I really like lilacs. Their perfume is intoxicating. I have a few lilac bushes on my family’s country estate, Blithering Heights, a quarter-acre of gracious living in rural Illinois. I am a little worried about one of the bushes. A lot of the branches are no longer putting out buds. They are clearly dead, though they still seem to be part of the plant. Another curious thing, when the branch which looks so strong and solid no longer puts out buds, it is easy to pull it out of the bush. It just has no connection to its roots. I imagine that the death of the branch starts in its detachment from the roots and the symptom of its death is that it has no buds, no new leaves or flowers.
Europe is dying and the European Church is dying. By Europe I mean Europe and her colonies, the Americas, Australia and a few other places. No new buds, no new life. European civilization was founded by one man, Paul of Tarsus. He was the first person of whom it could be said “Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian.” One theory is that Paul’s grandparents were enslaved during the wars of the Roman general Pompey in Syria and the Holy Land around 60 BC and his family became Roman citizens when they were given their freedom. They were possibly deported as slaves to the city of Tarsus, an important Roman city that was culturally Greek. It’s probable that Paul’s first language was Greek. In his epistles and in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul quotes classical Greek dramatists, poets, philosophers and even comedians. He seems to have been steeped in Greek culture. At some point he went back to Jerusalem for his education and claimed to have studied with the Rabbi Gamaliel. He was on the rise in the religious/civil bureaucracy when he encountered Christ on the road to Damascus and so became a Christian. He was quite literally the first person to be Greek, Roman, Jewish and Christian all at the same time. The culture that made the best of the modern world was born in one man, Paul.
Fast forward 1,700 years to France and the Age of Enlightenment, around 1715 to 1789, the beginning of the French Revolution. “Les philosophes,’’ the philosophers of the period, men like Voltaire and Rousseau, held that human reason is the only possible source of authority. They laughed at the claims of revealed religion in general and at Catholicism in particular. They believed they were returning to the virtues of the ancient world. They were very Greco-Roman, but not Judeo-Christian. The result of their rejection of two of the four legs of our civilization was and is complete collapse. The Enlightenment ended in 1789 when it bore the fruit of the French Revolution. I suppose that the Enlightenment has been the mother of all subsequent revolutions. The belief that man is the measure of all things and that human reason is enough resulted in terror of the French revolution, which begot the Napoleonic wars which begot the First World War which in its turn begot the Second World War, the Russian, Chinese, Cambodian and all the revolutions since. The platitudes which seemed so reasonable in the salons of Paris have been used to justify an unequalled extinction of human life that still continues. Reason seems so well, reasonable. It may be reasonable but it’s really very pointless. If there is no law beyond my own reason and no life beyond this one, then what is the sense of it all? The reasonable conclusion of the philosophers is that I am the center of the universe. This makes for a very pointless universe.
The enlightened world is perishing. One occasionally hears that “nones” people of no religious conviction are a growing group. The “nones” are growing only in societies that are dying. The atheism that was made fashionable in the French enlightenment is shrinking as a part of the world’s population. Religion is on the rise, for good or for ill. Why? Because religious people have children. They believe that there is a purpose to existence beyond one’s own self, so it’s worth the effort to bring more people into the world.
In July, some of us will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of encyclical Humanae Vitae, in which Pope Paul VI reasserted as infallible Catholic teaching that artificial means of birth control were seriously morally wrong. For this he was roundly mocked and ignored. It was unreasonable. Now country after country is experiencing a decline in its working population. Much of the world is becoming an unfunded retirement home. One can ignore a pope or a teaching of the Church, but one cannot ignore history. Much of the current chaos of the world is the result of the death of societies.
The Islamic world is experiencing the most dramatic decline of human fertility in the history of humanity. World fertility is just under 2.5 children per woman. This is just about the replacement rate for a third world population. The scary part is that the fertility rate will most likely continue to plummet, resulting in a shortage of that most precious resource: human beings. When the world is full of old people, those old people will starve. It’s already happening in some places. We have said “no” to life and “no” to the author of life. Pope Paul warned us and we laughed at him.
Recently there was a gala to raise funds for the New York Metropolitan Opera. The theme was, “Heavenly Bodies, the Catholic Imagination.” Models dressed in revealing parodies of clerical vestments. There was a work of art, a “bondage mask” covered with rosaries on display. Once again, the enlightened laugh at the faith.
What hurts is that enlightened sophisticates claiming the title of Catholic joined in the fun. It’s upsetting to faithful Catholics, but the problem will solve itself in the long run. People who believe in Catholic truth are still having children. They still learn how to love by generously giving life. They are uninterested in the enlightened narcissism that has been gnawing away at the roots of the tree since fools like Voltaire and Rousseau threw God out of the equation. Part of the tree, the part that is still connected to the roots is still putting out leaves and flowers. The rest has died and doesn’t even know that it’s dead.
The Rev. Know-it-all