Discover more from What We Need Now
Rubicon and Its Consequences
What we need now in our personal lives, our Church, and our culture
By Francis X. Maier
I want to talk about what we need now: what we need now as Christians; what we need now to renew the presence of Jesus Christ in our personal lives, in our Church, and in our culture. Truth matters, because Somebody famous once said that the truth will make us free; not necessarily comfortable or happy, but free—free to change our thinking, our actions, and our lives. Free to become the men and women God made us to be. Free to be better than we are.
We’re all familiar with the human predicament: our genius at screwing things up, and God’s fidelity in forgiving us and helping us try again. We’re each a mixture of clay and spirit, carbon and grace. Which means that realism—Christian realism—is a cocktail of skepticism and hope. Skepticism, because unless we’re really good at lying to ourselves, we all do know our sins. We all have a secret laboratory in our hearts where we perfect the flavor of our resentments and the elegance of our alibis. But hope is also part of the cocktail, because despite our weaknesses, we’re each capable of courage, charity, and mercy. And Scripture testifies, again and again, to the fact that God never abandons his people . . . because he loves us.
This is why the great French Catholic writer, Georges Bernanos, described the virtue of hope as “despair, overcome.” And it’s why Augustine of Hippo should be the patron saint of our age. Augustine was never an optimist but always a man of hope. He lived at the end of a world—a Roman world unraveling into confusion, and not so different from our own. But in the face of all the fear and violence of his time, he wrote two books (his Confessions and The City of God) that still, after 1,600 years, rank among the greatest works of human genius. He could do that because he had hope. He had hope because he had faith. And he had faith because he searched for and found God as a personal presence in his life—and he never let the distractions and anxieties of his world dim that experience.
We need to remember Augustine and his world because a healthy memory of the past grounds us in our identity as a believing people. The past explains the present and helps guide us toward the future. History never repeats itself. But the patterns of human thought and behavior that make history repeat themselves all the time. And we need to learn from them. Augustine lived in an apocalyptic time. So do we. But the word “apocalypse” is easily misunderstood. It comes from the Greek verb apokalyptein, which means to uncover things concealed.
An apocalypse may or may not involve suffering, but it always involves revealing certain truths about ourselves and our times. So for the rest of these brief remarks I want to focus on two things. First, I’ll try to explain where we are now as a Church and a nation, and how we got there. And second, I’ll share some thoughts on what we need to do about it—both “we” as individuals and “we” as a community of faith.
So let’s turn to the first item: where we are and how we got here.
Most of us can sense that the Church in this country now operates in a very difficult environment. Government is increasingly unfriendly. Much of the media establishment is hostile. The clergy abuse scandal hurt a lot of good people and damaged Church credibility. Catholic sexual morality—which both reflects and undergirds the whole biblical understanding of what it means to be human—is often seen as a form of bigotry.
The effect is predictable. Baptisms, sacramental marriages, and church attendance are generally down. As many as one in three priests nominated for the episcopate now refuse the ministry because of the burdens that come with the job. A recent CNN story claimed that the decline of American Christianity is overstated because so many Christians emigrate here from other parts of the world. But all such news is misleading. How immigrants integrate once they get here is what matters. And it’s a statistical fact that immigrant religious practice erodes sharply after the first or second generation. The Catholic Church has bled out especially among Latinos. And this was the group that held the most promise for a Catholic future. In effect, American life has become a master-class in agnostic materialism.
For me, the most important ideas about the Catholic role in the American experiment have come from John Courtney Murray. Father Murray was a key player in the 20th century development of positive Catholic attitudes toward religious freedom and American democracy. He saw clearly that the United States is a product of Protestant and Enlightenment thought. But he believed that Catholics could not only “fit into” American life, but also thrive here by contributing their faith to the moral health of the country. And that’s been proven true . . . at least in part. We Catholics have done very well in America. Arguably too well for our own good.
In 1940, Murray delivered a cautionary series of lectures that became an essay entitled “The Construction of a Christian Culture.” And in it, he offered this warning about the country he loved: “American culture, as it exists, is actually the quintessence of all that is decadent in the culture of the Western Christian world…. It has gained a continent and lost its own soul.”
Murray wrote those words before the monumental changes we’ve seen in the last eight decades: the splitting of the atom; the sexual revolution; the marginalization of religion in public life; the rise of the administrative state; massive developments in science and technology, including the human genome project, hypersmart AI, and invasive surveillance tools; and the transition of the United States from a continental republic to a de facto commercial and cultural empire with global influence.
