The Church Under Pressure in a World Under Pressure

In 1868, the English poet Matthew Arnold wrote the beautiful “Dover Beach” dedicated to two themes, the first of which is the decline of faith.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

And then he turns with prophetic insight to the consequences of this departure:

for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

The world has changed mightily since 1868. The British and French empires are gone, the United States is the only super-power, to be joined by a resurgent and aggressive Middle Kingdom, the People’s Republic of China. The two major forces hostile to Christianity, and faith of any sort, Communism and Nazism, have both been defeated in Europe and the former Soviet world. Living standards, health and education, travel, longevity, and literacy have improved dramatically. We have nuclear bombs and nuclear power. The centre of the world is now found in the Pacific Ocean, not the Atlantic. How has faith coped?

Before describing and analysing some aspects of faith, speaking as a Catholic leader, I would like to stake my claim, set out our basic position.

We Catholics are here to stay; here in Australia, and on every continent. Popes come and go, with different gifts and strengths, but the papacy is still in Rome, the ancient capital of empire, home of the successor of Peter and bishop of that eternal city. The roar that you hear is not the melancholy sound of a once mighty kingdom departing into oblivion. It is the roar of the Lion of Judah, embattled in many parts, humiliated and often reduced in the Western World, but absolutely devoted to its precious tradition, received from Christ and the apostles deeply convinced of the lifegiving power of this inheritance in even the most poisonous environments. The gospel Protestants, the Evangelicals and the Orthodox churches will be with us in these mighty battles. We are here to stay and to struggle. We are not going away. A leading Catholic in Australia claimed to me that because of the hostility, we should be thinking of heading for the catacombs. I replied that at this stage I had no such intention.

As a churchman, I have sometimes wondered how appropriate it is to use war stories for gospel purposes because Jesus, unlike Mahomet, was not a warrior and soldier. But I have continued to do so; once in a while.

I was born during the Second World War and grew up with those stories of heroism and suffering. A favourite story I have used a few times with university students is an incident from the military career of Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, the United Kingdom’s finest solider from the Second World War, a great man but an unusual personality by any standards. He spent part of his childhood in Tasmania and I think it did him good. In 1942, the Allies, including some Australian troops, had been pushed eastward across the top of North Africa by Rommel in a succession of defeats. When Montgomery was appointed, he discovered that plans had been drawn up to retreat further south towards the source of the Nile. After a short interval, he called together his headquarters staff, burnt publicly all the plans for withdrawal and announced that they would take their stand where they were and fight there, when they were prepared and ready.

I think my listeners understood the general point I was making, but just to avoid misunderstanding, I want to make clear that our situation will be worsened, numerically as well as religiously, if we abandon our unseemly Christian claims to the importance of worship of God, prayer, and forgiveness; to the healing power of redemptive suffering; to the stark life-giving truths of Christian teaching on abortion and euthanasia; on sexuality, on monogamous, heterosexual marriage, on heteronormativity, on the importance of children. Those who argue for this often do not appreciate how Christian claims to the importance of serving the poor and standing with the marginalised are also unseemly and can also be abandoned in an attempt to make ourselves more pleasing. On many occasions, I have urged believers to reject all claims to the primary of conscience (only truth has primacy because while the right of each individual’s conscience is important, even sacred, they are often in conflict) and to avoid the excess of inculturation, where, as in some parts of Japan today, this doctrine has been used by religious orders to prohibit the preaching of the Gospel as something foreign and to be avoided. We stand and struggle under the rule of faith. I will return to this theme, to the elements of Godliness today, later in this paper.

This short paper is indebted to Mary Eberstadt from the United States. I recommend particularly her marvellously titled book Adam and Eve after the Pill, which sets out to explain how the intervention of the contraceptive pill has produced a revolution in daily life with consequences as important as those which followed the Marxist-Leninist triumph in the Russian Revolution in 1917. This is a large and controversial claim which outlines the challenges we confront.

In an address Eberstadt gave to the Catholic Social Scientists on September 18, 2021, entitled “The Cross amid the Crisis” she used an insight from an interview English convert writer Evelyn Waugh gave to a newspaper in 1930, giving reasons for his conversion to Catholicism. He said, “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.”

I had long realised, as do nearly all the Protestants, that the issue is no longer between the English and the Irish in the Anglosphere, between the Proddies and the Micks. Indeed, the gospel Protestants will be indispensable allies in the Christian survival and revival when it comes, as is the case in the pro-life battles in the U.S.

I have long described the confrontation as being between the Judaeo-Christians and the anti-religious secularists. I was well aware of organised and financed secular campaigns, generally using the media in a sophisticated fashion, often highlighting the particular sufferings attendant on the hard cases that make bad laws as they systematically demolished the Christian legal foundations on issues such as divorce, abortion, heterosexual marriage, and now euthanasia and gender. Only in the United States has there been significant progress with public opinion on the pro-life cause, by highlighting the realities of eliminating the unborn human babies. We should not underestimate the long-term significance of the present US Supreme Court which has already begun returning abortion decisions to the individual states where they will legislate as their citizens vote, through their reversal of Roe v Wade.

