In Britain, nearly 50 percent of the population claims to have no religious affiliation, according to recent reports.
Despite an attempt to put a rosy gloss on the study by the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society in London — which says the country may have reached its “secular peak” — the report makes for rather gloomy reading. The word “Christian” does not appear in the manifesto of any of the major parties seeking to form the next U.K. government.
“The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian morality.”
It should be on the desk of every Catholic bishop in the land, and be required study at one of their next junkets, along with the eco-audits and transphobia awareness workshops. This study graphically and statistically shows the utter failure of the “new evangelization” — at least in the form it has been promoted in the U.K. — which seems to be what has been called “Catholicism lite.”
The problem is not, however, limited to the United Kingdom. The secular tsunami continues to sweep across formerly Christian Europe and is seriously challenging the old image of the United States as the most religious nation on earth, especially among the younger population. Secular materialism, the true “opiate of the people” is, in itself, a form of religion: the religion of the self and the glorification of individualism.
It is telling to note in Pope Benedict XVI’s last book — his “Testament” interview with Peter Seewald — that the emeritus pope describes his “sadness” in seeing the faith evaporate in the West. Patriarch Kirill of Russia recently said that “making the Gospel of Christ current to our times is an extraordinarily difficult task.”
In 1931, in what might have seemed to be a prediction of the horrors fascism and communism would unleash on the world, the poet and writer T.S. Eliot took on the role of prophet. He was not really speaking of those two atheistic systems, which cast such a terrible pall across the earth. He was speaking of the kind of society both Benedict XVI and Patriarch Kirill lament — and which the report on secularism documents — the “modern” society without God.
It is worth quoting Eliot in full; his rather long sentence should be the subject of much thought and meditation. Eliot writes: “The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian morality. The experiment will fail, but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time; so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us.”
Eighty or more years after those words were written, we can see where the experiment has got us. Even after the Holocaust, the gulags — the complete revelation of what atheistic systems were capable of doing to the human person — the experiment continued apace.
The European Constitution refused to acknowledge the Christian foundation of Europe, thus making the very concept of European Union a house built on sand. “Civilized” nations and most of the world, in fact, enshrine in law the “right” to murder the unborn child in the womb. The elderly, terminally ill, and now even the depressed also have the right to be euthanized under the law.
The divine institution of marriage and even the very concept of gender is now redefined. Biblical teaching and revelation is described as intolerable hate speech. In the name of tolerance, all must be tolerated — except Christian teaching and morality.
It is unlikely Eliot could have foreseen the full consequences of the experiment, but he did see that it would fail — indeed, a word of prophecy. His call for “patience” awaiting “its collapse” might need to be challenged. Maybe the patience of the church and, in some instances, its willing acquiescence to the “experiment” — throwing open the windows to the modern world at the very moment the foulest of air was blowing in — strengthened the hand of the real creators of the experiment and gave them greater cover.
The three ways to discover God — beauty, truth and goodness — were all overwhelmed in a sea of ugliness, iconoclasm and relativism.
Reading, for example, some of the naïve sentences of the Vatican II decree Gaudium et Spes, the decree on the Church in the Modern World, is a rather excruciating experience, like being forced to wear flared jeans and Afghan coats 40 years after they were fashionable.
How have we done on the task Eliot sets all Christians at the end of his long, prophetic sentence — “redeeming the time” and preserving the Faith “alive through the dark ages before us”?
If the statistics of the Benedict XVI Centre are correct, and a vast number of other studies of religious practice in the West attest, the answer to Eliot’s challenge is also fairly universally discouraging. The blame must be placed firmly on the leadership of the church, who, at the very time the world needed and needs clarity and a willingness to go against the tide, instead offered obtuseness and the faithful following of fashion.
The three ways to discover God and thus to expose the impossibility of the experiment — namely beauty, truth and goodness — were all overwhelmed in a sea of ugliness, iconoclasm and relativism. Is it surprising that more people left the Catholic Church after the liturgical upheaval or revolution after Vatican II than at any other period in its history?
Yet Eliot’s challenge still stands, and it may not be “hoping against hope” to see an awakening. There seems to be a greater realization among the properly formed or newly converted that “patience” awaiting the collapse of this civilization without God is no longer possible.
The “redeeming of time,” and preserving of the faith, is being accomplished in monasteries, schools and small orthodox communities across the West — and in the revival of Orthodoxy in Holy Rus. The role of the artist as servant of the faith, championed by St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, is a glimmer of light in these dark ages. Prophets do not tell us the future; they speak the mind of God. So maybe the words of Eliot are given to us today to strengthen those who sense a vocation to preserve the faith — and redeem the time in the “dark ages before us.”
Fr. Benedict Kiely is a Catholic priest and founder of Nasarean.org, which is helping the persecuted Christians of the Middle East.