Losing our Christian tradition and civic past

Father John A. Kiley

The early Protestant reformers — Zwingli, Calvin and Cranmer especially — wisely insisted that all tokens of the old religion — altars, statues, rosaries, relics, pilgrimages, even saints and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist — be trashed and destroyed so that the Bible — the core of the new religion — would be all that the faithful could grasp in time of need and guidance. Deprived of the signs and symbols that had strengthened and consoled them for centuries, a disoriented faithful were ripe for the Reformers who wanted to destroy the Catholic Church with its admittedly flawed hierarchy and priesthood and replace it with a lay movement of preachers and ministers answerable only to the Scriptures as privately interpreted. Disorientation paved the way for re-orientation.

On a much less drastic level, some older Catholics might recall the denuding of local parish churches in the 1960s when some activist clergy tossed out statues and eliminated devotions in favor of political participation and legislative action. The loss of religious garb, the hierarchical elimination of Friday abstinence and the dismemberment of Holy Days again deprived the Catholic faithful of centuries-old distinctive marks, leaving some believers with a broad, shapeless religious experience. Hence mid-century Catholics, deprived to some extent of their traditional identifying marks and their strengthening traditions, were once again ripe for a new gospel. Disorientation again paved the way for re-orientation, this time announcing that Christianity, Catholicism included, amounts to no more than being a good person. Creed, commandments and cult yielded to civic involvement and neighborly respectability as the hallmarks of Christianity.

R. R. Reno, editor of First Things, in his new book “Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society” laments similar iconoclasm in today’s secular world which lately insists on the elimination of the national anthem, disregard for the American flag, the removal of Crosses and Commandments from public property and the elimination of statues of traditional heroes like Christopher Columbus, Father Junipero Serra, General Robert E. Lee and even a plaque recalling George Washington. Again, depriving citizens of traditional signs and symbols which indicate what it means to be an American makes citizens ripe for a re-orientation toward the new secular orthodoxy of unbridled individualism, flexible truth, and, especially, isolation from the Christian consensus that flourished in this nation for two hundred years.

When Americans think of Washington, they do not imagine him as master of a plantation; they recall him as a dynamic military and political leader. The image of Columbus never generates notions of slaughtering Aztecs; it evokes the adventurous thought of discovering new horizons. The memory of General Lee has certainly not endured a century and a half as a slave owner; he represents a certain gentlemanly quality to which Southerner men might aspire. Father Serra was not canonized for displacing native culture; he is honored for spreading the Gospel. A Cross or a Star of David or even a Crescent on public property offends only those who want to be offended in order to promote atheistic secularism as society’s guiding principle.

Recently entering a baptismal notice in a local parish church, I noted that the register held ten baptismal records per page. Of the 10 records on the latest page, six indicated that the infant’s parents were, “extra ecclesiam mariti,” which is Latin for “married outside the Church.” One entry was labeled “non mariti,” again Latin, for “not married.” Remember that these seven sad comments indicate couples who at least presented their infants for baptism. How many other babies are never baptized in the Church? How many other couples are never married in the Church? How many other couples even acknowledge the Church? Deprived of the trappings of the faith, as well as the doctrines of the faith, a newer generation has just about lost all Catholic identity.

Many understand the Christian religion to amount to no more than human decency. Thirty percent of young Americans, the so-called millennials, believe in God but have no religion. And before long they will have no patriotism either. The first thing a revolution does is eliminate tradition. The ancient regime must go! Modern American revolutionaries are perhaps not into chopping off heads, but they are into chopping off all connections with America’s Christian and civic past. Disorientation makes their goal of re-orientation much easier. Signs and symbols, sacraments and sacramentals, along with anthems, flags, statues and holidays — all these ageless icons matter. The alternative is isolation from God and country followed by absorption into humanistic, secularistic, atheistic and — let’s be honest — hedonistic individualism.