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Has Christianity Failed?

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By DONALD DeMARCO

Whether Christianity has failed is a question that has resurfaced many times during its long history. To those who argued that Christianity has been tried and has failed, G.K. Chesterton responded by saying that “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” It is the easy road to Christianity that persists in failing, but not Christianity in its orthodox form.
Perspective is most important in dealing with such a question. No doubt, Christianity has had its failures here and there, but over its 2,000-plus year history, it has succeeded splendidly. There is no other institution than the Catholic Church, for example, that has prevailed over this long a period of time. It is myopic to believe it has failed, though there have been many cynics who would like to see it fail.
In the 1950s Bishop Sheen turned to the question, “Has Christianity Failed?” His answer rested on a distinction between authentic Christianity and its inauthentic substitutes. In a rather imaginative nomenclature that was his and his alone, he contrasted true Christianity with “Pink-pill,” “Ambulance,” and “Rumba” Christianity. These ersatz varieties were bound to fail.
By “Pink-pill” he was referring to a therapeutic kind of Christianity in which its adherents, lacking in discipline, preferred the “clinic” to the “cross.” They viewed Christianity as a way to make them feel good. “Ambulance” Christianity gets behind social movements until it is no longer relevant. It promotes good work but ultimately steps aside, so that science can do a better job. In “Rumba” Christianity, “activity” replaces the head and the heart. In this case, a person who writes a good article or directs a good movie is said to be a good Christian.
In all three of these false versions of Christianity, sacrifice, death to sin, and the radical significance of the cross are absent. Failure, therefore, becomes inevitable.
Observing what is transpiring in the present world, I would offer three reasons why some people believe that Catholicism, in particular, has failed. The first is that so many Catholics are simply un-catechized. Not knowing the fundamentals of one’s faith concerning the Mass, the sacraments, the Blessed Virgin, the liturgical calendar, Church teaching, and so on, is to be a Catholic in name only. It is to be wholly unprepared to distinguish between true Catholicism and its many specious alternatives.
Being unfamiliar or ignorant of the fundamentals of Catholicism renders a person vulnerable to the second reason that explains the defection from its orthodox form. This second reason has to do with accommodation. Not being familiar with what Catholicism truly is, a person is easily attracted what happens to be fashionable in the secular world. In this way, a person is prone to rationalize that contraception, abortion, and euthanasia are acceptable under the proper auspices.
Unfortunately, as such as a “Catholic” continues to make accommodations to the world, his faith evaporates. Catholicism did not fail him. Rather, he failed to be a Catholic.
The third reason that helps to explain straying from orthodox Catholicism is pride. Progress is all around us, in medicine, agriculture, city planning, travel, the processing of information, and in countless other ways. Perhaps Catholic doctrine should also be progressive. Is Catholicism stuck in the Middle Ages? Pride can conceal itself even when it is most dangerous.
Catholicism, unlike the material world around us that is constantly changing, is at the unchanging center of things. It involves matters of permanency. The nature of the human being as a loving person, morality, truth, goodness, and justice are not subject to progressive changes. The proud Catholic believes he can make his Church better by dissenting from authentic teaching and, as is often said, bringing the Church into the twenty-first century. He lacks respect for the tradition and, though apparently well-meaning, wants to change the Church so that it is more person friendly.
The first factor, being uncatechised, represents a lack of knowledge. The second factor, accommodation to the world, is based on an absence of faith. The third factor, pride, is associated with an absence of humility. Knowledge, faith, and humility are essential in the formation of Catholicism. Yet, how easily they are ignored, and even dismissed.
Ironically, the Catholic Church possesses the very antidotes needed to counteract the various inimical attitudes toward it. Knowledge means knowing what Catholicism is. Faith means believing in its God-protected and salvific reality. Humility means realizing that the Church is wiser than any particular individual.
It is commonly stated that the Church is in a state of crisis. This assertion can hardly be disputed. At the same time, one can understand the crisis in terms of that fact that so many who are Catholics in name only have created for themselves a false Catholicism. Long before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger stated back in 1970: “What was hitherto unthinkable becomes normal: that men who long ago abandoned the Church’s Creed should in good conscience regard themselves as the truly progressive Christians. For them, however, the only standard by which to measure the Church is the expediency with which she functions” (“Why I Am Still in the Church,” Fundamental Speeches from Five Decades, pp. 138-139).
The fact that a false church has failed should be no reason for people to give up on the true Church. The true Church, however, as Chesterton pointed out, is “difficult,” but not, as Ratzinger stated, “expedient.” Life itself is difficult. It should not be surprising that the Church, which nourishes and fulfills it, should also be difficult. To be a Christian means to embrace difficulty. “If anyone would come after me,” said Christ, “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24-6). Amen.

  • + + (Dr. Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus, St. Jerome’s University, and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College. He is a regular columnist for St. Austin Review and is the author of thirty-nine books. His latest book, The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling is posted on amazon.com. His fortieth book, Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, is in production.)
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