The America of 2023 would be unrecognizable to the John Courtney Murray of 1940 or even 1960. And the rate of scientific and technological change is accelerating. This has disruptive effect on the stability of the culture and on the psychological health of individuals. And this, in turn, results in our pervasive atmosphere of confusion and conflict. I have a great life that’s been filled with wonderful blessings . . . and yet I find myself angry much of the time. Most of the people I know are angry about something most of the time. It’s in the air we all breathe. And this translates into the frictions, the vindictive politics, and the crackpot, destructive thinking that characterize so much of our current public life.
We’re living through a sea change unlike anything in the last 500 years. It has different names and explanations—the Great Reset, the New Reformation, the Great Awokening, the Upheaval—but the same transformational content at society’s cellular level. And old answers don’t work. Old thinking doesn’t work. I don’t mean that we should abandon political engagement. As Christians, we have an obligation to do whatever we can to make the world better, here and now, as we find it.
I suppose what I mean is this: Most Americans believe that we live in a familiar country with a familiar history, familiar rules, a familiar division of power, and a familiar personal role in governance through the ballot box. That country is draining away. And retrieving the best of the America we once lived in—and again, as a Christian, I have to believe that it’s possible—won’t be achieved with the standard civic pieties, ecclesial attitudes, and framework of thought that I grew up with. Some of what’s now advanced as “good for America” is bad for the Church and toxic for a life of faith.
That means we need to ask ourselves the kind of questions that force us to examine our premises, our strategies, and our tactics. And I worry that many of us who consider ourselves faithful Catholics haven’t done enough of that. Which is why today’s woke revolution feels like an ambush, when it’s actually been a long march through the institutions. “More of the same” didn’t work in Vietnam. And it’s a lesson we should keep in mind in dealing with the struggles we now face as religious believers in an unfriendly culture.
So having said all of the above, what do we do about it? What can we do about it as individuals, as a Church, and as a civil society?
I said earlier that “a healthy memory of the past grounds us in our identity as a believing people.” Before we give ourselves over to freak-out mode, we need to remember our history. The Church has been through radical shifts in society many times before. And yet here we are today. Which means that the Church is very, very good at playing the long game. But she does need her people to be alert and committed in their discipleship. And today, our discipleship starts by recognizing that a lot of American life is now a narcotic haze of consumer distractions, disinformation, noise, and entertainment.
What each of us needs most urgently is silence—a space for thought, self-examination, prayer, and listening for the will of God. I said a moment ago that I’m angry much of the time. Sometimes anger in the face of wickedness is righteous and necessary. Jesus himself showed his anger more than once in the Gospels. But anger is also one of the “seven deadly sins” because it so easily becomes a habit. It’s delicious and toxic at the same time. It feels really good to nurse your imaginary vengeance on the liars, thieves, traitors, and frauds that inhabit your head. But over time that habit poisons everything beautiful in life. Anger is an acid that eats away every molecule of a person’s joy.
So how do we handle anger? Some years ago, a Protestant friend, a really good Christian man, asked me if I read the Word of God. The question annoyed me—like I said, I have a problem with anger—because I’ve been using Scripture in my work for the past 45 years. But he wasn’t asking if I used the New Testament. He was asking if I listened to it speak. So I started reading three chapters a day, systematically, from the first verse in Matthew to the last verse in Revelation, adding 10 or 15 minutes for prayer. And then doing it again, and again, and again. It feeds my sanity. It settles my heart. And now it anchors my day.
We all live busy lives. Not everyone can do what I just described. But we all do need space for silence and contemplation in our personal lives, because it keeps us human; because it’s where we encounter Jesus Christ outside of the Mass itself. As Augustine learned, the personal presence of Jesus Christ in our lives is the foundation of a strong faith. And the crisis of Christianity in our time is not a lack of resources or leadership, although those things can be important, but a crisis of faith. Too many of us don’t really believe what we claim to believe. Our Christianity is a positive guide to ethical behavior. But it’s not a conformity of our lives to the radical fact that Jesus Christ was murdered, turned into a corpse, but then rose bodily from the grave—a fact that changes everything about humanity’s dignity and purpose.
