Outstanding analysis of Papal Visit by Samuel Gregg

In another entry, I suggested that I needed better analysis of Benedict XVI’s visit to the UK.

Lupus in fabula, is I believe the customary phrase.

This comes from Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute, and one of the smarter writers I know.

Benedict’s Creative Minority

By Samuel Gregg

In the wake of Benedict XVI’s recent trip to Britain, we have witnessed—yet again—most journalists’ inability to read this pontificate accurately[Do I hear an "Amen!"?] Whether it was Queen Elizabeth’s gracious welcoming address, Prime Minister David Cameron’s sensible reflections, or the tens of thousands of happy faces of all ages and colors who came to see Benedict in Scotland and England (utterly dwarfing the rather strange collection of angry Kafkaesque protestors), all these facts quickly disproved the usual suspects’ predictions of low-turnouts and massive anti-pope demonstrations.

Indeed, off-stage voices from Britain’s increasingly not-so-cultured elites—such as the celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins and others whom the English historian Michael Burleigh recently described as “sundry chasers of limelight” and products of a “self-satisfied provincialism”—were relegated to the sidelines. As David Cameron said, Benedict “challenged the whole country to sit up and think.

The RealmOf course the success of Benedict’s visit doesn’t mean Britain is about to return to its Christian roots.  [On this point, turn to books by Aidan Nichols. ] In fact, it’s tempting to say present-day Britain represents one possible—and rather depressing—European future.

In an article  welcoming Benedict’s visit to Britain, the UK’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs observed, “Whether or not you accept the phrase ‘broken society,’ not all is well in contemporary Britain.” The facts cited by Sach were sobering. In 2008, 45 percent of British children were born outside marriage; 3.9 million children are living in poverty; 20 percent of deaths among young people aged from 15 to 24 are suicides; in 2009, 29.4 million antidepressants were dispensed, up 334 percent from 1985. [Holy cow.]

Such is the fruit of a deeply-secularized, über-utilitarian culture that tolerates Christians until they start questioning the coherence of societies which can’t speak of truth and error, good and evil, save in the feeble jargon of whatever passes for political correctness at a given moment[OORAH!  That's it.]

[But wait... there's more!] But what few commentators have grasped is that Benedict has long foreseen that, for at least another generation, this may well be the reality confronting those European Catholics and other Christians who won’t bend the knee to political correctness or militant secularism. Accordingly, [At the same time as he is trying to revitalize Catholic identity...] he’s preparing Catholicism for its future in Europe as what Benedict calls a “creative minority.

The phrase, which Benedict has used for several years, comes from another English historian Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975). Toynbee’s thesis was that civilizations primarily collapsed because of internal decline rather than external assault. “Civilizations,” Toynbee wrote, “die from suicide, not by murder.”

The “creative minorities,” Toynbee held, are those who proactively respond to a civilizational crisis, and whose response allows that civilization to grow. One example was the Catholic Church’s reaction to the Roman Empire’s collapse in the West in the 5th century A.D. The Church responded by preserving the wisdom and law of Athens, Rome and Jerusalem, while integrating the invading German tribes into a universal religious community. Western civilization was thus saved and enriched.

This is Benedict’s vision of the Catholic Church’s role in contemporary Europe. In fact, it’s probably the only viable strategy. [Who can disagree?] One alternative would be for the Church to ghettoize itself. But while the monastic life has always been a vocation for some Christians, retreat from the world has never been most Christians’ calling, not least because they are called to live in and evangelize the world.

Yet another option, of course, is “liberal Catholicism.” The problem is that liberal Catholicism (which is theologically indistinguishable from liberal Protestantism) has more-or-less collapsed (like liberal Protestantism) throughout the world. For proof, just visit the Netherlands, Belgium, or any of those increasingly-rare Catholic dioceses whose bishop regards the 1960s and 1970s as the highpoint of Western civilization.

Even the Economist (which strangely veers between perceptive insight and embarrassing ignorance when it comes to religious commentary) recently observed that “liberal Catholics” are disappearing. Long ago, the now-beatified John Henry Newman underscored liberal Christianity’s essential incoherence. Liberal Catholicism’s future is that of all forms of liberal Christianity: remorseless decline, an inability to replicate themselves, and their gradual reduction to being cuddly ancillaries of fashionable lefty causes or passive deliverers of state-funded welfare programs. [Perfect.  But for now those who embrace liberal Christianity in the ranks of the Catholic Church still hold some power.]