What struck me was Waugh seeing chaos as the alternative in 1930 and Eberstadt adopting this term to describe our situations today.

I have come to admire more and more Evelyn Waugh’s insight into the hearts of so many different persons. Perhaps ten years ago, I was asked by the library at Sydney University to give a paper on Constantine, the first Christian emperor in the Roman Empire. He is one of my heroes because I believe we should continue to work and to harness whatever sociological forces we can to help carry the semi-religious in the right direction. At this stage, I am not a supporter of the Benedict option for the wider Catholic community, of a flight to small isolated monastic-type communities of families, much less of a pre-monastic web of tiny family cells as the predominant Christian presence. Here or there, in different countries like Communist China, the Catholic community might be so reduced eventually, but here and now, we should continue to support political and legal initiatives to maintain our religious freedoms, widely understood. In my view, Constantine did a lot of good work for the Kingdom of God through granting religious toleration, favouring Christianity through some tax reforms and the building of churches such as John Lateran’s and the first St. Peter’s in Rome, through the public recognition of priests and especially bishops, and cautious legal enactments such as prohibiting fights to the death in the games and the branding of slaves on the face. From his time onwards, for at least fifteen hundred years, he changed the direction of the social currents for the better. I much prefer the religiously indifferent to be lapsing into Christianity than to be lapsing into neo-paganism, as 38.9 per cent of the Australian population has, growing from a base of 12.7% in 1986. To my mind, Constantine is no saint, although he is canonized by the Eastern Christians and saw himself as the thirteenth apostle, but he did much good.

Despite my reverence for Waugh’s judgment, I was initially sceptical that the word “chaos” best fitted today’s neo-paganism. I was well aware of the sophistication of our opponents and I mentioned my hesitation when I met Eberstdt in Rome a couple of years ago. Mary first replied that the phrase was Waugh’s but then went on to explain why the term is accurate.

She acknowledged that the chaos Waugh rejected in the 1930’s was different from ours, residing in “war, dislocation, and stupendous carnage.” However, many social pillars were still firm, including the battered institution of the family, but outside of Nazism (soon to be defeated at enormous cost) and the longer-continuing Communism, she saw that “a Christian understanding of creation and redemption and meaning still prevailed in the West.” Under Pius XI in the 1930’s and, indeed, Pius XII, Catholic teachings remained “coherent and consistent,” the main reason for Waugh’s conversion, although chaos had started its work in the Protestant churches.

Eberstadt adopts the term “chaos” for our situation, recognising that we are ”90 light years” removed from 1930. She gives a checklist of six factors. The first of these is compounding family chaos, dating back decades, which has weakened the family “on a scale never seen before” through low marriage rates, breakups, abortions, and absentee fathers.

There is compounding psychic chaos, exemplified in the extensively documented rise in mental illness, anxiety, depression, disconnection and loneliness. She might have mentioned the curse of youth suicide, where prosperous, decent Australia has one of the highest rates in the world.

She then mentions political chaos, the dissolution of clan and community, although I see this as a less virulent example than the others. Democracy still prevails in Australia, Britain, and the United States, despite the cancel culture and the removed or damaged statues.

The anthropological and intellectual forms of chaos she describes are obviously related. For her the thinking about gender is magical and preposterous, whereby “many people no longer even know what little children know – namely, who they are”. It is extraordinary that young people, sometimes many years before they are entitled to drive a car or cast a vote, can begin to change their sex without their parents’ consent; and in the state of Victoria in Australia, they are denied by law prayers and contrary counselling.

By coincidence, I recently re-read the Russian Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1983 Templeton Address where he warned against the atheist teachers in the Western world teaching their people to hate their own society. Eberstadt is particularly scathing about elite education in the United States, which she sees as “hiding in a post-modern cuckoo’s nest for decades”. Too many who do not believe in truth “now run institutions charged with discerning it,” she claims. She particularly objects to the election of an atheist Chief Chaplain at Harvard, but “if there is no truth, there are no contradictions.” In addition to family chaos, psychic chaos, anthropological chaos and intellectual chaos she finds her final example of contemporary chaos in the Catholic Church in the Western world, among those who want to transform Catholic teaching and are often hostile towards those who hold and teach the tradition. This is not a completely new situation, but a rerun and development on a wider range of issues than the confusion after the Second Vatican Council when tens of thousands (100,000?) of priests left the priesthood. In the terms “pro-abortion Catholic”, she sees as much sense as in the terms “atheist chaplain” and “former man.” Here, for her, we have a “signature irrationalism”, a demand that we cancel Aristotle and believe “A and not-A at once”.