One other thing about what we need as individuals: we need to stop defeating ourselves. Everything about the size and complexity of modern life implies that we’re powerless; that we need experts and therapists and paternalistic officials to tell us what to do. It’s all nonsense. None of us is powerless. God made us for grandeur, not slavery. The power of those who seem “powerless”—in other words, our power—is a willingness to speak the truth and say “no” to a lie. It’s a lie to claim that men can become women, and women can become men. It’s a lie to claim that a child in the womb is not a real human person. And the word “no,” as an expression of the truth, is sand in that machinery of deceit—machinery which is only powerful to the degree persons submit their brains and wills to it.
As for what we need now in the Church: I’m often confused or troubled, but never really worried, about the current state of the Church. Mainly because the Church is ecclesia sua—his Church, the bride of Jesus Christ. The Church belongs to him. The Church is “our” Church only in the sense of being our mater et magistra, our mother and teacher. We don’t own her. We can’t reshape her according to the “spirit of the times.” And we have obligations to the believers who came before us, and those who will come after us, to protect the integrity of her teachings.
I believe that we need to focus our resources, prayers, and personal involvement on two things.
First, the Church in the United States is actually loaded with signs of life that accomplish great work. But they get no attention in our secular mass media. I’m thinking of the Augustine Institute, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, the Leonine Forum, the Catholic Leadership Institute, and dozens of other ministries. Wherever we meet a healthy religious community or a fruitful lay apostolate, that’s where we need to put our support. Because they’re the seeds of authentic renewal.
And second, we can never forget that the Church is finally a people, a community of believers. She’s more than just a collection of individuals, each with a private highway to God. The Catholic faith is first and foremost a communalexperience. It’s ultimately a form of friendship. That’s what Jesus called his apostles in the Gospel of John, and what he calls each of us: his friends. And the parish is the cornerstone of that Catholic Christian life of friendship. The family is referred to as “a school of love” precisely because we don’t get to choose our siblings. The parish is meant to work in the same way. But it needs our investment of time and effort and humility before it can give anything back.
That leads us finally to just a few quick comments on what we need for the renewal of our culture and our nation.
The American Founders had a special interest in Roman architecture, law, and the division of powers in the old Roman Republic. It’s reflected in their creation of a federal republic with a system of checks and balances. We’re not, and never have been, a direct democracy. And that’s part of the design, just as it was in Rome. The Roman Republic worked well for a long time. But nations age and change, just like people. When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C., the Republic was already essentially dead, replaced by Roman imperial ambitions and the wealth that accrued to its ruling class.
Our own country may lack a river named Rubicon, but it’s a fact today that in the United States, 70 percent of the nation’s wealth is in the hands of the top 10 percent of the population. The bottom 50 percent of the population, in other words our plebeian class, have 2.5 percent of the wealth. And our wealth inequality is actually growing faster than in any other advanced economy. I don’t need to add that public safety and respect for the law in some of our major cities seem to be under extraordinary pressure. When you read modern experts on the Roman Republic like Edward Watts and Tom Holland, the differences between us now, and the Romans then, become very obvious. But so do the similarities. And they’re striking.
So how do we fix things? How do we restore what we once had? Well, the truth is, maybe we can’t. Maybe that shouldn’t be our main focus. There’s no quick fix for problems we behaved ourselves into. But as Christians, we can at least change our thinking and our actions. We can support each other as friends, to save the good that can be saved, and to build something new and better over time. We can be the kind of leaven in our culture that the Gospel calls us to be. In The City of God, Augustine is ferocious in his criticism of Roman iniquities. He never anchored his hope in earthly permanence or promises. But that never stopped him from working with Roman authorities to serve the needs of his people.
Politics involves the acquisition and use of power. And power always has a moral dimension. So again, political engagement is actually a Christian duty. We have the obligation and the privilege to make this world as good as we can, without ever deluding ourselves that it’s our final home, or that we can create heaven on earth.
One final note: The great Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, once said that it’s “only with gratitude that life becomes rich.” He wrote those words in a letter from prison just months before he was hanged by the Third Reich. Gratitude is the antidote to fear and anger, and the beginning of joy, no matter what our circumstances. And of course, that’s at very heart of Catholic Christian life. That’s what the word “eucharist” means. It comes from the Greek word eukharistia, which means thanksgiving. It’s a fitting word to close on, because it will help fuel the hope we need to bring about the changes in the world and in ourselves that we need.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. This essay is revised and adapted by the author from a previous (2023) speech given at Providence College.
Be part of the renewal—subscribe now.