It was Evelyn Waugh, writing in a British newspaper, who warned his contemporaries how stark the choice was that faced them. Ninety years later, Europe is being shaken politically, culturally, psychologically, economically and, many of us would add, spiritually.
The progressive solution has always had two elements; to impose improvements and to get rid of Christianity, which stands conceptually and practically in their way.
In March, the Edmund Burke Foundation sponsored a Conference of National Conservatism in Brussels to tackle the destructive assault on our culture.
The speakers included the prime ministers of Slovakia and Poland and some well known Christians, Rod Dreher and Fr Benedict Kiely. The Christian speakers warned that this might appear as though it was a crisis of democracy and free speech that we faced, but that in fact it was a crisis of faith, which involved the potential destruction of Christianity in Europe. There is a philosophical and political debate to be had, but Dreher warned that it was already too late to imagine we could vote our way out of trouble.
The younger generation have been too effectively brainwashed by progressive educators. Only holiness and an effusion of spiritual confidence could make any difference.
This may be urgent, but it is not new. We have seen cultures, even Christian cultures rise and fall.
One of my first encounters with the collapse of a whole culture came I as I read St Augustine’s Confessions in my early twenties.
Reading Augustine, one can’t help but admire his capacity to write just what you feel you would have written or thought, if you could only write or think like that. Uniquely, he writes about the longing for God and a discovery or encounter with God that is predicated on the longing. It is as if God has placed a landmine in your path called “theophany” – and it is quite inevitable that one day you will walk over it and set off an encounter with the living God.
Lured into thinking that Augustine and I had something personal in common, rather than something universal, I noticed that he was born in 354 (and I born in 1954). So I looked to see when he died: 430, aged 75. What was the state of his world then? Mass migration was a thing then, too. Two hundred thousand Vandals, who had travelled through Spain to North Africa, had arrived at Hippo. They were at the gates as Augustine fell ill and died. They burnt down almost everything except St Augustine’s church and library.
It marked a period of the catastrophic collapse of the Roman Empire and of the Western civilisation of the time. But a century later St Benedict emerged to rebuild Christendom on the foundation of houses of prayer. But we find ourselves once more with the vandals at the gates, and prayer and holiness may be our most powerful resources.
TS Eliot mocked the claims of progress and labelled them regression, as they are. In 1934, he wrote about the coming collapse of society, the death of Christendom and the dereliction of the Church in “Choruses from ‘the Rock’”.
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
He warned his readers that they were in a life or death struggle in a more dramatic conflict, something more than political. It was between Good and Evil:
The world turns and the world changes,
But one thing does not change.
In all of my years, one thing does not change.
However you disguise it, this thing does not change:
The perpetual struggle of Good and Evil.
Forgetful, you neglect your shrines and churches
And neglect will lead to?
The Church disowned, the tower overthrown,
the bells upturned, and what have we to do
but stand with empty hands and palms turned upwards in an age which advances progressively backwards?
In 1930, Evelyn Waugh explained why he and so many others had become Catholic Christians. The real struggle was nothing to do with the Reformation. It wasn’t even between fascism, communism and democracy, it was between Christianity and chaos.
“It seems to me that in the present phase of European history the essential issue is no longer between Catholicism, on one side, and Protestantism, on the other, but between Christianity and chaos…”
Ninety years later, the flight from God to chaos has accelerated, but so has the attraction and the promise of the Catholic Church.
Democracy is itself in a state of collapsing into a politically correct totalitarianism, forbidding freedom and policing an increasingly draconian cancel culture.
None of this should surprise us, but it should energise us. Cancelling the Church is an attempt to cancel God.
What the world needs most is not an aping of its progressive reflexes and programmes, but a renewed and confident Catholic Church, defending and articulating the sanctity of human life, promoting the transformation of humanity that only prayer brings, and feeding the universal hunger that is a longing for God.
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