Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
When Pope Leo III placed a crown on the head of Charlemagne on Christmas day in 800 A.D., the Holy Roman Empire emerged as the first attempt to recreate a vast political entity espousing the Christian gospel. From an empty grave outside the walls of Jerusalem to the thrones of the monarchs of Europe, the Christian faith spread its influence over society. Christianity began as a persecuted religion with its adherents hidden in their homes. It gradually became the dominant influence on Western civilization. (cf. Charles Scaliger, The Rise of Christendom.
As more and more believers embraced the Christian faith, there developed, by the 10th century, a vast phenomenon called Christendom. Not bound by their national borders, people living in the West espoused a Christian world view. God was accepted as an essential factor in human history. The faith permeated culture.
Europe’s skyline boasts an increased number of minarets and mosques filled with believers, even as church steeples are quickly becoming tourist attractions on empty churches. At least 50 percent of the citizens in both Germany and France are unchurched. And, in England, four times as many people attend services in mosques than cross the threshold of the Anglican Church. In America, 75 percent of the people call themselves Christians. But, despite the number of Christians in our country, the impact of the Christian faith on American culture is disappearing. In the West, cultural Christianity is dying.
One very obvious example of the dwindling influence of the Christian faith is the rejection of the biblical understanding of marriage. Ten years ago, 60 percent of Americans accepted marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Today, 60 percent of Americans are willing to include same sex unions in the legal definition of marriage.
Certainly, the very understanding of human sexuality is at stake in the entire marriage question. Is human sexuality a social construct that individuals can choose to accept or manipulate? Are we free to determine our own gender? Are we free to define marriage to fit the conventions of a particular age? How much freedom do we have to be creative? But, there is more.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once remarked, “When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied…” (Pope Benedict XVI, Address on the Occasion of Christmas Greeting to the Roman Curia, December 21, 2012). Thus, beneath the cultural re-definition of marriage, there lurks the more fundamental question of God’s role in creation. Pope Francis clearly understands this to be the real problem. On his recent visit to Naples, Italy, on March 21, he denounced “the ideological colonization” that rejects the design of the Creator for the family.
The success of the campaign to empty marriage of its natural meaning and beauty certainly points to a lessening influence of the Christian faith on culture. So does the growing acceptance of physician-assisted suicides and euthanasia. God is less and less a factor in today’s culture. Many people no longer see the need for God. A blind faith in science as well as a comfortable standard of living can easily anesthetize the search for the transcendent.
Modern science and technology have placed at our disposal an abundance of material blessings. Paradoxically, the more materialistic we become, the less spiritual and more apt we are to see ourselves as masters of our universe. The conviction that we are self-sufficient and capable of creating ourselves in our own image and likeness leaves little room for God. In such an environment, faith does not survive.
Nonetheless, many individuals still identify themselves as Christian. Of these, one-third are only cultural Christians. They have been raised in a Christian home. Their family history is Christian. But, they themselves do not practice their faith. They rarely go to Church. They make no connection between the faith and the issues of the day. Cultural Christians are not equipped to stand up for the values of the faith in the public forum. Cultural Christians are too comfortable with the amoral tenets of a secularized society.
Returning to the earliest days of the Church, we discover in Peter’s first sermon after Pentecost the key to awaken faith in others. Peter did not hesitate to challenge his listeners with the need for conversion. He announced that Jesus had been crucified because of our sins. He held out the offer of salvation to all who repent. Three thousand responded to Peter’s clear preaching and were baptized (cf. Acts 2:14-41).
In our mission to turn cultural Christians into convicted Christians, we need to convince them that Christ saves them from their sins. We need to proclaim that God’s mercy is the answer to our human misery caused by sin. In a word, the language of the Church today must tirelessly repeat again and again the message of the apostles. For only those who know that they have been saved can work to save our world.