Posted on November 12, 2012 - Fr. Frank
I offer this little reflection on a way to view the situation of the Church in modern society.
Readers of this blog know that at the Synod much was made of the new situation in which the Church finds itself—in a culture and world that is, at best, neutral, and more often seems even hostile to faith. Often participants at the Synod referred to various problems in the “sectors” of society, making reference to relativism, individualism, hedonism, or some other “ism.”
One of the dramatic changes in the modern world, however, does not have much to do with an “ism” but simply with the way the world has overtly changed in the past fifty years. I would describe this as “autonomy:” modern life has created areas in society that function in autonomous ways—ways which make it difficult for any one element of society to control or deeply influence it.
I believe it is this “autonomy” which is so different for the Church to deal with. For most of Christian history, the Church, as Church, had a particular role in society; the state upheld the Church or at least created environments in which generally assumed values were supported. The Church could issue statements or rules—and expect society to at least take notice, if not obey. The autonomy of modern life makes this much more difficult.
Some autonomous dimensions of modern life include its democratic, political reality, where citizens band together for one or another political objectives, and the process of democratic interchange makes it impossible for things to be entirely settled. Another is our economic life, with markets being driven by mathematical formulas and values fluctuating on rumors of world news. A third would be the so-called “hard” sciences where theories meet experiments, and scientists stake out new positions all the time. Here volumes of data drive conclusions one way or another, with all of them subject to revision. A final one would be communication, particularly in the age of the internet, when information pours across wires and airwaves with no one group being able to co-opt it or control it.
The separation of church and state, begun as a noble experiment in the United States, has enriched religion tremendously, giving it a freedom and energy that comes from people having to choose (or not choose) faith. Its downside, however, is that the Church can seem to be speaking into a vacuum, saying things to which society seems to make no response. Sometimes society drifts away from Church teaching (as with some topics around sexuality or gender); and sometimes it drifts toward Church teaching (as with the growth of aversion to abortion among millennials).
Perhaps the issue comes down to this: recognizing that what the Church can most powerfully do is not change laws or bemoan the inability to control parts of society, but rather witness and call people to conversion around the various elements of its teaching. Some studies seem to show that the more religious groups try to legislate, for example, the more backlash they generate, particularly among the young. Perhaps it’s a question of recognizing the autonomous dimensions of modern life, and where and how engagement with culture can happen today—in the witness of the lives of sincere believers.