By contrast, Benedict’s creative minority strategy recognizes, first, that to be an active Catholic in Europe is now, as Cardinal André Vingt-Trois of Paris writes in his Une mission de liberté (2010), a choice rather than a matter of social conformity. This means practicing European Catholics in the future will be active believers because they have chosen and want to live the Church’s teaching. Such people aren’t likely to back off when it comes to debating controversial public questions. [I think our European readers will confirm this.  My friends, at least, will.]

Second, the creative minority approach isn’t just for Catholics. It attracts non-Catholics equally convinced Europe has modern problems that, as Rabbi Sachs comments, “cannot be solved by government spending.”

A prominent example is Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, Chairman of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow’s Department for External Church Relations. A deeply cultured man, who’s completely un-intimidated by either liberal Christians or militant secularists, Hilarion has conspicuously cultivated the Catholic Church in Europe because he believes that, [NB] especially under Benedict, it is committed to “defending the traditional values of Christianity,” restoring “a Christian soul to Europe,” and is “engaged in common defence of Christian values against secularism and relativism.” Likewise, prominent European non-believers such as the philosophers Jürgen Habermas and Marcello Pera have affirmed Europe’s essentially Christian pedigree and publically agreed with Benedict that abandoning these roots is Europe’s path to cultural suicide. [I used this argument when the Holy Father's visit to England was beginning.]

Lastly, creative minorities have the power to resonate across time. It’s no coincidence that during his English journey Benedict delivered a major address in Westminster Hall, the site of Sir Thomas More’s show-trial in 1535.

When Thomas More stood almost alone against Henry VIII’s brutal demolition of the Church’s liberty in England, many dismissed his resistance as a forlorn gesture. More, however, turned out to be a one-man creative minority. Five hundred years later, More is regarded by many Catholics and non-Catholics alike as a model for politicians. By contrast, no-one remembers those English bishops who, with the heroic exception of Bishop John Fisher, bowed down before the tyrant-king.

[NB] And perhaps that’s the ultimate significance of Benedict’s creative minority. Unlike Western Europe’s self-absorbed chattering classes, Benedict doesn’t think in terms of 24-hour news-cycles. He couldn’t care less about self-publicity or headlines. His creative minority option is about the long-view.

The long-view always wins. That’s something celebrities will never understand.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, The Modern Papacy, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.

Outstanding.

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18 Responses to Outstanding analysis of Papal Visit by Samuel Gregg

  1. asacjack says:

    WOW! Great stuff. Nice to see for a change.

  2. TJerome says:

    This is brilliant and spot-on. Any chance the Tablet aka the Bitter Pill will run this?

  3. JARay says:

    I totally agree. This is outstanding.

  4. Supertradmum says:

    Wonderful and gives me great hope for the future of journalists seeing us in the “Creative Minority” more clearly, and more often, as a minor force with which to deal. We may be the remnant Church, but the future is with those of us who love the Pope and Holy Mother Church, and not those liberals, who will burn themselves out of the picture. Isn’t that group of liberals really boring stuff for news now, and even embarrassing for journalists? Even the Beeb did not dwell on the supposed ground-swell of sad atheists who came out against the Pope. Truth eventually wins the day,and I have too many cliches in this comment to continue….

  5. DHippolito says:

    One example was the Catholic Church’s reaction to the Roman Empire’s collapse in the West in the 5th century A.D. The Church responded by preserving the wisdom and law of Athens, Rome and Jerusalem, while integrating the invading German tribes into a universal religious community. Western civilization was thus saved and enriched.

    This is Benedict’s vision of the Catholic Church’s role in contemporary Europe. In fact, it’s probably the only viable strategy. [Who can disagree?]

    Well, I can, and I’m not a liberal Catholic (or a “liberal” anything, for that matter). The model Gregg sites led to a symbiotic relationship between Church and State that, eventually, would emasculate Christianity as a spiritual force (as opposed to a political or intellectual one) in Europe. That symbiotic relationship found expression in the “established” national church (whether Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox). The State would provide financial support and patronage to the Church. The Church, in turn, realized who “buttered its bread,” effectively become an ally of the State and the institutions that trained the State’s elite…and became more focused on maintaining its power and prestige than on proclaiming the Triune God and His Gospel. That’s why Hitler was able to split the German Protestants and Catholics (with help from the Reich Concordat of 1933), the Soviets could co-opt the Russian Orthodox leadership (as opposed to the average believer) and Franco and Mussolini could rely on the support of Catholic bishops in Spain and Italy, respectively.

    The ultimate consequence is that Europe is intellectually and spiritually exhausted from all this concentration of power, religious and secular.

