For the entire history of the Christian Church there has existed the struggle about how we are to live in the world without at the same time becoming corrupted by the world. At many points along the way the Church did indeed become very worldly with damaging results. At the same time there have always been movements in Christianity that advocate a more pure, untainted, un-worldly faith. These same movements tend towards a withdrawal from the world into self-created havens or zones of like-minded observant believers. In these havens there is agreement about common daily practices that allow them to avoid the taint of the secular. This is done, it is said, in the name of authentically preserving Christian life and revelation from hostile, worldly forces that bear within themselves sinful characteristics.
Withdrawing From the World Is Not the Christian Vocation
The most familiar example of such a movement or group to many of us in this part of the world would be the Mennonites, or as they are more commonly called, the Amish. For them most types of contact with modern social structures and forces are sinful and are to be avoided. The Amish accomplish this act of avoidance by living together with other like-minded thinkers who adopt a commonly agreed to set of behaviors that keeps the sinful world out, keeps the purely observant believers in, and thereby carries an untainted Christian life (as they see it) forward in history. In all of this they consider themselves to be saved and in many respects as the “elect.”
Catholics have constantly had to fend off the temptation, in every era, to become like the Amish. We all want to be pure and to avoid sin, and it is true we must take that very seriously. It is true that in “the world” in every era there are always dangerous ideas, practices, interfaces, and contacts that run the risk of doing harm to the soul. It is true that we must draw hard lines about what is right and wrong. It is true that we are obligated to tell the world around us what is true and what is false, and that we are to be a witness to another way to live.
That said, withdrawing into isolated Christian communes has never been a viable mechanism to accomplish all this. Each time in history that the temptation arose to withdraw and become some pure, Amish-type entity, the Church has had to correct such movements and explain that we as believers are obligated to engage the world and to live in the mainstream. The reason is because this is how we act as saving agents in the world. Out of heroic love for the world we choose to live in it, even though it may make us feel “safer” to withdraw and live among the “pure” ones.
Not only is it forsaking our duty to save the world if we choose to withdraw from it, but doing so always leads to its own set of spiritual and practical problems. Insular, separatist communes inevitably require their own sets of rules as well as their own type of charismatic personality leaders in order to sustain their required borders against the secular. They gravitate toward certain clergy, or bishops, or loud voices as a center of stability. Which inevitably leads to arguments and to, in most cases, a lack of sustainability. It also becomes very difficult for such communities not to fall prey to the sins of pride and of control as they seek to mold a new generation against every possible outside threat they can think of, doing great harm to them in the process.
Monasteries Are for Monks
It is popular these days to read back into Medieval Europe some romantic solution to our current situation of cultural upheaval in what, back then, were the monasteries. We are to make little islands of Christian civilization in an otherwise post-Christian, fallen world. This is the so-called “Benedict Option” advanced by Rod Dreher and others like him. His reading of that time period is too simplistic and is therefore inaccurate, meaning that his solution should not be thought of as the broad-based answer to secular opposition. There is also no such thing as going backwards in history and this must be kept carefully in mind as we search the past for the answers to our contemporary dilemmas.
Monasteries are not a valid historical counter-example to the trends described above for various reasons. The Church’s long monastic and eremitic traditions, while intentionally fleeing “the world” through the observance of the evangelical counsels, still maintained intentional connections with the currents of the world around them. In most cases monasteries were the busy hub of their village or territory, fully engaging in the economic and political currents of the day. Men and women of consecrated life saw their sacrifices of withdrawal as a means to be mission-oriented for the good of the salvation of the larger world. The religious communities that maintained the healthiest balance of withdrawal and also engagement vis a vis the world are the ones that survived through time.
More to the point, the generally accepted viewpoint within the Church of the monastic life is that it was, and remains, a unique calling of a small segment of the larger Christian community. It is not meant to be the mainstream vocation of the lay, baptized faithful. Once the laity, either as families or as single persons, attempt to become too monastic or too underground in their outlook and practices then corrections are in order.
Being Comfortable in the World Is Not the Christian Vocation
Not only has there always been the need for the Church to guard against too strong a tendency towards the insular, there has also always been the need to guard against the tendency to blend in too comfortably with the world. At various points along the way in our long Christian history, there has arisen the need for substantial reform movements in order to return the Church to what fundamentally distinguishes us from the profane. Worldly, secular attachments and ideas are always infesting the Church in the same way that weeds are constantly trying to take over a garden. It is a necessary, and also a delicate process, to constantly be weeding out what does not belong.
What Does It Mean to be “Catholic” Today?
Our current era of the Church is once again not much different than the prior ones when it comes to confronting these divergent and excessive tendencies with regards to “the world.” As so much becomes secular around us, the divide is growing between what we might call different groups who compete for the same label of “Catholic.” There are the “secular Catholics” who are simply the baptized, Christmas and Easter Catholics who have a Catholic label but exhibit few other markers of the faith. On the other hand there are the “observant Catholics” who are regular church-goers, and who seek to adhere to the entirety of the Catholic life that the Church proposes and professes. The secular Catholics are growing more secular as the culture grows more secular, and the observant ones are growing more isolated. In such a scenario the temptation for the observant to withdraw from the culture and form pure, Amish-type communities grows stronger and stronger.
Conversely, the temptation for the “secular Catholics” is to either leave the Church all together, or to actively lobby the Church to re-think her teachings and catch up with the times. Such a mindset assumes that it is the Church that must learn from the secular world rather than the reverse. Historically, this type of mindset in its most unbalanced and unbridled form has taken the shape of heresies and schisms in Christianity, giving birth to more liberal communities that ultimately tend to blend in and disappear with the culture that consumes them through the passing years.
I have great sympathy for the movement out of the world that I see happening more and more around me in the observant Catholic circles. Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a little Catholic village where I never get my hands or my soul dirty by having to deal with all that is so pervasively corrupt in our modern economic and legislative structures? Wouldn’t it also be nice to just have a “pure” Church that does not have to deal with the nagging questions of the more secular minded people in our midst? Does one just simply wish them away?
The Church has always said that an approach to this perpetual dilemma that is too one-sided is not the answer. No, the difficult fact is that the secular Catholics need to be less secular, and the observant Catholics cannot avoid getting hands and selves dirty. Reform is indeed needed these days to purge us of poisonous practices and ideas that circulate within large sectors of the Catholic population, but the reform cannot amount to withdrawal. There is no leaving the world, however tempting it may be. The Gospel is given to push us into the world and to save it by doing so. Into the world we will continue to go. At the same time we do indeed need to stand against the world. The Gospel is given to the world to save it from itself and therefore as revelation and truth it must be protected from the onslaught of secular non-sense. Therefore it is not an option to simply go along with the currents of the day without critical questioning.
“Catholic” has always meant “universal,” as in: our teachings both apply to every human person and are also open to and accessible to every person, without any need of secrecy and also without any apologies for what we know is true to a world that often questions us. “Catholic Amish” is not the way forward and neither is “Catholic Lite.” “Catholic” remains the answer in every era.