, it happened imperceptibly perhaps over a century or more. But now, the decades seemed to bring new circumstances more and more rapidly. Pope Leo XIII sought to draw out the principles which should govern this aspect of our lives as followers of Christ.He strongly asserted the rights of workers to just payments, to unite to protect their interests in Unions, but he quickly perceived the evils of Communism and defended the right to private property. 

Cruel working conditions 1800s
The very lively descriptions of circumstances which are a feature of Rerum Novarum demonstrated a good familiarity with the plight of the workers. Through its carefully reasoned language and its grounding in Natural Law and Catholic classical teaching, the Encyclical readily demonstrated the need to to have regard not only for the rights of the workers and the employers , but also for the responsibilities of each. And it highlighted the proper role of the State, to govern and to moderate the situation to 
ensure the protection of the rights and performance of the responsibilities of all parties.

There is much more involved in the Encyclical , but the above commentary    is sufficient for our purposes.It could truly be said, that even apart from the Church itself,Pope Leo XIII performed an invaluable service to the non-Catholic world, to society at large , with this excellent examination of the foundations of social justice. On the eve of the outbreak of the Communist Revolution in Russia , it greatly clarified and delineated a sound, rational and Christian response to challenges posed by both Communism and Socialism.It was an ideal and timely response to " modern times".

Events began to move at an ever faster pace  and often in radical directions.The First World War was devastatingly transformative bringing along with it the Russian Revolution. The aftermath of that Great War was itself destructive as the Peace Treaty of Versailles set the stage for the carving up of Europe, the destruction of Germany and thus the rise of the Nazis and World War II and the deaths of tens of millions and, in effect, for the Cold War.But before some of those " seeds" of the Great War could flourish, there came in 1923 the Great Inflation in Germany preparing the way for the Nazi takeover. And in 1929 the Great Depression shattered the economies of the Western World.

"Modern times" were coming on at the gallop! But no-one could be, or was, prepared for them. The Church was in the same boat in this regard, as anyone else.In the Great War, we saw the slaughter of a very large part of a generation of young men, this in itself was a catastrophe of incredible proportions striking out of the future development of society untold good. But in the process, there was introduced into society untold potential for evil. The  disruption of normal society caused by the mobilisation of tens of millions of men, their brutalisation in the appalling carnage that was to kill 16,000,000 and wound 20,000,000, and the undesirable moral lapses induced by the separation of these many millions from family, home and country, produced a truly incalculable degree of evil in the postwar society. Add to that the degradation caused by the Great inflation in Germany, and the Great Depression throughout the Western World, and we clearly see a prescription for disaster.

Requiescant in Pace
The horrors of War.
It came in the shape of Communism and National Socialism and it produced the Second World War.This , in its turn produced 25,487,000 Military Deaths and somewhere between 40 and 60,000,000 Civilian deaths due to Military Action. The figures are monstrous and cause the mind to baulk. 

What we see through the 20th Century is evil begetting evil on a scale unparralleled in history. Kingdoms that had lasted a thousand years were swept away, the finest young manhood of several generations decimated, and on and on with the record of horrors. How did the Church react to these " modern times"? 

Well, through most of the worst of the turmoil she continued to teach what Christ had taught and to administer and safeguard the Seven Sacraments, to console the bereaved , bury and pray for the dead. But in the aftermath of World War II there was a new zeitgeist abroad in the world. Strangely it was a spirit of elation and self - confidence. It was, one supposes, partly the hubris induced by victory over evil, and partly the idea that so much had been destroyed that everything could be re-made, a new world.Indeed as one of the principal victors, Britain set about "The Festival of Britain" in 1951. This was largely a celebration of self-deception, for , as has been said elsewhere, Britain had several disadvantages coming out of World War !! - she survived with much of her physical plant still intact (and thus outmoded) and all of her institutions intact ( often hidebound and unwilling to face a new era some said).But more importantly she was in fact bankrupt. This became all too apparent as the 1960s unfolded.

But the Church you say, What about the Church? 

There were few signs of trouble as she moved back into her peacetime stride.In France there was some unrest over the " Worker Priests" Movement. But when had there not been trouble in France? And in any case it was limited in its extent. In the media the Catholic Church was lauded for its protection and service of the poor, the sick and the dying, and for its great moral authority and stabilising social effect.Senior Clergy were always well treated in the media and the Catholic world rejoiced in the fact that the then Bishop Fulton J.Sheen was the second most popular personality on American Television.It was business as usual for the Church with Vocations actually at an all time high, churches full especially on Sundays, and attendance rates around 60%.Then it happened, like a bolt from the blue.