    On the other hand, Christianity in the United States is far more vibrant because the United States maintains a national Judeo-Christian culture (recent decades notwithstanding) despite not having an “established” church.

    If Benedict wants to resurrect Europe’s Christian identity, he should just preach the raw Gospel, period. He also should demand that his bishops and priests do likewise or face excommunication. “Christendom” as a political idea not only cannot be resurrected, it shouldn’t be…because “Christendom” is antithetical to Christianity.

  6. Supertradmum says:

    PS Happy Feast Day of Our Lady of Walsingham for all in Britain and here.

  7. Mark Pavlak says:

    A fantastic article. Mr. Gregg hits the nail on the head over and over again in this piece, and it’s because he understands history.

    Regarding Metropolitan Alfeyev, some readers might not know that he is also an accomplished composer. I had the privilege of attending his “St. Matthew Passion” at the Auditorium Conciliazione in Rome on 29 March 2007. It was a great sign of true Christian ecumenism under the efforts of both the Orthodox and Roman Catholics, in particular our German Shepherd, the Pope of Christian Unity.
    Check out his music on YouTube – it’s very beautiful.

  8. Supertradmum says:

    I hate to disagree with you, DHippolito, but I am all for some form of Christendom. When the governments go back to protecting the Church and the Truth of doctrine, we shall all be more free. Christendom allowed for the flourishing of the arts and sciences, as well as great missionary work supported by the national states. Christendom supported the spread of Catholic universities, schools, classical education, classical music, the respect of women, the growth of monastic life, the legal systems of the West, and even manners.

    Without the states supporting the Catholic Church, there is not real progress or freedom.

    Of course, I am a monarchist as well. But, I believe there is more than one Pope in the 19th and 20th centuries who stated that it was the duty of the state to protect the Church and the Truth. Hence, there is a nascent support for Christendom in our heritage and even teaching, especially in the United States, which is facing a future of socialistic atheism as a state religion in the not so far future, if a religious awakening to the roots of civic freedoms and cultural inheritances does not occur quickly.

  9. mike cliffson says:

    Quibble :
    English – EXCLUDING sctland and Ireland -Martyrs in the tudor crimes against humanity.(Tudor here = Henry VIII, reigning short lived son, and ElizabethI) ( Ok , Mary Tudor ‘s interregnum had 300 protestants done for. Big deal)
    Only canonized 400 yrs later , first 2, then 40 more:
    1 bishop: St .J.Fisher
    St Thomas More: Nearly alone to begin with
    Other “Establishment” ? Around zero.
    Mainly unarmed seldom resisting monksn uns men women children clergy: Figure has recently been brought down from 100,000 to about 70,000 . in say 5million population at the time, would be equivalent to around 700,ooo today, say around three million in presentday USA .Or more.
    Plus those (shakespeare’s Dad for one) who lost property, jobs, etc, but not life.
    Plus the burning of libraries such as Oxford university’s., to control the past to control the future.
    Perhaps in spirit I rejoice at the idea, but I am scared stiff of physical martyrdom.
    500yrs ago england, benedicts own lifetime Germany, polandetc.. places under communism till yesterday, right now China, eygypt, pakistan, Sudan………
    It can’t happen here? Im not ready, Im lousy at even being jeered at and laughed at.
    But I’ve a feeling we’re in for more uncomfortable times. In this life.

  10. Norah says:

    I wish to claim some reflected glory! lol Samuel Gregg is Australian born. He spoke on St Thomas More with Fr Mitch Pacwa SJ on EWTN recently.
    Scroll down to programme 3.
    http://www.ewtn.com/vondemand/audio/seriessearchprog.asp?seriesID=6695&T1=ewtn+live

  11. Andrew says:

    The author writes: “But while the monastic life has always been a vocation for some Christians, retreat from the world has never been most Christians’ calling.”

    He was doing so well. Why did he need to shoot himself in the leg with that statement?

  12. What he said sounded right by me. Explain yourself. Where does he go wrong here?

  13. Andrew says:

    Perhaps I’m reading more into his statement than I should, but I’m thinking of statements such as:
    “quendam a mundo recessum quandamque contemplationem inveniri necesse est in qualibet christianae vitae forma …” and “Non tamen monachi et moniales, eo quod a ceteris hominibus seiuncti sunt, quasi seclusi et abscissi esse a mundo et Ecclesia sunt putandi” and “quomodo ab hominum finibus secludantur, si ipsi suam assequuntur plenitudinem?” (Passim: Sacra Congr. pro Religiosis: Instructio de vita contemplativa, 1969)

    That is (my translation) for those who need it: “some separation from the world and some contemplation must be found in any form of christian life” and “monks and nuns should not be regarded as shut out from the world just because of seclusion from others” and “how could they be separated from the people since they achieve the fullness of their purpose?”

