Yesterday, I linked to Mark Silk’s column at RNS in which he pushed back against the cultural meme, currently coming for the most part from the bleachers on the right, that we are all going to hell in a handbasket. He quotes an Episcopalian pastor, Rev. Andrew Petirpin, to that effect:
We have slid down the slippery slope, hurried away from a biblical vision of rightly ordered humanity, and our culture now consists of work with with no intrinsic end, mind-numbing entertainment, ubiquitous self-medication, the valorization of every sexual desire and identity under the sun, genetic manipulation, and industrial levels of abortion on demand with the harvesting of baby organs.
Silk points out that there is ample evidence that, in many ways, our culture is becoming more morally attentive and key indicators, such as lower levels of violent crime and a dropping abortion rate, evidence that moral attentiveness.
I share some of the concerns noted by the Episcopalian pastor, to be sure. But, like Silk, I do not see any evidence of a slippery slope here. A culture’s sense of what is morally significant changes over time, morality must interact with politics and religion and that interaction causes new concerns to gain prominence and others to languish, but we human beings are what we have always been, deeply aspirational and deeply flawed, capable of great love and of great evil.
In 1675, the Massachusetts General Court assembled a ministerial committee to propose moral reforms for the colony at the outset of King Philip’s War, a war in which one in every sixteen men of fighting age in the Bay Colony died. They believed that the war had been brought on by their own law morals, a divine admonishment for their bad behavior, and believed that victory could only be secured if they corrected their moral failings. Increase Mather recalled this ministerial committee when he delivered the thanksgiving sermon after the colony’s victory in the war. “From that day when there was a vote passed for the Suppression and Reformation of those manifest evils….The Lord gave success to our forces,” he proclaimed.
At the first USCCB meeting after the election of Pope Francis, I ran into a conservative priest acquaintance who seemed rather unmoved by what we were even then beginning to call “the Francis effect.” He thought this pontificate would be a reiteration of the pontificate of St. Pope John XXIII, which he thought a failure. “I just don’t think hope is enough,” he said, or words to that effect.
The antidote to dourness is not a sugary optimism that ignores the evils in our midst. It is good to re-read Augustine with frequency. No, the antidote to dourness is faith because this gloom-and-doom sensibility seems to me to have more than a whiff of Pelagianism about it. The focus is on us humans and our badness rather than on God and His goodness. There is no confidence that God’s Providence is at work in our midst, even when we do not see it. And, yes, there is no hope, the kind of hope we are called, as Christians, to be prepared to give an account of when asked.
Last November, at the installation of Archbishop Blase Cupich in Holy Name Cathedral, we sang at the offertory the hymn “Those who love and those who labor.” It is a wonderful hymn which, like all great hymns, is deeply catechetical. The antidote to the evils of our day – and of every day – is not to moan and groan in the manner of the 1675 ministerial commission, nor in the manner of Rev. Petirpin. The antidote is love and labor. It is hard work to awaken the people of a busy, materialistic culture to the joys found in a God who speaks softly and whose thoughts are far above our thoughts. It takes great love, reservoirs of love, to keep the focus on God’s activity in the world, and not our efforts at moral reform or political action or other worthy, but inadequate, efforts. It takes grace, which is something the progressive mind will never recognize either for there is a semi-Pelagianism of the left as well as the right.
Like the Episcopalian pastor, I worry about a culture in which a biblical worldview is not normative, but that is a way to describe every culture. And, I worry, too, that often enough, the ministers of the Gospel conflate virtue and holiness in ways that are at least semi-Pelagian. I am all for virtue and hope for a world with more of it. But, holiness is something different for a Christian. In the norms governing the appointment of an exorcist by a bishop, it is stated that the priest must be exceedingly holy because in the course of an exorcism, the Devil will hold up each and every sin the priest has committed, to tempt him to despair of his own salvation and, thus, rob him of his power to expel the demon. The opposite of holiness is not moral failure, it is despair. Holiness is maintaining a sure hope in the power of the Lord to save.
These prophets of doom may or may not be culturally attuned, but they misunderstand who is in charge. Maybe it is just that I have been reading Kuyper, but it seems to me that a truly holy preacher of the Gospel does not invite his listeners to despair, but to hope, hope not in their own efforts, but in God’s promises. Love and labor, then, not breast-beating and complaints about slippery slopes. Besides, sometimes we humans even slip up the hill.