During the first Christian millennium (33 A.D. to 1000 A.D.) the Catholic Church was not only the mother of souls but an innovator of public institutions. Her influence was considerable. She provided universal education for the illiterate, hospitals and hospices for the infirmed and orphanages for abandoned children. What is more, a legal system based on principles of justice and a cash economy that eventually led to a free market sprang from the work of her hands. Europe, a continent once mired in barbarism, was civilized and elevated to a higher station because the soul was saved and the glory of God was earnestly sought.
Fast forward: When the United States of America was being built up and expanding across the North American continent during the 19th century, this same Church was no less prolific in preaching the Gospel and creating institutions. Her growth was steady. In the 20th century- between 1940 and 1960 –the Catholic Church doubled in size. Bible sales and distribution from 1949 to 1953 increased by 140 percent. Investment for building churches was at 25 million in 1946, 409 million in 1950 and rose to one billion in 1960. The Catholic Church was responsible for educating 12 percent of children in the United States.
We also cannot fail to mention that priestly and religious vocations were very high. Indeed, during the 1950’s Cardinal Cushing said that he was expecting to ordain one hundred priests in one year. The litany of the Church’s influence on culture before the 1960’s can go on and on.
However, with the Sexual Revolution in the late 1960’s, America changed and she entered into a post-Christian era. But before this abrupt change came about, Western Civilization was already feeling the tremors of a secular and even anti-religious awakening. Three years into World War I in 1917 Pope Benedict XV sounded the alarm that Christian civilization was straying from its Gospel roots. But what did he draw our attention to as the source of this secularization?
In his encyclical, On Preaching the Word, he asked two provocative questions: “Has the Word of God then ceased to be what it was described by the Apostle, living and effectual and more piercing than any two-edged sword? Has the long-continued use blunted the edge of that sword?” The answer he gave is reminiscent of what the prophets preached when Israel was being menaced by her enemies. The pope’s insight may surprise you. He said,
“If that weapon does not everywhere produce its effect, the blame certainly must be laid on those ministers of the Gospel who do not handle it as they should. For no one can maintain that the Apostles were living in better times than ours, that they found minds more readily disposed towards the Gospel or that they met with less opposition to the law of God.”
Not enough can be said about this self-examination of conscience that Pope Benedict XV was calling for in 1917. It is the key that will unlock the mystery of why the Catholic Church’s cultural influence has waned in recent years. It is the reason why so many Americans have embraced social values and political policies that are antithetical to the Gospel. After all, Catholics- both clergy and laity –have not handled the Gospel and the Sacraments as they should.
When pastoral, teaching and evangelization practices cease to be so accommodating to the ways and standards of the world; when repentance is insisted upon as a precondition to being in communion with the Church; and when her practices begin to more accurately resemble the manliness of the Apostles, Church Fathers and Saints, then the Church will be in a better position to save the world from its sins and vices.
But the willingness to be saved by the “Good News” presupposes that people know about the bad news; the bad news of sin and spiritual darkness. Unfortunately, we are not hearing enough about the bad news. As such, the need for the “Good News” is less felt. However, in order for this to be felt by the people again, Catholics who are charged with teaching and preaching the Gospel will have to remind people what they are being saved from!! Zealous for God’s glory and indifferent to human respect, the Catholic Church will not only be the mother of souls but the mother of civilization once again.
For this to happen, however, we cannot be distracted into thinking that the answers to the current woes of America are to be found in political or fiscal programs. Secular-liberalism is not an option, to be sure. But it must be said that conservatism, by itself, is not enough. Liberty, national security and the free-market can only be firmly rooted in Christian soil. And this soil, so to speak, has to be rich with a belief that every human being is created by God, for God and in the likeness of God. Human dignity can be secured in no other way. Furthermore, as George Washington pointed in his farewell address, political prosperity is dependent upon morality; specifically, sexual purity, openness to children, and the sanctity of marriage.
Recovering the ground that has been lost, therefore, begins with ministers and teachers handling the Gospel as they should. After all, is it not true that sanctity and virtue first paves the way for civility and ingenuity? And does it not follow that civility and ingenuity will lead to prosperity? Yes! History demonstrates this. To be sure, history is a sobering reminder that if America is to be saved, the soul must be saved first.