For Catholics today, it is difficult sometimes to shake the feeling that we were born at the worst possible time. The Church seems to be in a disgraceful condition. Western culture is even worse. The people who are supposed to lead and shepherd us are filling our newspapers with cautionary tales. Even our heroes turn out to have feet of clay.
Catholics have long memories, so we can get nostalgic — not just for our grandparents’ day, but even for the world of 50 generations ago. Remember the days when bishops were bold evangelists, successfully calling sinful politicians to repent? Remember when the Jesuit order sent missionaries to evangelize the Far East, instead of trying to befriend the persecutors of Christians? Remember when the magisterium articulated the truth clearly, instead of gleefully muddying the waters of Catholic doctrine?
It sometimes feels like the Church’s good days are all in our tail lights, while we’re stuck in the twilight of a once-great Christendom, praying that Christ’s return may come soon.
Our politics and culture give us equal occasion for gloom. The sexual revolution has desiccated our culture, and democracy seems to be going off the rails. Meanwhile, we often feel enslaved by a globalist, materialist, consumerist culture that seems to have no reverence for the things that truly matter in life.
When we consider how totally these trends have transformed our planet, it’s easy to be tempted by despair. Will it ever again be possible to revitalize traditional morals and forge a genuinely Catholic culture? If not, what kind of future can we expect our children and grandchildren to have?
I myself have some tendency to get lost in this kind of brooding. Catholics are demoralized right now, for very understandable reasons, and it’s hard to know how to orient ourselves in a world that seems so hostile to our values and our faith.
At moments like this, I find it helpful to reflect on Our Lord’s reminder (Matthew 9:37) that “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” In many respects, this is truer now than at any previous period in history.
Here’s some fun food for thought. In the time of Jesus, the entire population of the world is estimated to have been around 188 million. That’s about half the population of the United States today.
In 1200, when Scholastic philosophy was flowering and mendicant monks were springing out of the grass, we were up to about 393 million. So now we’ve got a bit more than the U.S. population — but remember, this is the entire world, not just Italy or even Western Europe.
In 1850, when the Church was gearing up for Vatican I, the world’s population had passed 1 billion. Barely. Our world’s population now stands at about 7.6 billion, which means that approximately 7% of all the people who have ever lived, are alive right now.
That’s a lot of souls on the line. No wonder the Prince of Darkness has his minions out in full force.
Many of the changes we lament in the world are, to a great extent, a consequence of having gotten things we normally think we want.
For instance, Catholics often lament the loss of older forms of government or now-archaic economic systems. Life was better, we think, when we had monarchs and less separation between Church and state, or when most people were peasants working the land.
There are reasons, certainly, for thinking that these economic and social structures might be more congenial to a life of faith. It’s not even remotely crazy to reflect that we would have preferred to raise our children in a society where most people were Catholic and where customs and laws were intentionally consonant with the Catholic faith.
In many ways, it seems quite obvious that that would be desirable, and it can be depressing to consider the many daunting obstacles that stand in the way of recreating that state of affairs.
Let’s consider, though, that one of the really important reasons why that world eroded was precisely because of the above-mentioned population growth.
With advances in medicine and agriculture, people had more babies and (more importantly) a lot more of them survived. That’s a good thing. Pro-life Catholics know that babies are a blessing, and we’d like to see more of them in the world. But from the standpoint of governance and the common good, this blessing also raises new considerations. In principle, it seems possible to have enormous, diverse nations ordered by Catholic mores and Catholic-inspired laws — but in practice, larger populations tend to have a wider range of beliefs and customs, which create challenges.
Ancient empires normally used some combination of regional autonomy and brutal repression to deal with the challenges of pluralism. In fact, though, even world conquerors like Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great were dealing with fairly small populations by today’s standards.
Modern liberalism, for all its defects, is partly designed just to enable these enormous, pluralistic societies to achieve some kind of acceptable modus vivendi (ideally one that doesn’t involve the brutal repression of a Genghis Khan). Some of the fruits of that effort are certainly bad, and even the concept of liberal governance is unsatisfying to Catholics in many respects, but insofar as we want to celebrate the abundance of human life as a positive thing, we should at least reflect on what adjustments may be necessary to integrate everyone.
Here’s something else to consider: We often deplore the evil effects of technology, and it’s true that technology sometimes seems to invade every cranny of our lives, making it increasingly difficult to escape from the degraded norms of our ever-eroding culture.
Medieval hamlets were surely more wholesome. On the other hand, for every medieval hamlet, there was probably another village somewhere else in the world where the inhabitants had never heard the name of Jesus. If you were, say, a peasant in France in 1300, there wasn’t much you could have done about that.
One reason the missionary saints were so ardent in their task was because they wanted to spare these many ignorant people from going to their graves without any possibility of confessing Christ and being baptized. Today we sometimes wish we could get more distance from our unbelieving brethren, but the same chains that bind us together might also open opportunities for spreading the Good News to those who haven’t really heard it yet. There are challenges to be sure, but considering all the angles, should we really see this change as something to lament?
If you feel like you’re living in the culture-of-death epilogue to Christendom’s glory days, take a moment to marvel at the abundance of human life in our world. Ask the Lord of the Harvest to send out workers for this abundant crop. Then pick up your hoe.
Rachel Lu, a moral philosopher, wife, and mother of four, writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.