The mild Sydney winter seems to help me get my rant on. Ranting via a tablet, however, leads to many a typo. Swings and roundabouts I guess…
The last 24 hours we’ve been hearing about the change to the text to the Catechism of the Catholic Church proposed by Rome to reflect the current papal attitude to the death penalty.
To be frank, this does not particularly worry me per se. Church moral teaching once encompassed slavery, now it definitively rejects it. Church teaching has encompassed capital punishment hitherto, but the recent magisterium has not looked positively on it. My approach to capital punishment is conflicted. For example I can see a case for capital punishment to ensure public protection from a violent, murderous offender whose guilt is incontrovertible. Likewise, genocide seems to merit the ultimate sanction. Again, guilt should be incontrovertible.
This leads into my own doubts about capital punishment. The execution of an innocent person is a grave wound to society and its trust in the law. The old maxim that it is better that the guilty go free than the innocent be condemned seems to have been totally forgotten. Public clamour for the death penalty in individual cases had little to do with justice and much to do with vengeance. Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. Our Lord rejected the prevailing principle of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
None of this is to reject the theological possibility of capital punishment per se. My fear is that the proposed changes to the Catechism go too far and say too much, and in terms too narrow. It seems more prudent to hold the modern understanding in a thought-provoking tension with the traditional teaching in the Catechism’s text.
Looking at this more contextually, perhaps an even greater concern is the phenomenon of change itself. Since the middle of the twentieth century the Church has suffered as constant, and often quite bewildering and ultimately unnecessary series of changes to teaching and liturgy. Large scale change leads to an expectation of more. And more. Everything is perceived, often wrongly, as open to change. When change is valued for its own sake, nothing is safe. Recently Professor Stephen Bullivant, and other commentators, have noted how the negative reaction to Humanae Vitae in 1968 was conditioned by the widespread expectation of change in Church teaching on artificial contraception, an expectation fostered and exacerbated by the dizzying changes unleashed on the Church in the 1960s. Thus, this change to the text of the Catechism appears as a regrettable perpetuation of a culture, a hermeneutic, of change. It is not what we need right now.
This morning, at Berkelouw Books (a Sydney institution) I secured a copy of Greg Sheridan’s God is Good For You: A Defence of Christianity in Troubled Times. The introduction deals with the decline of Christianity in the West and the intolerance western society manifests towards it and indeed all religious faith that is not affirming of the secular agenda. His introduction’s relatively brief and sweeping statistical analysis of the decline in the West is a useful appetiser to Professor Bullivant’s forthcoming book Mass Exodus, which will offer a rigorous, detailed and academic statistical analysis of the Western decline of Catholicism in particular. But Mr Sheridan also neatly summarises the historical milestones in the gradually increasing marginalisation of Christianity in western culture since the Renaissance.
Mr Sheridan predicts that faith will not die but that it will become a more personalized, more isolated phenomenon:
God will not be dead to individuals, but he will be hiding in our society, banished from public consciousness. Rumours of his presence, reported sightings—firing glimpses—will persist, but the public culture will be inattentive at best, abusive at worst. (p2)
This is not the tragedy it appears at first to be. Many date the decline in the evangelical and prophetical vitality of the Christian faith and the Church to the establishment of Christianity in the Roman empire by Constantine. Establishment is not necessarily a good thing for Christianity. It should be in the world but never of the world. It should be, and indeed is, radically countercultural. Christians should never feel at home in the world, should feel that in this life we have no abiding city other than in the Church and its supernatural mission and promise. As the world hated Christ so it must hate us, for the servants are not greater than the Master.
The modern marginalisation of Christianity in an ever more overtly and aggressively secularized western society, and in a wider world context of a resurgent and no less aggressive Islam, offers us an opportunity. God will not die, nor will faith. Instead nominalism in religious identity will die. To identify as Christian will be to court the world’s contempt and to undertake a lonelier, purer, more radical, more total commitment to Christ and his Body. It will require the witness of a closer following of Christian teaching, of a more comprehensive sincerity, of a gentle but unyielding refusal to compromise truth. It will require sanctity, the sanctity that comes from the Cross, of martyrdom, be it the red martyrdom of violent persecution or the white martyrdom of social opprobrium. It will require the recovery of the essentials that were jettisoned in the largely, and tragically, misguided attempt to woo modern western society and culture that has further scarred the Body of Christ from the mid-twentieth century onwards.
More and more I am becoming reconciled to the decline of Christianity in the West, not as something desirable in itself but as something necessary in our context. The insecurity of our modern situation will provide fertile soil for a more vigorous and more honest evangelism and witness. Christian faith will cease, has ceased, to be a consoling socio-cultural inheritance and become, again, a challenging and costly commitment demanding radical witness and radical worship.
Christianity is, by definition, intrinsically countercultural in a fallen world, and in this fallen world it should never be, can never be, at home, until the world has become a new creation, the New Jerusalem.
Be gentle on the typos; it’s late.