Throughout the West, at least, the members of the Church have become increasingly secularized, such that there is a continuing pressure within the Church to ignore or even change unpopular Church teachings in order to curry favor with the dominant culture. We see this constantly among socio-political leaders, teachers and professors, priests and religious, and even some bishops and cardinals. Indeed, nothing is more understandable than that the Church’s members, who are often formed as much by the dominant culture as by the truths of the Faith, should very often reflect the habitual misunderstandings, failures and rebellions of the time and place in which they live.
If we look back at any period in Church history, we will find that the dominant misunderstandings and weaknesses within the Church closely mirror (though typically with significantly less severity) the misunderstandings and weaknesses characteristic of the cultures from which the Church draws her members. It takes the zeal characteristic of new converts—a zeal constantly refreshed and deepened in all Catholics who take very seriously the sacraments, personal prayer, Church teaching and self-examination before God—to rise above mere cultural assumptions, personal misunderstandings, and habitual faults to the light of Christ. This is a difficult and ongoing process.
So much, then, for what we see every day all around us. And yet there remain large numbers of good bishops, priests, deacons, religious and lay people who pray and work energetically to renew the Church, to bear witness to Christ, to preach and teach the Faith, to give courageous counter-cultural example, and withal to invite others to make their own commitment to Christ and the Church. But all these collide with the trends: Baptisms are down, conversions are down, Mass attendance (even apart from Covid) is down, and the influence of Christianity on human culture continues to decline.
How are we to interpret these results? What is the explanation of this steady decline? Is it Catholic failures that are specifically to blame?
Somewhat surprisingly, while the failures of Church leaders and of those who bear the name “Catholic” are certainly significant, they are not in themselves a sufficient explanation. If they were, there would never be an age of Christian “expansion”, for every era is replete with the failures of the Church in her members, including our own personal failures. And yet sometimes the Church grows, sometimes Christianity shapes culture, and sometimes the Christian way of life seems to gain traction in the world, while at other times it staggers and falls. We can always point to obvious deficiencies which “explain” the failures, just as we can always point to striking Christian witness which “should have had” the opposite effect.
Quiet: Providence at work
Our Lord responds directly to this misguided form of human analysis in a single epigram: “For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps’.” (Jn 4:37) But let us look more closely at these words of Christ, as he instructs his disciples:
I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest. He who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor; others have labored, and you have entered into their labor. [Jn 4:31-38]
These words of Our Lord are a stunning confirmation of the spiritual sense of Psalm 126 in verse 6: “He that goes forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying his sheaves”. But the harvest of souls is not the work of a single growing season, and what Our Lord tells us is that this passage is fulfilled transcendently, that is, far beyond a single time and place or a single generation. For if He sends some to reap in joy that for which they did not labor, this means he sends others to sow in tears what they will not reap.
There are quite a few passages throughout the Old and New Testaments which speak of sowing and reaping. Some emphasize that God’s anger can bring human effort to nothing. This is true, obviously, when God is displeased with how we are acting, and determines that it would be both just and in our best interest if even our normal human efforts were to come to nothing, so that we learn to pay heed and depend on Him. (See, for example, Jer 12:13 and Mic 6:15.)
Others emphasize the deeper moral truth that we all reap what we sow (Job 4:8; Hos 10:13; 2 Cor 9:6; Gal 6:7-9). In its most fully-developed Christian form, this may be summarized in St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.
Apart from this deep relationship between the soul and God, however, there is a genuine human uncertainty. Thus in the Book of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher stresses that we simply do not know how things in this world will turn out:
He who observes the wind will not sow; and he who regards the clouds will not reap. As you do not know how the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything. In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand; for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good. [11:4-6]
This is a frank reminder that much of what happens is simply beyond our control, a lesson that even Christians must never forget. There is a huge range of spiritual results which are dark to us—not the ultimate results of fidelity for us personally, but the manifestation here and now of the results we hope to achieve at least partly through our own efforts. Any faithful Christian who has watched helplessly as friends or family members go astray understands this terrible uncertainty, this terrible inability on our part to control the outcome even among those we love most. This is a special challenge to our trust in God.
The assurance of Christian hope
The unpredictability of our most treasured relationships is raised to a far higher degree in the whole history of man, and indeed of all created beings. Nonetheless, in his most mature teaching, St. Paul addresses even this:
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor. [1 Cor 3:6-8]
Note that wages are according to the goodness of the labor itself; not according to the exterior success of that labor—for God gives the growth. This reminds us of a very important Catholic teaching, the teaching on the “economy of salvation”. For in the economy of salvation, nothing good is ever wasted. Not only is it true that we mysteriously make up what is “lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the church” (Col 1:24), but it is also true that every good prompted in us by Divine grace is credited with great value—value that will produce a corresponding return somewhere, sometime, not necessarily as we see it, but far beyond our comprehension.
St. Paul continues his discussion in 1 Corinthians with other metaphors, which further stress the uncertainty of our efforts, but also the assurance of our reward: “So let no one boast of men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor 3:21-23).
In other words, there is no predictable visible and immediate one-to-one correspondence between even our best intentions and efforts and their results in these matters of renewing the Church, drawing others to Christ, and hallowing human culture. We do not fully understand the causal relationship between virtue and success, on the one hand, and vice and failure, on the other. For this reason, while we can identify spiritual problems and failings in the Church today, and we ought to work to correct them for the good of souls and the glory of God, we cannot say: “If only these things that I discern were corrected, the Church’s mission would succeed.” We must allow room for the mystery of Christ’s action in the world, which most definitely includes the mystery of the cross.
If the Church grows in one region or era and shrinks in another; if Catholicism penetrates deeply into a particular human culture or shrivels away; whether our own heartfelt efforts bear visible fruit or not; whether our loved ones live exemplary Catholic lives or seem to get very, very lost—whatever happens, it is not for us to predict or even fully to understand the results; nor to cast the blame for failure; nor to take the credit for victory; nor even to assume that fidelity, virtue and mission will always meet with visible success for the Church in this world.
I have emphasized often that we are called not to be successful but to be faithful. Only then are the world, life and death, the present and the future guaranteed to us. For Our Lord saved us through obedience to the Father. In exactly the same way, it is not through visible success but through fidelity alone that we are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.