The reason why Conservatism alone will not renew America; the reason why an excessive reliance on lectures in RCIA programs, religious education and retreats will not produce the spiritual fruits comparable to that of early Christianity, boils down to one reason: Ideas alone, and even the naked truth, does not contain the power to make citizens good nor Christians holy.
The revolutionary character of Christianity in those early years was that it recognized that intellectual enlightenment was woefully insufficient to bring about a person's conversion to a higher, supernatural life. Indeed, Christ not only came to shed the light of truth but he also came to infuse the power of grace into souls; and the purpose of that grace was to empower the human will to do good and to live his very life.
Hence, if the life of Christ infused into souls was the basis from which Christian civilization sprang then it is to this divine life, communicated through the Sacraments, that Americans must return to. Better put was the statement by Pope Leo XIII: “When a society is perishing, the wholesome advice to give to those who would restore it is to have them return to the principles from which society sprang...Hence, to fall away from its primal constitution implies disease; to go back to it, recovery.”
A 19th century Catholic priest and a cardinal address this very point in the two quotes below:
“To merely imitate Christ or the virtues of the Apostles was insufficient for the regeneration of mankind. On the contrary, virtue, even heroic virtue, was often an object of hatred. Without moral strength, an unattainable perfection of obedience to the commands of Christ could only aggravate the pagan’s despair of reaching it…
God’s work, through the Apostles, had to minister to the passive side of man as well as the active side; not just the intellect, but the will had to be regenerated…The doctrines which they spread abroad by preaching were not so many abstract assertions; but the practical force, the force of action, arose from that worship, whereby man could attain the grace of the Almighty.”
-Fr. Antonio Rosmini, Of the Five Wounds of the Holy Church 1832
“[Pagan] Philosophers ‘might’ have been able to check immorality. Some of them, indeed, guided by the light of reason, inculcated beautiful and sublime moral maxims; but many causes that rendered their influence for the good were scarcely perceptible among the people. Their audience was generally composed of a narrow circle of literary men.
They had no well-defined and uniform moral code; and they were often vague and contradictory in their ethical teaching. They suggested no adequate incentives to the practice of virtue. They never employed the greatest argument of St. Paul for morality: It is the will of God that you should be sanctified.”
-James Cardinal Gibbons, Our Christian Heritage 1889
As to Gibbons last point, it must be borne in mind that personal sanctity is the surest way of fostering both knowledge and civility. Or to put it another way: goodness must be the seat of learning. And the most effective means through which goodness is given to us is through the Sacraments! As such, we are not only to imitate the life of Christ; no, we are to do more! We are called to live out his divine life through the same Holy Spirit that abided in his soul as he existed on earth and in eternity. It is through this ongoing conversion to Christ- a lifelong series of new beginnings -and not to some vague moral code, that America will be Christian again. And once she is Christian again, she will be great again.