Letter from Rome


Dear friends of Istituto Acton,

I’ve just returned from a trip to southern California, where I was amazed by the natural beauty of the state and the utter calamity of its politics and economics.  It’s hard to believe that the most populous of the United States has been losing more people than it gains, but it’s true.  With its deep religious history and contemporary reliance on tourism, California resembles a modern, more organized version of Italy, with Silicon Valley replacing the prosperous northern provinces of the peninsula.  In many ways, the problems facing both places are similar.

Visitors to California or Italy are easily won over by the sun, sea and landscapes, wine and food, missions and monasteries, all of which are abundant and often first-class.  There’s plenty to satisfy body and soul if you know where to look for it.  But that’s precisely the issue – it’s getting harder to separate the wheat from the chaff, and the chaff can be described as the slow, long decay of moral culture.  The rot extends from the relaxing of public and private sexual mores to increasing levels of taxation and regulation to the failures of the welfare state, and shows no signs of reversal.  And while the world is not unaware of the fiscal crises affecting California and Italy, very few observers seem willing to connect the moral and the economic well-being of society.  Yet can anyone really be surprised that leaders as Schwarzenegger and Berlusconi rose to power, presided over, and came to typify the recent decline of once-great states?  Can anyone be surprised when a culture that idolizes adolescence is treated like a child by state bureaucrats, instead of governing itself freely and responsibly?

It is rarely noted that this decline may have a religious dimension.  Both California and Italy are large and diverse places that were brought and held together by Catholic missionaries and monasteries and where the Christian faith served a very important role in the lives of their inhabitants.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that Christianity provided the unifying identity to California and Italy – in the latter’s case, from the era of Diocletian until the Risorgimento at the end of the 19th century.  And while there have been various political and social changes that diluted the influence of Christianity, it is impossible to deny that there has been a general reduction of faith among the peoples in the respective locales.

The diminution of the Christian faith and its effects on the moral culture is, of course, not limited to California and Italy; it can be found in most of Western Europe and North America.  It also happens to be the impetus for Pope Benedict XVI’s recent Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei, which calls for the commemoration of a Year of Faith, beginning on October 11, 2012 – not coincidentally the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council and the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  Here’s how Benedict describes the situation and what to do about it:

Ever since the start of my ministry as Successor of Peter, I have spoken of the need to rediscover the journey of faith so as to shed ever clearer light on the joy and renewed enthusiasm of the encounter with Christ. During the homily at the Mass marking the inauguration of my pontificate I said: "The Church as a whole and all her Pastors, like Christ, must set out to lead people out of the desert, towards the place of life, towards friendship with the Son of God, towards the One who gives us life, and life in abundance." It often happens that Christians are more concerned for the social, cultural and political consequences of their commitment, continuing to think of the faith as a self-evident presupposition for life in society. In reality, not only can this presupposition no longer be taken for granted, but it is often openly denied. Whereas in the past it was possible to recognize a unitary cultural matrix, broadly accepted in its appeal to the content of the faith and the values inspired by it, today this no longer seems to be the case in large swathes of society, because of a profound crisis of faith that has affected many people.

We cannot accept that salt should become tasteless or the light be kept hidden (cf. Mt 5:13-16). The people of today can still experience the need to go to the well, like the Samaritan woman, in order to hear Jesus, who invites us to believe in him and to draw upon the source of living water welling up within him (cf. Jn 4:14). We must rediscover a taste for feeding ourselves on the word of God, faithfully handed down by the Church, and on the bread of life, offered as sustenance for his disciples (cf. Jn 6:51). Indeed, the teaching of Jesus still resounds in our day with the same power: "Do not labour for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life" (Jn 6:27). The question posed by his listeners is the same that we ask today: "What must we do, to be doing the works of God?" (Jn 6:28). We know Jesus’ reply: "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent" (Jn 6:29). Belief in Jesus Christ, then, is the way to arrive definitively at salvation.

None of this is surprising to those who’ve been paying attention to what Benedict says, but it comes at a remarkable time and provides the solution not only for the crisis of faith affecting the Church, but perhaps also the political, economic and social decline of places like California and Italy.  As disconcerting as this will sound to the ears of secular progressives, recovering the Christian faith may be the only way currently decadent peoples can find their way back to a morally-sound, economically prosperous society.

