Home in Rome
Last Wednesday, February 22, began the season of Lent. Almost a year ago, I was received into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. This was the result of a long story. Undoubtedly, it remains an enigma to many who knew my cynicism and rejection of religion. Nevertheless, after a “dark night of the soul,” I arrived home in Rome. Ever since my surrender, I have been reflecting on what Christianity means. As such, the season of Lent and the upcoming Easter make it a propitious time to reflect on Christianity and the state of what was once known as Christendom, which is now more commonly known as Western Civilization.
Pope Benedict XVI decried what he termed “the dictatorship of relativism.” By this, the Pope meant that modern Western culture had rejected the idea of truth and permanent values. I believe this is true. We can see the effects of this relativism in most of our popular culture, everything is viewed as relative, and the pursuit of fulfillment of the self (the ego) has become the one lone objective standard in modern secular societies. It is what the conservative philosopher Russell Kirk described as atomistic individualism, which is part of that great sin called pride. Because of many “advances” in emancipating western culture from Christianity, the human person is now “liberated” from traditional moral, social, cultural, or religious norms. We can see how modern culture emphasizes the deconstruction of everything, from religion (think of the so-called “historical Jesus“ contrary to the divine Christ) to the idea of gender. Nothing is permanent; all a person can do is follow the currents and moods of any age. The result is a mental health crisis and a culture in crisis.
Relativism is reminiscent of something C.S. Lewis warned about in his book, The Abolition of Man. In it, Lewis explained, “If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To see through all things is the same as not to see.” In other words, to deconstruct everything is to enjoy nothing. As Fulton Sheen once taught, people need to understand and have some values independent of space and time to live and think well.
And yet, in the West, there is something hidden. Something older, deeper, and wiser which has been here long before you or I arrived and will be here long after we have both returned to dust. One of the most fascinating things about Christianity is that in the West, it’s everywhere. Yet, we don’t see it. Popular culture, with its emphasis on immediate gratification and superficial thinking, does not incentivize us to really see. St. John Henry Newman once remarked,
“A great number of men live and die without reflecting at all upon the state of things in which they find themselves. They take things as they come and follow their inclinations as far as they have the opportunity. […] But when persons begin to contemplate the visible state of things into which they are born, they find it a maze and a perplexity. It is a riddle which they cannot solve.”
We try to solve the riddle of life with many things: By not thinking, with drugs, mindless television, alcoholism, and yes, even politics. Yet, despite all of that, questions remain. Conscience nabs at us when we fail to do good. But what is good? Our culture loudly proclaims itself for love, but what exactly is love? Our politics is plagued with moralism and debates, but what is politics for? How do we know what the right thing to do is? What is statecraft for?
Out of that moral and philosophical confusion appears the Church, a city on a hill, an organism above space and time. It gives us an answer, the answer of her Founder. Man is a unity of both body and spirit. The purpose of things such as money and politics is to serve people. The end does not justify the means. Persons are more than mindless automatons; they have free will and agency. The eminent French philosopher Blaise Pascal explained that the only religion that accounts for all the data (as commented by the philosopher Peter Kreeft) of both the human capacity for wretchedness and greatness is Christianity.
Christianity is not an easy message to hear in this or any age. The Gospel calls us to be born again. It calls on us to repent and surrender ourselves. So, I did. Trying to pursue the truth, I stumbled afresh into the claims of Christianity one day and looked them in the eye. All Christianity claims that Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate. This claim confronts us with the famous trilemma. Either Christ was lying, which means He was a bad man, or insane. Or, lastly and most terrifying, He was telling the truth. The trilemma leads us to an important consideration, marvelously discussed by Lewis and others. Either that Man was the Son of God, or He wasn’t. There is no middle ground. That is why the claim still stands regardless of the thousand ways in which atheists and agnostics try to rationalize Christ and make Him merely human. As Lewis explained, you must accept or reject the story. In the end, attempting to make Him a mere man is to deny His claim of divinity.
If one accepts His claim, then one must reflect. Which of the endless list of denominations is the real Church? That question led me to go deep into history. As a protestant for a long time (though admittedly, I never cared much for religion), I was for a long time skeptical and hostile to the Catholic Church since I believed it to be a backward, anachronistic, absolutist, authoritarian institution that was some unfortunate remnant of the Dark Ages. Little did I know. Eventually, trying to find the truth amongst the competing allegations of Christians, I was confronted for the first time with the Catholic claim to be the Church founded by Christ Himself.
Could this possibly be? Researching the matter, I discovered that, to quote St. John Henry Newman once more, “to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” There it all was. The apostolic succession, the uninterrupted tradition, the establishing of the Biblical canon, the fact that the Church has never changed her orthodoxy in all the long centuries, its development of art, its empowerment of women, respect for human life, its Saints, social justice, science, economics, philosophy, architecture, literature, education, etc. In short, as Thomas Woods explains in his classic, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, all the things that are best in our Civilization were preserved, formed, or improved thanks to Catholic Christianity. Even if we have forgotten.
As Joe Heschmeyer has explained, the Roman Catholic Church presents a variation of Christ’s trilemma. Either it is the Church founded by Christ that continues today, which means it is the true Church and the custodian of moral and religious truth, or it isn’t. Once more, one must either accept or reject the story. There is no middle ground. To have the scales fall from your eyes regarding the Church is revolutionary. Once I accepted the claim, I understood what G.K. Chesterton meant when he wrote, “many thousand things that I now partly comprehend I should have thought utterly incomprehensible, many things I now hold sacred I should have scouted as utterly superstitious, many things that seem lucid and enlightened now that they are seen from the inside, I should honestly have called dark and barbarous seen from the outside.” And now I see.
I know very little about religion, except that the Church provides us with permanent truths and principles, independent of space and time, which free us to think and teach us how to live well. It is an anti-ideology, an emancipator of the spirit of any age. To have a guide in life