After Christendom, Missiondom

Here’s a piece from Commonweal confronting anybody with prudence and wisdom with an obvious fact: Christendom is over:

Blame for this outcome can be laid at the feet of Christendom itself: “In its pretention to establish itself as a civilization, Christianity ended up producing a monstrous avatar that is at the same time its alter-ego and its mortal enemy.” But, Delsol reminds us, Christendom is not Christianity, and the demise of the former is not the demise of the latter. She is inclined to cast a jaundiced eye at excessive Christian breast-beating over the past, “which can resemble masochism.” We rightly judge aspects of Christendom to have been distortions of the Gospel, but Delsol, the good historicist, sees little point in condemning those in the past who did not have the benefit of our hindsight. Delsol comes neither to praise nor to condemn Christendom, but to bury it.

She is concerned, however, that in their reasonable fear of repeating the errors of Christendom, Christians will end up muting their distinctive voice. Late in the book, she shifts from the descriptive to the prescriptive: “To dialogue is not to dissolve oneself in the theses of the adversary, and one does not need to cease to exist in order to be tolerant—in fact, the opposite is the case.” This is not the integralist call for a return to Christendom. It is, as Delsol puts it, a call to “a spiritual revolution,” which by worldly standards might look like defeat. Christians must form their children “to carry themselves like Kierkegaard’s knight of faith: resigned, but also able to walk toward the infinite.” For Delsol, as for Marion, the category of “witness” is key. Christians without Christendom must take up the role of witnesses rather than rulers, and learn the virtues characteristic of a minority: “Equanimity, patience, and perseverance.” Christians must take as their model not Sepúlveda, who justified the conversion by conquest of the Americas, but the martyred Trappist monks of Tibhirine, who died because they would not abandon their Muslim neighbors.

There are clear points of convergence between Marion and Delsol. They both reject integralism and seek a practical modus vivendi within the current socio-political order. Neither thinks that the Kingship of Christ requires Christians to have their hands on the levers of temporal power. And neither wishes to embrace a progressivism that would dilute Christian witness into a vague spirituality. Marion in particular is resolutely Christo-centric in his approach: “In order to understand Catholics, it is first necessary to figure out what makes them tick: Christ.” This is especially the case when it comes to determining the success or failure of the Church: “[Christ] never guaranteed it would become a majority, or dominant in the world: he only asked it to pass through the same experience of the cross by which he gained the Resurrection.” It is through witness, not through coercion, that the Church engages the world and seeks to change it. Marion and Delsol are “conservative” primarily in the sense that they seek to conserve the centrality of Christ in the Church’s witness, and to do this in continuity with the saints of the past.

But there are also important differences between the two. Delsol’s tone is more combative than Marion’s. This is partly a difference of intellectual style—between a philosopher-theologian who typically operates in a speculative and abstract mode and a philosopher-sociologist who mucks around in the messiness of history. But there is also a substantive difference. Marion still operates within Jacques Maritain’s “New Christendom” model, in which the Church’s public role is to provide the state with the values it needs to sustain what Maritain called “the democratic secular faith.” That faith was, if not Christian, at least “Christianly inspired,” and it formed a people that “at least recognized the value and sensibleness of the Christian conception of freedom, social progress, and the political establishment.” Marion seems confident that “Christians furnish society with its best citizens from the point of view even of the interests of the city of men, because their disinterestedness toward earthly power makes them honest workers who are efficient and reliable in community life.”

Delsol explicitly rejects Maritain’s New Christendom model, calling it one of “the last illusions” of the postwar era. This is in keeping with her rejection of the idea that modernity is secular, even in Marion’s benign sense of laïcité. Maritain and Marion’s vision of the Church supplying the modern nation with something it lacks is at odds with Delsol’s claim that contemporary society in fact possesses its own moral norms and belief system: neo-pagan cosmotheism. If she is right, then there are no gaps for Christian beliefs and values to fill; the space they would occupy is already filled with alternative beliefs and values. Marion’s A Brief Apology for a Catholic Moment echoes the title of Richard John Neuhaus’s 1987 book The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World. Both of these books see the Church as serving a vital social role within a religiously neutral state. In light of this agreement, it is tempting to cast Delsol in the role of Neuhaus’s friend Stanley Hauerwas, the contrarian insisting on the ineradicable conflict between Church and world, and suggesting that “Catholic moments” may simply be nostalgia for the halls of power. In fact, immediately after her criticism of Maritain, Delsol invokes Hauerwas’s student, William Cavanaugh, as offering an alternative approach, one that focuses on the Church as what Pope Francis has called “a field hospital,” present not to provide values to a secular world, but to bind up its wounds.