Let’s first take a look at Benedict’s proposal to re-discover the true meaning of Vatican II and what it means for the Church.  He relates the crisis of faith to a widespread ignorance of fundamental Church teachings amid the social changes that were taking place at the time of the Council and a subsequent misinterpretation of the Council’s aims.   The remedy is to find the “right path towards the ‘door of faith’” (porta fidei) through proper study of the Conciliar documents and the Catechism.  We can’t make a profession of faith if we don’t know what the faith teaches.

The Year of Faith will be launched just as the General Synod of Bishops takes place on the subject of the New Evangelization, and can therefore been seen as a part of Benedict’s larger plan to re-evangelize the Western world.  It’s no small task, of course, but a vitally important one not only for the Church hierarchy but all the faithful, some of whom have already take action in their families, workplaces and larger communities.

When faced with cultural decay, however, there is a temptation to withdraw into smaller, like-minded enclaves, which also carries the danger of faithful Catholics only talking to each other and having no effect on the culture at-large, a danger that exists to a lesser degree in Italy than in the US, where home-schooling and smaller Catholic colleges are more common and vibrant.  Journalist Russell Shaw describes the problem:

[W]hen I speak of the desirability of a new Catholic subculture, I do not mean a self-regarding, inward-looking ghetto. Unfortunately, signs of such a thing already can be glimpsed here and there. They seem likely to spread if steps are not taken to discourage that from happening. 

Here is where the new evangelization comes in. It provides rationale and motivation for Catholics to set their sights on something far better than a Catholic ghetto—the creation of a new, dynamic American Catholic subculture specifically designed to be a source of creative energy for preaching the gospel far and wide, with particular attention to former Catholics and nominal Catholics who are teetering on the brink. 
This is asking a great deal—a subculture able to nurture and sustain a strong sense of Catholic identity without turning in on itself. Can it be done? No one really knows because up to now it hasn’t been attempted. Evangelization is the key. Meanwhile, one thing does seem certain: If it cannot be done, or if no attempt is made to do it, the situation of the Catholic Church in the United States is likely to become increasingly troubled in the years ahead.

It is quite remarkable that, among the world’s leaders, Pope Benedict seems to be the one with the best understanding of our current mess and some ideas of how to get out of it.  David P. Goldman, a.k.a. Spengler of Asia Times, once noted, “Europe's high culture and its capacity to train universal minds had deteriorated beyond repair; one of the last truly universal European minds belongs to the octogenarian Pope Benedict XVI.”  On a previous occasion I’ve written about his World Youth Day appeal to become adults, to grow up in Christ; now, in his recent Message for World Communications Day, he reminds us to take a break from all the texting and tweeting.  Who else could write something as paradoxically true for the social media age as this?

Silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist. In silence, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves; ideas come to birth and acquire depth; we understand with greater clarity what it is we want to say and what we expect from others; and we choose how to express ourselves. By remaining silent we allow the other person to speak, to express him or herself; and we avoid being tied simply to our own words and ideas without them being adequately tested. In this way, space is created for mutual listening, and deeper human relationships become possible. It is often in silence, for example, that we observe the most authentic communication taking place between people who are in love: gestures, facial expressions and body language are signs by which they reveal themselves to each other. Joy, anxiety, and suffering can all be communicated in silence – indeed it provides them with a particularly powerful mode of expression. Silence, then, gives rise to even more active communication, requiring sensitivity and a capacity to listen that often makes manifest the true measure and nature of the relationships involved. When messages and information are plentiful, silence becomes essential if we are to distinguish what is important from what is insignificant or secondary. Deeper reflection helps us to discover the links between events that at first sight seem unconnected, to make evaluations, to analyze messages; this makes it possible to share thoughtful and relevant opinions, giving rise to an authentic body of shared knowledge. For this to happen, it is necessary to develop an appropriate environment, a kind of ‘eco-system’ that maintains a just equilibrium between silence, words, images and sounds.

Making time for silence, especially time for prayer and adoration, will also be key for the new evangelization and hence for the renewal of the moral culture.  I’m tempted to keep complaining about the demise of California and Italy, but I don’t have anything new to say, so I will take the pope’s advice and shut up.

With best regards,

Kishore Jayabalan

Director