The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

The thoughts expressed here are my personal thoughts and sometimes reflect my political views. As a private citizen I have every right to express these views.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Temporal Bias

A few months ago, while conducting a brief, overview course on the history of the Catholic Church for catechists and Catholic school teachers, I asked the general question: "Is the world a better place today than it was in earlier times?" The responses from the class were -- at least to me -- somewhat surprising. Virtually everyone answered, "Yes." (As I recall, among the 20 plus participants there was only one dissenting voice.) When I probed more deeply, it became evident that, for some, their answers were largely influenced by humanity's tremendous technological progress during the past century. But an equal number based their responses on the idea that today we are wiser, more knowledgeable, more compassionate, even more intelligent than those who preceded us.

I will accept that the question as I phrased it was somewhat ambiguous, but I assumed that the setting -- a class on Church history -- would have some influence on their thinking. Apparently not. When I asked for specifics to support their beliefs, I received only generalities in reply. One person, however, did call upon the Second Vatican Council as evidence that the modern world is a wiser and more enlightened world. She believed that the Council fathers had displayed a degree of compassion, tolerance, and wisdom absent from the Church's previous general councils. "Unlike the other councils, they didn't get all wrapped up in heresy and hierarchy," she added.

At that point I reminded her that Pope John XXIII and the Council fathers had explicitly declared their acceptance of the decisions of all previous councils, that in Pope John's words, "...it is necessary first of all that the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers." I then reminded her that Vatican II was both a call to holiness -- a renewal of the Church's inner life -- and a call to engage in a dynamic dialog with a world that had become increasingly secular, irreligious and violent. Neither comment solicited much more than a raised eyebrow. Eventually I had to pull out my copy of the Documents of Vatican II and read a few relevant passages to her. She later admitted that she had never actually read any of the Council's documents. (The Vatican's website has all 16 documents online - click here.)

It's sad that here we are over 40 years after the Council and very few of the faithful have read any of these wonderful texts. Pope John Paul, commenting on the Council, wrote, "Through the whole experience of the Council we have contracted a debt toward the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ who speaks to the churches." It is apparently a debt that has largely gone unpaid through our ignorance of what the Council actually taught. I can recall one commentator (I've forgotten who) comparing this to the Gospel passage describing the talents being buried (Mt 25:18).

But back to my original concern: the apparent popularity of the idea that we've built a better world than that of our predecessors. Now, it seems to me (and if you want to argue this conclusion of mine, I'd love to hear from you), that we are by no means better off than those who lived in earlier times. Of course, one's view of this will depend on one's concept of what it means to be "better off." If the sole criterion is material or physical well-being, then perhaps you can make a case for the present; but even then I'd argue that much of the world's population benefits little, if at all, from most of our technological advances. And then there's the pesky presence of all those modern wars, not to mention the ideologically based oppression of hundreds of millions by totalitarian regimes.

Indeed, it's pretty much agreed that more people died as a direct result of war and oppression during the past century than in all previous recorded history. That doesn't sound too compassionate to me. And then there's the loss of religious faith and a corresponding decrease in religious practice. In most European nations church attendance is near 10% or less and religion has been almost completely removed from the public square. Unfortunately, the United States isn't far behind. What Max Picard in 1934 called The Flight from God has become a reality. Christendom is gone and has taken Christian morality with it. We now murder our unwanted, unborn children by the tens of millions, and consider "physician assisted suicide" a merciful act.

How can we as a people be better off when a growing number of us have turned our backs on God and His commandments? If we Christians believe "better off" means being closer to salvation, then it would seem, in one sense at least, that we live in the worst of times, not the best. I've come to believe that the basic cause of this belief that we are somehow better off (and smarter, kinder, and gentler) than those who went before us is a form of temporal bias that assumes a constant evolution on the part of humanity in all aspects of our lives; that is, all is "progress." Many have come to believe that, despite the evidence to the contrary, just as we have progressed technologically, we have also progressed in every other way. Of course such beliefs ignore the truths of history.

But don't be discouraged, because this is really good news. That's right, the good news is that you and I live in these challenging times, that God wants us in the here and now so we can take His Good News to our needy, confused world. Do you see how blessed we are to be given this mission? We are, in a sense, more like the Apostles than our immediate predecessors in that we must introduce (and in some instances, re-introduce) Jesus Christ to a pagan, materialistic world.

And let's never forget that Jesus Christ the King is in charge, so we need never fear. In the words of the Mexican Jesuit priest, Blessed Miguel Pro, as he faced death as a 20th Century martyr, "Viva Cristo Rey" -- Long live Christ the King. The above photo shows Fr. Pro just moments before he was shot by a firing squad.

God's peace...

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