Letters from the Synod – Worldliness, Mediocrity, And Us

October 17, 2018 | Published first in First Things: Letters from the Synod



Edited by 



In his very first homily as Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis spoke to the cardinals who had just elected him about the dangers of a Church that seeks to do many good things but fails to proclaim Christ. “If we do not profess Jesus Christ,” the pope said, “things go wrong. We may become a charitable NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of the Lord.” In fact, the Holy Father went one step further: “When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness.”

Since that first homily, Pope Francis has returned to the theme of worldliness again and again. In Evangelii Gaudium, for example, he wrote of an “insidious worldliness” by which “evangelical fervor is replaced by the empty pleasure of complacency and self-indulgence.”

Worldliness is not a new danger: Think of the parable of the sower and the seeds, and the thorns of worldly cares that choke out faith. What is new is the widespread affluence and technological prowess that has developed over the last century and accelerated in recent decades. In just one or two generations, hundreds of millions—often in Christian or formerly Christian countries—have attained material security unrivaled in human history.

For those of us who have never know anything else, this remarkable advance in material well-being is easy to take for granted. This shortsightedness leads us to risk casual ingratitude for the astonishing blessings we enjoy, but also leaves us vulnerable to a certain blindness to perils we might otherwise find alarming. Of course, poverty and deprivation persist even in the midst of the wealthiest nations, and few would despise material progress in itself. But the ubiquity of our affluence means that, for the first time in history, entire societies are materially secure enough and technologically advanced enough that the illusion of self-sufficiency has become tantalizingly real.

The ubiquity of this worldliness is itself a challenge for the Church, and one worth considering in light of the current Synod and the challenges facing a younger generation. In many places, worldliness is so unexceptional as to be virtually invisible. Even those who profess belief in God can fall unawares into a kind of practical materialism. And practical materialism is hard to distinguish from practical atheism.

It is difficult to consider the crisis of faith in the West apart from this worldliness. In the United States, for example, most Catholics don’t go to Mass even once a month. The vast majority say they rarely or never go to confession. (Meanwhile, nearly everyone who does show up for Mass receives holy communion.) It’s depressing to consider that the situation in the U.S. is much better than in most of Europe.

Worldliness breeds, and feeds upon, a culture of accommodation. Marriage rates have plummeted in recent decades. This collapse of marriage rates can be found across demographics, but the drop in Catholics getting married in the Church has been particularly severe. The begetting and rearing of children is increasingly seen as an optional accessory to marriage rather than its primary purpose. Something like two-thirds of American Catholics approve of same-sex marriage. This breakdown of the family and other forms of social solidarity has been most apparent among those least equipped to deal with the loss: the poor.

The problem isn’t just immorality—sin is old hat—but a sort of immunity to the remedies for immorality. We are comfortable and easily confuse our comfort with satisfaction. Comfort leads to complacency, and for the most part, we’re secure enough in our complacency to be prideful in defense of it. We feel entitled to it.

We have learned to live, and have come to believe that we can afford to live, as if by bread alone. We like to imagine that we are in control, or at least, that we ought to be—that we deserve to be. And this makes us reluctant to acknowledge limits on our own “self-expression,” which is just a nicer way of saying our willfulness.

Even many Catholics take religious conviction and practice to be just another mode of this self-expression. Increasingly, young Catholics are finding that Catholicism doesn’t express very well what they believe about the world and so they leave the Church. Often, our young people decide to leave the Church before they’re even out of high school. They find the Church’s teachings—especially on sex, but not only—to be irrelevant or oppressive or both. They are taught, though not always in so many words, that a gulf exists between faith and reason and, being so well-schooled in the wonders of science and technology, have few qualms about siding with the latter over the former.

The situation is most common in places where modern notions of progress have inoculated souls against the very idea of objective truth. The givenness of reality is forgotten or denied. Nature is forgotten or obscured, and because it is forgotten, easily and often abused.  I don’t mean “nature” just in the ecological sense but in the fullest sense of creation imbued by its Creator with meaning and purpose. It’s no accident that an incarnational faith struggles mightily where nature itself—including human nature, the nature which the Second Person of the Trinity took upon himself and through which he redeemed the whole human race—is so out of fashion. A people that sees nature as mere stuff to be manipulated, as so much jiggling energy and matter subject to mastery, is not a people inclined to worship, at least not in a sacramental way.

Such a people will be inclined to see the world as being as good or bad as we make it. Such a people may not acknowledge the givenness of Creation, but they do admire a “faith” that does something useful. Such a people adores a compassionate Non-Governmental Organization but sees little point in sanctification when there’s so much work to be done. That work, guided by conscience and a sense of justice uncoupled from objective truth, is the work of Babel. Even “justice,” when it is shorn of any bond to a higher law—natural or divine—is only a facsimile of justice, an artifact of human will. A people governed by and dedicated to such justice is a people turned in upon itself. The emblem of this people is not the cross but the ouroboros: The old Gnostic symbol of a snake eating its own tail replaces the Christian sign of self-sacrificing love.

The Church, for her part, has too often pretended that the cross need not be a sign of contradiction to prevailing worldliness. The evangelical counsels—poverty, chastity, and obedience—have been tamed, domesticated, and when not actually ignored, reduced to safely unattainable ideals rather than guides to perfection. Too often, our pastors have looked to a therapeutic spirituality that treats a restless heart as a problem to be solved rather than a divine summons to a still more excellent way. Conscience has been treated as a means for justifying the worldliness of comfort and self-reliance, rather than a reminder of “a law which [man] does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience” (as the Second Vatican Council put it in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World).  We’re even told that conscience could affirm the need to live at some distance from the divine law.

To be sure, legalism is no remedy to what ails us. Scolding moralism is counterproductive. All the doctrinal clarity in the world will not solve these problems. But an approach to pastoral care that consistently sets low expectations and downplays the stakes of discipleship, that waters-down the gospel to make it more agreeable to worldly ears, or that treats mercy as the repudiation of divine law only reinforces the deadly mediocrity against which the Church ought to contend. Exhortations to renewal from popes and some prelates notwithstanding, this worldly mediocrity has underwritten the de facto pastoral approach in most of the West for at least two generations. While exceptions exist where vibrancy and hope flourish, the overall result has been catastrophic.

The Church is called to love a world undeserving of love. In this we imitate our Lord, who, while we were still sinners, suffered and died for us. We must not despise or abandon the world, nor can we delude ourselves into thinking that we, by our efforts alone, can save it. But neither can we love the world by conforming ourselves to it, or by bidding others to do the same out of some misguided sense of compassion. When encounter, dialogue, and accompaniment become excuses for accommodation; when conscience becomes a mode of self-assertion rather than a summons to obedience; when the gospel we preach sounds more and more like the siren song of the world, we have lost our way. Too many of us already have.

The Church cannot undo the pastoral failures of the past, but neither is it doomed to repeat them. For the sake of a new generation, and generations to come, it must not.

– Stephen White


This piece first appeared in First Things: Letters from the Synod 2018-#11Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.