Faith, Family and the Future Of New Evangelisation
“There can be no love without justice. Love surpasses justice but, at the same time, it finds its verification in justice. … If justice is uncertain, love, too, runs a risk” St John Paul II
Towards the conclusion of his landmark book After Virtue, the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre observes that the death rattle of the Roman Empire began when men and women of good will “turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium” which had become socially decadent and culturally diseased.
“What they set themselves to achieve instead – often not recognising fully what they were doing – was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.”
For MacIntyre – a lapsed Marxist turned Catholic – the parallel with our contemporary Western society was both obvious and sobering: “This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St Benedict.”
When another saintly Benedict did finally emerge, this time upon the Chair of Peter, his cultural analysis echoed that of MacIntyre: “I would say that normally it is the creative minorities that determine the future, and in this sense the Catholic Church must understand itself as a creative minority,” suggested Pope Benedict XVI during an in-flight papal press conference in 2009.
Over the past five decades, the Faith movement has providentially emerged as an increasingly vital and vibrant “creative minority” within the Church. Its intellectually coherent vision of faith and reason has become alloyed with an increasing cultural credibility. This has been shaped – in large measure – by the generations of young people who seem attracted to Faith’s particular brand of optimistic, orthodox Catholicism. They do not believe themselves to be the faithful remnant of a fading Christian culture. Catholicism, for them, is not a reactionary, rear-guard action.
On the contrary, they possess a quiet, joyful, unshakeable confidence that they “have found the Messiah” and – just as an exhilarated Andrew ran to his brother Peter – they too want to share the reason for their hope with family and friends. They are also shorn of the false dichotomies that seem to trouble a much older generation of Catholics.
For them, there is no choice to be made between the pastoral and doctrinal. No contradiction between justice and mercy. Very often it is growing up in a broken culture and, increasingly, within a broken home that gives them a real-world confirmation of catechetical abstractions. They know there can be no love without justice. They know that the greatest compassion is the compassion of the truth. They know the alternative amounts to little more than hollow sentimentalities, sugar-coated falsehoods: sweet to taste, deadly to human happiness, fatal for the common good.
This rejection of bogus binarism is why young Catholics can readily embrace moral absolutism while seeing no contradiction in apostolically applying it with “pastoral gradualism” or – as they would perhaps call it – emotional intelligence.
Such was the way of Saint Francis of Assisi: “We know that the sickness of self-will is more deeply rooted in some and for these cauterising is needed. Not ointment. It is evident that for many it is more wholesome to be ruled with a rod of iron than to be stroked with the hand. But oil and wine, the rod and the staff, harshness and pity, burning and anointing, the prison and kindness, all these have their season.”
Similarly, Saint John Vianney would recommend that priests should be tough in the pulpit but gentler in the confessional. Being pastoral is an art. It is not a science. That is why it can prove nigh impossible to distil it into a universal code of practice. Sometimes compassion necessitates a friendly but firm rebuke. Other times a warm hug will suffice.
Which brings us back to “creative minorities”. Any visitor to a Faith conference is immediately struck by the number of young priests and deacons in attendance. Christ has, indeed, blessed the movement with a continuing abundance of vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
Less remarked upon, however, is the vastly greater number of young people who go on to pursue holiness in married life. As Cardinal Daniel DiNardo observed at last month’s Synod on the Family in Rome, such authentic Catholic families are the “genuine leaven” in society. “If a loving and stable family can bring consolation and encouragement to just one other family, the effect on the Church and the world is tremendous,” said the American prelate.
With the decline of the Roman Empire, it fell to a cheerful band of saintly scholars situated on the outer fringes of the British Isles to preserve Christianity in Europe. From there, they re-evangelised an entire continent. A similar task now awaits a new generation of Catholic husbands and wives. As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the world.
Saint John Paul II, pope of the family, pray for us.