Finally, we might note how Marion and Delsol address the topic that has been haunting the Church for the past two decades: the sex-abuse crisis. One would expect the counter-witness of this scandal to be of particular concern to thinkers who give primacy to “witness” as the Church’s mode of engagement with the world. But Marion mentions pedophilia only in a brief footnote largely dedicated to pointing out the presence of pedophiles in other communities and organizations. To be fair, his book came out in France several years before the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church issued its scathing report on sexual abuse in the French Church. But something Marion does say makes one wonder if his silence on this issue is entirely accidental. At the outset of the book he notes, “Only the saints speak properly of God and are qualified to critique the Church and Catholics.” He then goes on to write a few pages later that “the believer who is serious and practicing the faith forgets to occupy himself with the reform of ecclesiastical institutions.” Marion is undoubtedly correct to warn Catholics away from an obsession with ecclesiastic politics and toward focusing on the heart of the Gospel. But this still leaves the question of how reform is possible in a Church with few saints and a hierarchy with a poor track record of policing itself. Over the past few decades, ordinary, non-saintly Catholics—and often, alas, ex-Catholics—played a key role in holding the Church accountable. An idealized ecclesiology that seems to ignore this fact is hardly adequate to our moment.

Delsol, unsurprisingly, has little tendency to idealize the Church. Though the Independent Commission’s report had not yet been issued when she wrote her book, it was clearly on the horizon, and she does address the scandal in a few passages. She notes that pedophilia, now criminalized, had once been considered by the Church and society at large “a lesser evil that one bore in order to safeguard families and institutions.” She repeats this point later, noting that what was seen as a relatively minor misstep at one point in time—“collateral damage”—became, at a later point in time, a crime against humanity. All of this fits with her historicist account of moral norms and her tendency, when writing in her analytic mode, of eschewing moral judgements on the past, which had its own very different norms.

But Delsol is also able to step out of that analytic mode and speak more normatively as a member of the Catholic faithful, and here her judgments are sharper. She sees the sex-abuse catastrophe as evidence of the distorting effects Christendom had on Christian faith. “The Church behaves like a governing and dominating institution, believing that everything that is forbidden to others is permitted for it.” Powerful cultural institutions often convince themselves that, in light of their important societal role, they cannot afford the luxury of truth-telling. By the grace of providence and the vicissitudes of history, the Church, freed from Christendom, is now in a better position to witness to the truth, even if it is the truth of her own failures.

Both of these brief books are rich in resources for reflection. As the Church in the United States confronts the reality of accelerating disaffiliation among young people, the experience of the Church in France, which has long grappled with dechristianization, acquires greater relevance. Marion and Delsol help us see how Catholics in an increasingly post-Christian society might bear witness to their faith without bitterness or nostalgia—and perhaps even with joy.

Sherry Weddell says that the Church needs to face the fact that Christendom is gone, that trying to maintain it is a fool’s errand and even destructive, and that we need to face the fact that we are now in Missiondom and must order our efforts to that end.

I would add that no small part of the failure of the American Church in recent years has been due to a sect comprising the majority of whites in the US Church, devoted not even to maintaining Catholic Christendom (they only care about some of the aesthetic bits and a few bits of morality that allow them to indulge their misogyny and desire to use the unborn as human shields for their depravity), but an Americanized version of it whose real core is maintaining power structures of race, class, and oppression designed, built, and maintained to benefit themselves. This they confuse with “orthodoxy” while preaching a gospel of violence, racism, and Mammon-worship that the apostles and Fathers of the Church would have instantly seen as pagan, not Christian.

Until we abandon the idea that the gospel exists to service our sense of privilege and join the Holy Father in going out into the highways and byways to meet the least of these where they are, we will continue the failing blunder of imagining that the purpose of the gospel is to preserve Christendom (a merely human construct) and not proclaim Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, crucified for our sins and raised for our participation in the self-giving life of God. We must ask him to re-awaken the apostolic spirit and kill the exploitive, dominating, Mammon-worshipping colonial one.


3 Responses

  1. Christendom doesn’t keep busy Catholics awake at night. Hand wringing –and getting others to hand wring, isn’t an actual job. It’s like the painted fruit Kim Jong Un used as window dressing.

  2. “Sherry Weddell says that the Church needs to face the fact that Christendom is gone, that trying to maintain it is a fool’s errand and even destructive, and that we need to face the fact that we are now in Missiondom and must order our efforts to that end” That is actually a quote from Tim Keller, not me.

  3. This excerpt is so long I think you are well past the copyright allowance for review. I’d suggest scaling it back or chunking it into pieces with your own thoughts interleaved.
    I think the place you could have made some incisive comments is to compare the line of thinking presented here with the ideas of Dominion, which is a book you’ve expressed a lot of appreciation for in the past. Dominion credits the intellectual framework of European civilization to the Christian church. How does that contrast to the thoughts presented here?
    The elephant in the room for these French Catholic philosophers is Islam. Is it ever mentioned? Is it given credit for spreading mono-theism (“desacralizing the world”)? For being vibrant in France, where mosques are full and cathedrals empty? These philosophers are presented as making statements about Christendom when in fact they are sniping about French Catholicism. Maybe they can’t see the difference, but we can.

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