So what is the problem? A post to start a discussion

So what is the problem? A post to start a discussion January 6, 2019

This post began about a month ago, when I got a funding raising email from Formed. For those who are not aware of this website, it is an on demand e-library run by the Augustine Institute, which describes its mission as follows:

The Augustine Institute serves the formation of Catholics for the New Evangelization. Through our academic and parish programs, we equip Catholics intellectually, spiritually, and pastorally to renew the Church and transform the world for Christ.

Formed is marketed at the diocesan level, and so I have membership through a subscription bought by the Diocese of Birmingham.   Their content leans towards Scott Hahn and similar writers.

Anyway, early in December I received an email pitch which began:

What can you do about the crisis in our culture and in the Church?

Now more than ever the Church desperately needs devout and zealous disciples—disciples who have the strength of heart to witness the truth with love to the world, and even to the Church itself.

We’re working hard to combat this crisis, but we need your help.

The sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s has expanded to today’s growing cultural pressure to redefine marriage and one’s gender. As the culture turns away and rejects the beauty of the Christian understanding of marriage and sexuality, many wonder if religion is simply an outdated medieval superstition—antiquated, odd, unnecessary to the modern world.

They wonder if the Christian faith is nothing more than a flickering candle in the wind.  Are we going away?

No, we’re not.

With fierce cultural winds blowing against the faithful from all sides, many Christians have felt their footing unsure and that unsettling uncertainty was only intensified when scandals and betrayals from within the Church were made public this summer.

When I first skimmed through this email, I was rather dismissive.  At first glance it appeared to be part of a standard trope popular among some conservative Catholics, one which blames all the ills of modern society on the sexual revolution, and which hearkens back (at least implicitly) to a mythical golden age in which there was no sexual libertinism.  Having heard stories from older colleagues about the sexual mores of New England liberal arts colleges in the 1950s (“there are girls you date and then there are girls you marry”) and having done some scattered reading on the history of prostitution in the medieval period, I have long felt there was no such time.

I intended to blog about this, but never found anything more substantive to say, so I let it drop, though I did keep the email.  But then several more fund raising emails showed up, all variations of the original.  Significantly, however, they dropped the specific reference to the sexual revolution, but did not mention any other specific instances of the “fierce cultural winds blowing against the faithful.”  And while I remained skeptical of the focus on the sexual revolution, I did think that they had a point.  But these appeals did raise the question:  what are the specific ills of modern culture in America?  Which ones are foundational, and which are merely symptoms of a deeper malaise?

I have been thinking about this as this post took shape in my head, and in a (rare?) burst of intellectual humility I have to say I am not sure.  I want to throw out some ideas, but I am also looking to get our readers to come back with their own thoughts.  In particular, I hope that our quiet readers will have something to say.  (Okay, I admit it, I miss the days when moderating the blog was a chore because of the volume of the comments requiring approval.)

To get things started:  looking at modern America, I see the following (in no particular order) as deeper problems that present challenges to the Church and which we as Catholics must address.  I have shared a number of links to earlier posts by myself and by our regular contributors and guests which speak to them in some form or another, though these are but a small sampling from our archives.

  • Our culture glorifies individualism to the extent that it significantly weakens the social bonds.  A version of this argument was effectively argued by my fellow blogger Julia Smucker.  I touched on it briefly as a cause of problems in the Church in an early post.
  • Our society is gripped by the illusion that violence is a solution to our problems, personally, domestically, and internationally.  With references to WW I, I wrote about this many years ago, and Mark Gordon recently brought it up again.
  • Racism, “America’s original sin,” continues to blight our society.  I have written about this extensively:  one of my earliest posts at Vox Nova was about racism, and the most recent was only a month ago.  There was also a detailed post by Jeannine Pitas a few years ago.
  • Nationalism and political polarization, like individualism, are tearing our society apart.  Coupled with our fascination with violence, there is a danger that we could, literally, start killing one another.  A guest post by Lillian Vogl earlier this year on centrism addressed this.  We also had a series of guest posts by Mike McG on the effects of polarization on the Catholic Church.
  • Capitalism, as practiced today, with its glorification of consumption, materialism and wealth accumulation for its own sake, threaten not just our society but the very earth itself.   After Black Friday this year, Julia Smucker called out Mammon.  Many years ago, Mark Gordon offered a conservative critique of capitalism. Jeannine Pitas wrote about responding to Laudato Si, which requires addressing the roots of the problem in capitalism.

Looking at this list, I am not sure which if any of these is more serious than the others.  I sense that some of them are inter-related.  In particular, capitalism (patterns of advertising and consumption) underlie our individualism and our fascination with violence.   Are there others?  Is there an ur-problem, specific to America, or to western civilization as a whole, that underlies them, or is it too reductive to expect this?

Your thoughts and comments are welcome.

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