    Many say that St. Benedict made modern Europe. Like I say, perhaps I am reading too much into the statement, but it sounds to me like the author is characterizing monastic life as a “retreat from the world” – which it is, in a way, but all of christian life is a retreat in the sense of a transition, an exodus, from this world to the next.

    Difficult subject: I just wish the author would have left it out.

  14. kradcliffe says:

    Father, could you please post a link to the original source of this article?

  15. DHippolito –

    You sound like somebody saying, “The invention of writing eventually led to Hitler and Mao’s signing death warrants for millions of people in the twentieth century. People of goodwill should stick to orality only.”

    Preaching the Gospel means teaching it and following it. That means organized teaching under bishops, a system of churches, and Christian communities. Christian communities are going to be safe communities that take care of their own and prosper in use of their resources, so people who aren’t Christian will flock to them. They will become desirable territories, so people will come to them to rule them. If the folks who come to rule ask to be taught the Gospel and other knowledge, are they alone to be left ignorant of Christ? If people come to be healed, are you supposed to let them die lest they affect the population levels?

    And so on…. Honestly, DHippolito, I don’t see how you think that anybody “just preaching the Gospel” could avoid also being a civilizing force or influencing government. Unless you “just preached the Gospel” into a soundproof box and never had any effect on anybody, I suppose. But even the cloistered and the hermits have a huge amount of influence on Western civilization, so that doesn’t work. Face it. The Word of God is living and active, so the Word of God is bound to engage with politics and the public square. That’s not a bug; it’s a feature.

    Now, if you want to argue that the Church’s clergy should be very careful about how they engage the culture, how worldly they become, how entangled they become with politics, and whether they let things get all Caesary, that’s a different question. That’s a matter of individual and group prudential judgments. Difficult, yes, but not impossible.

  16. thesheepcat says:

    Thank you, Mark! The beginning of the St Matthew Passion leaves me awestruck. Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.

  17. DHippolito says:

    Suburbanbansee, did the earliest Christians to whom St. Paul wrote his Epistles have a “system” that you described or did that “system” develop gradually and become influenced by Roman imperial structures and bureaucracy?

    Christian communities are going to be safe communities that take care of their own and prosper in use of their resources, so people who aren’t Christian will flock to them.

    Tell that to those who were sexually molested by priests. If there was a more abominable sin that violating the innocent, it was protecting the perpetrators by bishops who were more concerned about secular prestige, “scandal” (aka bad publicity) and their own funds than about obeying God.

    They will become desirable territories, so people will come to them to rule them. If the folks who come to rule ask to be taught the Gospel and other knowledge, are they alone to be left ignorant of Christ?

    The problem is that many of those who “rule” — especially prelates — have forgotten Christ. Read John 13. Why did Christ wash the feet of His Disciples? To show them what real Christian leadership is about: self-abnegating service, not self-seeking careerism, which has abounded in the Church for centuries (and not only in the Catholic Church, either). Remember that in that chapter, the Disciples were arguing about who would be greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Read a little history about the Church during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

    Ideally, yes. But the history of Christian denominations illustrates anything but.

    Now, if you want to argue that the Church’s clergy should be very careful about how they engage the culture, how worldly they become, how entangled they become with politics, and whether they let things get all Caesary, that’s a different question.

    That’s exactly my point!

    BTW, define for me what the Gospel is.

  18. DHippolito says:

    Now, supertradmum, for you:

    Without the states supporting the Catholic Church, there is not real progress or freedom.

    Do those states support the Church as opposed to all other Christian churches? And where does freedom come from, the State, the Church or God Himself?

    Besides, if the Church depends on the State for protection, then the Church’s interests will align with the State’s and its ability to proclaim the Gospel and to obey God will be compromised. This was the exact same situation in Italy under Mussolini; the Vatican and his government signed a Concordat in 1929 that guaranteed Vatican independence. As a result, the Catholic Church became the official state church under the Fascists. What the State gives, the State can take away.

    The fundamental historical problem w/Catholicism is that it perceived itself as a kind of “monarchy,” with the Pope as a sort of “monarch.” That whole perception not only encourages a sense of arrogant entitlement …which I’ve seen in even the most “liberal” bishops…but runs counter to the model of Christian leadership that Christ demonstrated to His Disciples in John 13.