The Liberal notion that religion was a matter of private belief and of conduct in private life, and that there is no reason why Christians should not be able to accommodate themselves to any world which treats them good-naturedly, is becoming less and less tenable. This notion would seem to have become accepted gradually, as a false inference from the subdivision of English Christianity into sects, and the happy results of universal toleration. The reason why members of different communions have been able to rub along together is that in the greater part of the ordinary business of life they have shared the same assumptions about behaviour. . . . The problem of leading a Christian life in a non-Christian society is now very present to us, and it is a very different problem from that of the accommodation between an Established Church and dissenters. It is not merely the problem of a minority in a society of individuals holding an alien belief. It is the problem constituted by our implication in a network of institutions from which we cannot dissociate ourselves: institutions the operation of which appears no longer neutral, but non-Christian. And as for the Christian who is not conscious of his dilemma — and he is in the majority — he is becoming more and more de-Christianised by all sorts of unconscious pressure: paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space. Anything like Christian traditions transmitted from generation to generation within the family must disappear, and the small body of Christians will consist entirely of adult recruits. . . .
What is often assumed, and it is a principle that I wish to oppose, is the principle of live-and-let-live. It is assumed that if the State leaves the Church alone, and to some extent protects it from molestation, then the Church has no right to interfere with the organization of society, or with the conduct of those who deny its beliefs. It is assumed that any such interference would be the oppression of the majority by a minority. Christians must take a very different view of their duty. But before suggesting how the Church should interfere with the World, we must try to answer the question, why should it interfere with the World?
The author of that quote was T.S. Eliot, which means that though it sounds as if it was written yesterday, it was actually quite a while ago. Try almost 75 years ago.
In one way this is encouraging; it seems as if whatever time in which you lived was always pointing toward the end, which was always just around the corner. At the same time there's something depressing about it as well; because he describes today's times so well, his pessimism is that much more so. Either way, there's no doubt that his words are prophetic.
But there's more to Eliot than that, and ultimately - if you read the whole thing - you'll find that he also provides a call to action, a description of exactly what we're called to do. "To accept two ways of life in the same society, one for the Christian and another for the rest, would be for the Church to abandon its task of evangelising the world. For the more alien the non-Christian world become, the more difficult becomes its conversion." That's the challenge; those are our marching orders. It sounds vaguely like a call to martyrdom; I don't know.
But one thing that comes instantly to mind: has the Pope ever said anything this cogent? In this sense, the money quote:
I do not mean that the Church exists primarily for the propagation of Christian morality: morality is a means and not an end. The Church exists for the glory of God and the sanctification of souls: Christian morality is part of the means by which these ends are to be attained. But because Christian morals are based on fixed beliefs which cannot change they also are essentially unchanging: while the beliefs and in consequence the morality of the secular world can change from individual to individual, or from generation to generation, or from nation to nation.
He's not talking about the Catholic Church, though I have no doubt that if Eliot lived today, seeing what's become of his Anglican church, he would convert. The message remains the same, though. Unlike, perhaps, the Bishop of Rome, Eliot does not soft-sell the faith; he does not dumb down the message. The Church does not exist in a state that renders insignificant what it really stands for.
No matter how confused today's message might be.
Originally published July 18, 2014