It is said that it takes nine miles for a battleship to make a 180 degree turn in the ocean. Such a big ship- with hundreds of naval personnel and tons of metal -is simply not capable of making a quick turnaround. Imagine the inconvenience of having to make a nine mile turnaround in a car. As such, we might begin to appreciate the commitment it takes to change course on such a large marine vessel.
Yet, as difficult as it is to turn a battleship around and reverse direction, it is even more difficult for a civilization to reverse course; that is, to back out of a decline. Historian Will Durant once said that civilization has to be learned and earned by each generation anew. If the transmission should be interrupted for one century, civilization (at least as we know it) would die, and we should be savages again. And if it should be lost, T.S. Eliot maintained that it would take five hundred years to restore it.
Eliot went on to caution his readers about the secular experiment that was being tried by Western Civilization in the early 20th century. He said, “The World is trying to experiment with attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time: so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and save the World from suicide.”
Just as individuals, civilizations can be a victim of their own success. So few people realize that to achieve greatness is one thing; to sustain it, is another. With the realization of success or greatness, there are a new set of challenges to meet; ones that did not exist before. Yet, once the luxuries and perks of success are there for the taking, there is a tendency to relax those virtues and skimp on the sacrifices that got you there to begin with.
In any case, the point that Durant and Eliot made was this: Christian civilization took centuries to build. For decades we have enjoyed its fruits and have, as a result, put our feet up on the table. Naturally, the spirit of sacrifice that the Gospel inspired has grown faint. And although it may only take one generation or one century for civilization to fall or to seriously falter, it takes 4-5 times longer to restore it. This is why institutions such as the Christian religion, the family and education are so vitally important. If these pillar-institutions are weak, invariably civilization will be weak and subject to decay.
Christian civilization, the legal recognition of human rights, civic liberties, representative government and scientific progress didn’t just happen! The world was a savage place before the Catholic Church preached the Gospel far and wide. But what occasioned these hallmarks of civilization were a set of religious beliefs that gave meaning and intelligibility to the virtue of self-denial and the spirit of sacrifice. The Church provided incentives for virtuous living that the State was incapable of providing.
For instance, when Caesar Augustus realized that the Roman Empire was suffering from a shortage of people (i.e. fields uncultivated, empty buildings, and in some cases, jobs but no one to fill them), he provided incentives for couples to have more children. But as history bears witness, by the time the State intervenes and tries to remedy a deep seated crisis like depopulation, it is almost always the case that it is too late. If truth be told, it was the early Church that inspired incentives for having children.
As for American couples in the 21st century, they are not only having one or two children, but they are in the habit thinking it is a civic duty to have no more than one or two children. However, this sense of duty runs counter to demographic reality. It just so happens that Western Civilization is headed for a demographic crisis not unlike the Roman Empire in her later years.
The point here is simply to say that to reverse these attitudes, thus inspiring couples to be generous with God in having more children, is very difficult. Tax credits or other incentives that governments typically give are inadequate. The openness to having more children, like so many other virtues needed for a prosperous civilization, is deeply personal and is outside of the State’s competence. But Christ, through the Church, appeals to the human conscience and the soul’s desire to be good. His voice, as echoed through the Church, reaches that interior chamber and bids it to go beyond the minimum; this, when human nature is naturally bent on taking the easier course. That’s right! The Church not only proposes the remedy in terms of truth, but she applies it in terms of grace and strength!
I use the example of having children because many people have come to view children as a liability; a mouth to feed, if you will. Previous generations, however, were in a better position to see a new member of the family as a person with hands; hands to work. More importantly, as Scripture characterizes them, children were seen as a blessing from God. In fact, it was an opportunity to love just one more soul that the Lord has given us. And as far as our nation’s future was concerned, neighborhoods and playgrounds filled with children were signs of life and longevity.
Changing attitudes on procreation and the value of children is just one of many examples why it can take so long to turn a civilization around. We have come to the point in our nation’s history that the immediate gratification of sex has virtually eclipsed the long term benefit of living virtuously and having more children. Indeed, sensuality and materialism causes a tragic shortsightedness among people. With this, there can be an inability to see long term gains through short term sacrifices. Yet, virtue and civilized behavior require such sacrifices.
The State has a role to play in sustaining national prosperity to be sure; but it is a limited one. After all, politics is but the reflection of the values people hold. If truth be told, it is Church’s work of sanctification (not State-run institutions such as the public schools) that can turnaround those values needed for a stable and enduring nation. This is why the freedom is to do her work unhindered is paramount. Then, and only then, can America (and Western Civilization at large) make that 9-mile turnaround.