Once the march of secularisation has passed the Church will be there to pick up the pieces

Cardinal George (Photo: CNS)

Cardinal Francis George OMI of Chicago died last week after a long battle against cancer. Reading the obituaries I was interested to learn that he had been thought of as “the American Ratzinger” for his formidable intellect. He was like the former Pope Benedict XVI in another respect too, though I have not seen this referred to in the media: just as the Pope Emeritus was not sanguine about the future of the faith in Europe and prophesied a smaller, purged and more faithful Church in the West as cultural Christianity would eventually dwindle away, Cardinal George had once made an even more dramatic prophecy.

Explaining these famous and much-quoted words in “The Cardinal’s Column” of his diocesan newspaper for October 21-November 3, 2012, Cardinal George wrote: “Speaking a few years ago to a group of priests, entirely outside of the current political debate, I was trying to express in overly dramatic fashion what the complete secularisation of our society could bring. I was responding to a question and I never wrote down what I said, but the words were captured on somebody’s smartphone and have now gone viral on Wikipedia and elsewhere in the electronic communications world. I am (correctly) quoted as saying that I expected to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. What is omitted from the reports is a final phrase I added about the bishop who follows a possibly martyred bishop: ‘His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help to rebuild civilisation, as the Church has done so often in human history.’ What I said is not ‘prophetic’ but a way to force people to think outside of the usual categories that limit and sometimes poison both private and public discourse.”

Although they are not a literal blueprint for the future, the Cardinal’s words are prophetic in the wider sense: reading the signs of his times – “the complete secularisation of our society” – and drawing sober conclusions from them. As a learned American and engaged in his country’s culture wars he knew whereof he spoke and his words should be seen as a warning: this is what will happen when society ignores God. Cardinal George concluded his column with words of consolation for Christians: “God sustains the world, in good times and bad. Catholics, along with many others, believe that only one person has overcome and rescued history: Jesus Christ … saviour of the world and head of his body, the Church. Those who gather at his cross and by his empty tomb, no matter their nationality, are on the right side of history … The world divorced from the God who created and redeemed it inevitably comes to a bad end. It’s on the wrong side of the only history that finally matters.”

It’s good to be reminded of this larger and deeper perspective on human history today. It helps to give us a grip when the signs of the times don’t look promising, whether they concern the march of militant Islam, the decline of the indigenous population in Europe, the martyrdom of Christians around the world or the attacks on Christian belief by an aggressive secularism in the western world.

A short, lively synopsis of the rise and triumph of Christianity in the West during the thousand years between the fall of Rome and the Reformation, The Church Ascending, by US historian Dr Diane Moczar, published by Sophia Press and written for a secondary school readership, is a good place to start to deepen one’s understanding of history within this Christian viewpoint. (For UK readers the book can be bought here.) The author includes useful reading suggestions at the end of each chapter, with insightful comments on the bibliography provided.

Moczar doesn’t whitewash the Church in her spirited account (it reads a bit like 1066 and All That but don’t be deceived) but she does show how God works in human history, so that “Dark Ages” always include a bishop “who will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help to rebuild civilisation”, as Cardinal George puts it. Whatever the general ignorance and moral decay of society, corruption within the Church, persecutions and barbarian invasions, there will always be “great writers, scholars, monks and saintly men and women” to keep the flames of faith alive. She remarks, in referring to the 13th century, the “high point” of Christendom, “If the second millennium had its springtime, why shouldn’t the third? We have seen the emergence of new reform orders and monasteries … and we have an increasing number of informed and educated laity who are fed up with the laxity and doctrinal drift within the Church.”

For Catholics, Cardinal George and Diane Moczar remind us that this is the choice: to recognise that the Church has to be counter-cultural, no more so than today, and so to be on the right side of history – or to have the illusion that we can come to an accommodation with the culture and live comfortably within it.