If you follow the news, especially Church news, you likely understand that there are few places on the internet or in the public square where faithful, orthodox Catholics can find respite. Anecdotally, it appears that there is a growing sense of discontent or even of despair. Pope Francis seems to be addressing this tendency in Christus Vivit: “Young people, do not let the world draw you only into things that are wrong and superficial. Learn to swim against the tide, learn how to share Jesus and the faith he has given you. May you be moved by that same irresistible impulse that led Saint Paul to say: ‘Woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel’ (1 Cor 9:16)!”
The internet has made our world smaller than ever. It is now very easy to be “in the know.” Information travels very quickly, at the speed of light. As a consequence, societal trends and movements affect us more rapidly. Dangerous ideas that in the past might have been smothered by a filter of family, friends, and local communities, now fester unmediated in a virtual hellscape, where the worst impulses of humanity–vanity, pride, lust, envy, jealousy, and hatred–are often considered virtues.
In the wake of the recent mass shootings, it is encouraging in a way, for politicians in the United States to be debating how this country can be made safer. Stronger background checks, says one. Prohibit high capacity magazines, says another. Disconcertingly, however, others have engaged with the ideology of a so-called “manifesto” of a mass-murderer to try to glean some insight into what political motivations drive a man to kill. This misses the obvious fact that mass-murderers should not be rewarded with attention. Additionally, their theory seems to be that if you make it impossible to believe what those mass-murderers believed, then there will be no violence.
Our problems are not limited to the secular world. Our sins are tearing the Church apart too. The Church of Christ is, of course, stronger than the power of sin. I am not suggesting that our Church is at risk of being defeated in any absolute sense. But this is what is happening: the serpent of Genesis has reemerged in the dangerous new forms of individualism and American nationalism. Those who embrace this ideology are so self-assured about what is right and what is true that it has led many of them to reject magisterial Church teachings. They have become overconfident in their own abilities to reason, and they have driven themselves far from the living Body of Christ and into ideological bunkers.
This mentality has been exacerbated by certain Catholic media outlets. Rather than mediating the facts or sifting through information carefully, they publish articles that fit their preconceived notions about the supposedly good and bad actors in the Church today. They choose the “truth” that is most convenient or most palatable to them and present it to their readers, in disservice to Truth. In a recent example, one of these Catholic media outlets strongly implied, without any real foundation, that Pope Emeritus Benedict had taken sides against Francis in the very real but regrettable political battle over the restructuring of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute.
The solution to these problems is not structural or administrative. Much of the current crisis in the Church is due to disagreements based on false premises and ideological assumptions, and nothing short of a paradigm shift will be required to bring about its end. I often think of Ptolemy’s model of the solar system in these situations. His geocentric model was replaced by a completely different and more correct understanding of the solar system. A simpler model, albeit one that acknowledged the imperfections of the universe, replaced the extreme complexity of a model that needed orbits and planets to be only perfect circles and spheres.
The simple yet imperfect reality is that we are broken. This fact often escapes even the most well-intentioned among us. All of us are deeply broken. Our hearts are broken; our minds are broken. We find ourselves thinking in darkness and loving only ourselves. And yet, many of our “models” of how our society and the Church should work operate on the false assumption that we are not broken, or not nearly as broken as we actually are. It is on the basis of these false assumptions that we entrust ourselves with the freedoms we desperately crave and feel we deserve but which any objective bystander can acknowledge we promptly abuse. We then come up with a dizzying maze of rules and traditions to ward off sin and any deviations from the norm.
Our model needs a re-imagining.
By acknowledging that God is at the center of our lives, that he alone can tell us how we ought to live, only then we will come to grips with our brokenness. Francis has referred to the Spirit as the main protagonist in our lives. Sadly, while we debate among ourselves about certain aspects of our faith, such as the infallibility of the Pope, tens of millions of people in the United States are suffering because God is not part of their lives at all. They lack direction. They lack something to aim for, something to hope for, that lifts them out of the muck and mire of a sinful human existence. The sad reality is that without God, our brokenness becomes entwined with our very identity. We learn to take pride in ourselves, including our very sinfulness.
How can a broken man or woman learn to love? How can sinful people fix themselves? The only way is to receive the love of the One who can love perfectly, who can show us why we were made and can bring about that change in us and through us. Yes, we are broken, but we can learn to love by the grace of God and the grace of God alone. This isn’t another Marianne Williamson-like way to suggest we’re dealing with a “dark psychic force.” What I mean is Truth has come into the world and redeemed it from the hollowness of sin. What I am talking about is the Creator of the universe who died on the cross so that he might fill each of us with his love.
Consider the man who loves perfectly. He cares deeply for others and gives generously of himself. As Thomas à Kempis wrote of the grace-filled man, “[He] does not care for news or novelties, because all these things spring from the age-old corruption of humanity, for there is nothing new or lasting in this world.” As we heard recently at a Sunday mass: Vanity of vanities! Everything is vanity!
Evangelization, spreading the Good News, is the only response to the sins of this world. The Gospel is eternal newness, the source of all our energy and youthfulness (cf. Christus Vivit 13). We are all in need of healing, which can only be found in the deep, abiding love of Christ. Consider the man who does not dwell on the sins of this world, but on the beauty, the wonder, and the joy of God. Consider the person who has been freed from worldly despair to be the love of God for others.