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August 29, 2012
The new atheism and the new ‘symphony orchestra’
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

Last Sunday, the New York Times Magazine featured an article entitled, “God Who?” According to its reportage, a new and young crop of atheists, numbering in the thousands, has gradually emerged. Among these are pastors “recovering from Evangelical Christianity.” Those unaffiliated with a faith-tradition are being wooed by atheistic organizations who offer protest, denial, and negation.

Wholeness

For Christians, Jesus Christ, humanity’s redeemer, is the glory of God. Christianity’s mandate is twofold: love of God and love of neighbor.

Catholicism insists on wholeness – the whole God, the whole Christ, the complete community, the whole personality, the whole man and woman. (K. Adam, “The Spirit of Catholicism,” 11) Catholicism has the power of assimilation of all that is beautiful, true, and good; it is creative, productive, and original.

Nothing remains outside the Church’s integral teaching: the purpose and destiny of every human being, sports and physical fitness, social justice, science and the arts, the care of the environment, the sanctity of human life, human sexuality, marriage, and the family. Our creed, our sacramental worship, our code of behavior, and prayer encapsulate Catholic faith. Moreover, the way of Catholic living is firmly grounded in reason leading to faith. There is a Catholic view about everything, regardless of topic.

Wholeness and holiness are two interrelated aspects of one’s life. Both are made up of a thousand trifles, but wholeness and holiness are no trifles.

It is a privilege to be born into the Catholic tradition. Like the members of the symphony orchestra, Catholics are in the public view. A private Catholic is a misnomer. To be a member of the Catholic Church is always and everywhere to be a Christèd person and an ambassador for the Church.

Terra Incognita

To most non-Catholics and nominal Catholics, the Church remains a virtual unknown.  University students leave their colleges and universities with fragmented and absurd views about Catholic Church history. Their ignorance, however, does not prevent them from critiquing and ridiculing the Church as though they were expert church historians. In fact, their ignorance comes to the fore when they indulge in “wholly trivial, vague, and often nonsensical notions about “the greatest religious and political creation known to history.” These observations were made in 1911 by the influential Protestant scholar and historian Adolf von Harnack (quoted in K. Adam, “The Spirit of Catholicism,” 13). His remarks however are as relevant today as they were one hundred years ago, and perhaps even more so.

The Waning of Catholic Influence

The Church built western civilization. “Every age has had its own distinctive facet of Catholic Christian culture. Every age has benefitted from its influence; or it has suffered from the human limitations and sinfulness of its temporal existence.” (C. Dawson, “The Formation of Christendom,” 17)

Culture refers to our social inheritance; it is what we have learned from the past through religion, education, learning from others, and from our own experience; we in turn hand on that learning and life experience to others.

Catholicism is a faith-tradition deeply committed to cultural history. In the past, it influenced human behavior and had an impact on the culture because its wholeness was represented in every available aspect of life. No longer. Culture itself has become the real religion, leaving behind Catholicism which has lost much of its creative, formative power. (L. Dupré, “Seeking Christian Interiority,” accessed online). What has triggered this malaise?

Firm belief in creedal tenets is waning, 22% of Catholics worship at the Eucharist to receive Christ’s nourishment, and the Ten Commandments receive a wink and a nod.  Time spent in personal prayer, including the praying the Liturgy of the Hours, has been co-opted by distractions. Excessive use of electronic gadgets is one culprit. Bad example and scandal weaken the Body, embarrass the Catholic community, and give Catholicism a bad name. It’s no wonder that Catholicism has been accused of hypocrisy. With few exceptions, the tradition of Catholic culture has lost its authority to influence the age. It is bland and without bite, infected by worldliness, “too much with us.”

The salt has lost its savor. Is the Church deformed, and is it decaying?

Inner Attentiveness

Louis Dupré, eminent Catholic layman and cultural historian, together with others, is convinced that “what Christianity needs is genuine Christian interiority for a humanity capable of living a vigorous and free life within one’s culture, whatever its condition may be.” There is no conflict between an interior life and an integral humanism that embraces, from whatever source it may come, all that is true and noble, just and pure, all that is lovable and gracious.

How does Catholicism retrieve its culture and influence in an openly-hostile religious climate? Religiosity repels; so do pietistic platitudes. Instead, smart, sharp, and informed faith attracts because of its predisposition to inner awareness. Those with spiritual depth know that God does matter, and vitally so. Spiritual depth comes with the integration of the divine with the human.

The starting point to interiority is a healthy sense of emptiness, or a sense of helplessness.  The autonomous man and woman reject this assertion. Yet, what can we do without God?  The Johannine verse, “Lord, to whom shall I go?” You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:67) comforts those who know their need for God.

Objections to Catholicism

Christianity and culture should engage one another, but they don’t always mingle well. The culture would rather see religion concerned with God rather than man, with the absolute and eternal rather than the historical and the transitory. But this is not Christianity. It is true that Catholicism is first a Church at prayer, “but it is also a religion of Revelation, Incarnation, and Communion; a religion that unites the human and divine and sees in history the manifestation of the divine purpose toward the human race.”  (Dawson, 18)

The Catholic Arts: Key to the Catholic Faith

When non-Catholics vacation in European countries, what is it that most claims their attention? Catholic art, architecture, and sculpture, and its sacred music, performed in the great cathedrals and even small parish churches. Externals of the Catholic faith are what they first notice and experience. The externals introduce them to the Church giving them the feel of Catholicism, for good or ill. It is to this topic that we shall turn in next week’s essay.

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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