By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio – articles – email ) | April 29, 2022
We know that infant baptisms have steadily declined in the United States over the past generation (see Phil Lawler, An Epidemic of Unbaptized Catholics), and I suspect the trends are quite similar across the largely homogeneous cultures of the Secular West. We also know that the percentage of those who do not identify as Christian or Catholic is steadily increasing. And it is generally known that in terms of robust and active faith, Catholic life has declined as much or more in triumphantly secular areas as in areas where Christians are specifically persecuted.
Throughout the West, at least, Church members have become increasingly secularized, so there is continued pressure within the Church to ignore or even change unpopular Church teachings in order to to curry favor with the dominant culture. We constantly see it among socio-political leaders, teachers and professors, priests and religious, and even some bishops and cardinals. Indeed, nothing is more understandable than the members of the Church, who are often formed as much by the dominant culture as by the truths of the Faith, very often reflect the usual misunderstandings, failures and rebellions of time and place where they live.
If we look at any period in the history of the Church, we will find that the prevailing misunderstandings and weaknesses within the Church mirror closely (although usually with much less gravity) the characteristic misunderstandings and weaknesses cultures from which the Church draws its members. It takes the characteristic zeal of new converts – a constantly renewed and deepened zeal in all Catholics who take very seriously the sacraments, personal prayer, the teaching of the Church and the examination of conscience before God – to rise above mere cultural assumptions, personal misunderstandings and habitual flaws. in the light of Christ. It is a difficult and continuous process.
Too bad for what we see around us every day. And yet, there remain many good bishops, priests, deacons, religious and laity who pray and work energetically to renew the Church, witness to Christ, preach and teach the Faith, set a courageous counter-cultural example and at the same time time to invite others to make their own commitment to Christ and the Church. But all of this clashes with trends: Baptisms are down, conversions are down, Mass attendance (even outside of Covid) is down, and Christianity’s influence on human culture continues to decline.
How to interpret these results ? What is the explanation for this steady decline? Are Catholic failures specifically to blame?
Somewhat surprisingly, while the failures of Church leaders and those who call themselves “Catholics” are certainly importantthey are not in themselves one sufficient explanation. If they were, there would never be an era of Christian “expansion,” for every age is filled with failures of the Church in its members, including our own personal failures. And yet, sometimes the Church grows, sometimes Christianity shapes the culture, and sometimes the Christian way of life seems to gain ground in the world, while at other times it staggers and falls. We can always point to obvious shortcomings that “explain” the failures, just as we can always point to a striking Christian testimony that “should have had” the opposite effect.
Calm: Providence at work
Our Lord responds directly to this erroneous form of human analysis in a single epigram: “For here the saying is true: ‘One sows and another reaps’.” (Jn 4:37) But let’s take a closer look at these words of Christ, as he instructed his disciples:
I tell you, lift up your eyes and see how the fields are already white for the harvest. He who reaps receives wages and gathers fruit for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may rejoice together. Because here, the saying is true: “One sows and the other reaps”. I sent you to reap what you did not work for; others have worked, and you have entered into their work. [Jn 4:31-38]
These words of Our Lord are a resounding confirmation of the spiritual meaning of Psalm 126 in verse 6: “He who goes away weeping, bearing the seed to be sown, will return home with shouts of joy, bearing her sheaves”. But the harvest of souls is not the work of a single season of growth, and what Our Lord tells us is that this passage is accomplished transcendentally, that is to say far beyond. beyond a single time and a single place or a single generation. For if he sends some to reap with joy what they have not labored for, it means that he sends others to sow in tears what they will not reap.
There are quite a few passages in the Old and New Testaments that talk about sowing and reaping. Some point out that the wrath of God can nullify human effort. This is true, of course, when God is displeased with the way we act and determines that it would be both right and in our best interest if even our normal human efforts should fail, so that we learn to be careful and to depend on him. (See, for example, Jer 12:13 and Mic 6:15.)
Others emphasize the deeper moral truth that we all reap what we sow (Job 4:8; Hos 10:13; 2 Cor 9:6; Gal 6:7-9). In its fullest Christian form, this can be summed up in St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
Don’t be disappointed; We are not making fun of God, because whatever a man sows, he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will reap corruption from the flesh; but he who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit.
However, outside of this deep relationship between the soul and God, there is real human uncertainty. Thus, in the Book of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher points out that we simply don’t know how things will turn out in this world:
He who observes the wind will not sow; and he who looks at the clouds will not reap. As you do not know how the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a pregnant woman, so you do not know the work of God who does everything. Morning sow your seed, and evening do not withhold your hand; for you do not know which will succeed, this or that, or whether both will be equally good. [11:4-6]
It’s a candid reminder that much of what happens is simply beyond our control, a lesson even Christians must never forget. There is a wide range of spiritual results obscure to us – not the ultimate fidelity results for us personally, but the manifestation here and now of results that we hope to achieve at least in part through our own efforts. Any faithful Christian who has watched helplessly friends or family go astray understands this terrible uncertainty, this terrible inability on our part to control the result even among those we love the most. This is a particular challenge to our trust in God.
Assurance of Christian Hope
The unpredictability of our most precious relationships is carried to a far greater degree throughout the history of man, and indeed of all created beings. Nevertheless, in his most mature teaching, Saint Paul even addresses this:
I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who causes growth. He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each will receive his reward according to his work. [1 Cor 3:6-8]
Notice that wages are commensurate with the quality of the work itself; not according to the outward success of this work, for God gives growth. This reminds us of a very important Catholic teaching, the teaching on “the economy of salvation”. Because in the economy of salvation, nothing good is ever wasted. Not only is it true that we mysteriously invent what “is lacking in the afflictions of Christ for the sake of his body, the church” (Col 1:24), but it is also true that all good wrought in us by divine grace is credited with great value – value that will produce a corresponding return somewhere, sometimes, not necessarily as we see it, but far beyond our comprehension.
Saint Paul continues his discussion in 1 Corinthians with other metaphors, which further emphasize the uncertainty of our efforts, but also the assurance of our reward: “Let no one therefore boast of men. For everything is yours, be it Paul, Apollos, Cephas, the world, life, death, the present or the future, everything is yours; and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God” (1 Cor 3:21-23).
In other words, there is no predictable, visible, and immediate one-to-one correspondence between even our best intentions and efforts and their results in renewing the Church, drawing others to Christ, and sanctifying human culture. We do not fully understand the causal relationship between virtue and success, on the one hand, and vice and failure, on the other. For this reason, while we can identify spiritual problems and shortcomings in the Church today, and we must work to correct them for the sake of souls and the glory of God, we cannot say, “If only those things that I discern were corrected, the mission of the Church would succeed. We must leave room for the mystery of Christ’s action in the world, which most certainly includes the mystery of the cross.
If the Church grows in one area or at one time and shrinks in another; whether Catholicism penetrates deeply into a particular human culture or shrivels up; whether our own sincere efforts bear visible fruit or not; whether our loved ones live exemplary Catholic lives or seem very, very lost – whatever happens, it is not for us to predict or even fully understand the results; nor deny responsibility for failure; nor to take credit for victory; nor even to suppose that fidelity, virtue and mission will always meet with visible success for the Church in this world.
I have often emphasized that we are called not to be success but be loyal. Only then are the world, life and death, the present and the future guaranteed to us. For Our Lord has saved us by obedience to the Father. In exactly the same way, it is not by visible success but by faithfulness alone that we are to Christ, and Christ is to God.
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