If it is true as the comedians told us that " Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition" ! It was far more true that nobody expected the Second Vatican Council.

Pope John XXIII was elected in 1958 following the death of the revered and austere Pope Pius XII. At 77 years of age, John XXIII was generally referred to by commentators as a " caretaker" Pope. Nobody told him!
Only three months into his Papacy, at a ceremony at Saint Paul Outside the Walls,on 25th January, 1959 the Holy Father announced that he was summoning the Second Vatican Council.

Ironically Pope John XXIII 's Papal Coat of Arms bore the Motto " Obedientia et Pax" - " Obedience and Peace"  .

 If there were two characteristics which suffered immensely in the wake of the Council they were precisely " Obedience and Peace". Bizarre as it may sound, the announcement of the Council would lead to tens of thousands of Priests and Religious abandoning their vocations, and a decline in Mass attendances from 60% to as low as 10% in many places.

Whilst it is true that the announcement of the Council would lead to those disastrous consequences, it did not cause them. Nor did the Council itself. No, the Devil himself was at work. And, with the co-operation of a clique of North European Prelates, the media was given a daily " spirit of the Council" background each day - clerical spin doctors!  Meanwhile in blissful innocence, the Council Fathers went about their appointed roles, expecting that in due course, the documents the Council would progressively issue would reveal to the Church and the world what precisely the Council taught.

 Fat chance! By the time the documents were released one by one, EVERYONE knew that the spirit of the Council meant;  for example : Mass in the vernacular, Mass facing the people, no more Altar Rails, No more Tabernacle prominently central.In truth all of this was alien to the actual relevant Council document. And so it went  document by document - subverted, perverted and in time the actual Council documents were carefully filed away, known only to the elite who cared.They were largely ignored by the media, and when one was rarely properly reported on, the report went largely unread because " everyone already knew all about it".

The result was a shambles. As the English Commentator and Author the late Malcolm Muggeridge said at the time : " Just when the World needed her most, the Catholic Church lost her nerve." He was wrong , but was observing and commenting on the false spirit of the Council at work. Muggeridge subsequently became a Catholic. 

It took the long Pontificate of Blessed Pope John Paul II to stop the rot and begin to turn the Barque of Peter back onto her course. In our present day his Successor Pope Benedict XVI has systematically and determinedly pursued the rediscovery and implementation of the truth of the Council .So thorough was the Devil's work, that most Catholics are still surprised to discover the truth.


Having swept through 2,000 years of history at a clip worthy of Chesterton's " Heavenly Chariot" ( though lacking its guarantee of Infallibility) , and considering our subject - the Church 's relationship to " modern times", where are we now? Is the Church doing enough to meet the demands of the present circumstances?

Well, the Holy Father has been steadily and consistently striving to get the Church to look ahead with the Holy Spirit by recovering the authentic message of the Second Vatican Council, and to take account of where she has come from by embarking on the New Evangelsation of those once gloriously Catholic lands where the flame of Faith is guttering and the anti-Christ of Mohammedanism seeks to rise. The Synod of Bishops is embarked on the same mission.

It is probably true that she never ultimately can do enough.But in a sense the problem is the way in which the question is posed.

It is not really a matter of waiting for the institutional Church to always be the "active" party. Divine Grace and intervention is never lacking. When we consider the activity of Saint John Vianney, Saint Marcellin Champagnat and Saint Therese of Lisieux, not to mention many others, not canonised saints but also heroes like Pere Lacordaire , we can see that the miracle of the recovery of French spirituality in the 1800s against all odds,depended also on individuals who were not content to simply recognise problems but to co-operate with God's grace and act - often against great opposition and in the face of harsh difficulty. We are too much inclined in our "modern times" to look for solutions from institutional action and " programmes". Preaching the word, teaching the Faith, inspiring holiness are at their heart tasks for personal action.We need less form and more substance.

If we want to know how the Church is reacting to modern times, we need to begin by considering what we are doing personally.The Church will always be, should always be, counter-cultural. The way of the world is not Christ's way . He called us out of the world in that sense, but he also sends us into the world for its conversion! He gave us our wits not change His message, but to change the world! 

We did it before several times, the struggle is perennial - we can, and we MUST do it again with God's help! As the Crusaders cried DEUS VULT! God wills it! We must be ready when He comes again !


Father K said…
Thanks for your excellent analysis. Please, please write a book. I will pray for that to happen.
vexilla regis said…
Thank you Father for your kind words.

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