For a cautious prelate like myself, committed to hoping the glass is half full rather than almost empty, these claims are unpalatable. But while I can point to many places where such extreme alternatives do not flourish, I cannot deny the logic of claims where such forces are in play. These forces illogical; they are examples of a radical chaos.Eberstadt did not mention in her address to the social scientists another spectacular contribution to the chaos, although Ross Douthat in his 2020 book The Decadent Society: How we became victims of our own success devoted space to the topic. Douthat pointed out that as fertility collapsed because of the 1960’s invention of the Pill and the consequent renunciation of procreative sex, men and women had more difficulty in “permanently pairing off” (divorces increased) and cultural alternatives to old-fashioned copulation increased. He quoted a recent study from Japan, probably a path-finder for the West and not a weird exception, which showed that 45 per cent of women and a quarter of men aged 16 to 24 were “not interested in or desired sexual contact.”

More explicit pornography increased in the 1960s-1970s, and is now at a whole new level. In the 80s some feminists and a number of Christians, like myself, believed that a strong link would be revealed between watching pornography and violent, sadistic crimes. This has not happened, although it has certainly influenced a coarsening and a “pornification” of much of the culture.

Constant porn has made arousal more challenging and normal sex less immediately attractive. In the U.S., surveys show drops in teen sex, teen pregnancy, teen smoking, teen binge drinking, and teen drunk driving. The causes are mixed, but the fantasy world has become a substitute for flesh and blood behaviour. An end result like Japan’s represents a special problem and not just for Christians.

Pornography addicts today are like Midas, who was condemned to having everything he touched turned to gold, so he could neither eat nor drink nor copulate. Addiction to porn is essentially narcissistic, creating prisoners paralysed by habit. Already it is wrecking marriages. I repeat that it is a spectacular contribution to the chaos, but such habits can be broken, and are broken, with perseverance, prayer, and often with group help.

What is to be done?

“The important question is: what is to be done?”. Lenin is believed to have been the first to publish this line in his pamphlet from Switzerland in 1902. I wish to make two suggestions and the first is a direct appeal to you to understand and support the importance of preserving Catholic identify, the doctrinal unity constructed around the apostolic tradition; Christ’s teaching which comes to us via the Scriptures and the magisterium.

We believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that the basic teachings of the Catholic Church are revealed, not the product simply of human intelligence and experience. We certainly believe in fundamentals but we are not fundamentalists who reject the use of reason and lament the achievements of theology. Neither do we deny that there is a development of doctrine in many areas within the tradition, starting with issues such as the recognition of the New Testament canon (or list of books), then the development of Trinitarian doctrines, and moving to doctrines as disparate as the legitimisation of interest, the rejection of slavery, the Immaculate Conception, and the Assumption. The last word does not come from the world, from contemporary understandings, but from within the tradition as authorised by the successor of Peter and the successors of the Apostles.

The second reason for fidelity is found in recent history where the adoption of a radical liberalism in faith, morals, and liturgy provoked the collapse of church life in a generation or two. We have seen examples of this in Catholic Holland, Belgium, and Quebec since the 1960’s and in liberal Protestant groups such as the American Episcopalians. Regular prayer, reverent celebrations of traditional liturgy, fidelity to the Ten Commandments do not guarantee religious survival and prosperity, but they are essential prerequisites. A good deal of Catholic decline is self-inflicted.

Some feel that the paedophilia scandal has affected so many countries that a new sort of Catholic Church is required. These crimes have been horrendous and the impact on those who have been abused as children has often been crippling. The figures for the number of abusers and the numbers of those abused are also scandalous, represent a cancer. But sexual abuse comes from sinning, not following the principles of Christian morality and the historic failures of the Church leadership to deal properly with the problem, especially before the 1990’s are also examples of moral failure, of sin, even though bishops were usually following the responses of the wider society and other institutions at the time.

In Australia, and elsewhere, e.g., the United States, the Church broke the back of this problem in the 1990’s, as the recent Royal Commission acknowledged the collapse in the crime rate in sexual abuse violations from that decade in Australia.The scandal of sexual abuse – its profound contradiction of Christian witness – is one expression of weakened faith and also reflects the moral confusion that increased with the 1960’s as the recent revelations of juvenile abuse among the soixante-huitards, the revolutionary Left after the 1968 uprising in France, have shown. Some changes are necessary and useful, such as the screening of future seminarians and religious, and more emphasis on psycho-sexual development in seminary formation itself, but the whole grim saga, the massive suffering involved, demonstrate that we must practise what we preach, not change our moral teaching. There should not be Australian or German versions of the Ten Commandments.

This crisis has brought consequences for Church membership, but other factors are at play in falling numbers too. As an example of my claims about the destructive consequences of liberalism, in the years between 2011 and 2016 in Australia, the Anglicans lost 579,000 from a community of 3,680,000; the Uniting Church had 195,000 fewer from a base of 1,065,000, and the Catholic Church diminished by 147,000 from a community of 5,439,000 despite bearing the brunt of most of the hostile publicity over abuse. These losses bring no consolation, but the patters are different. Between 2016 – 2021 the Catholic lost four percent of their members (an unprecedented loss), but the Uniting Church and the Anglicans lost 22 percent and 20 percent respectively.

One might paraphrase my first suggestion by stating that traditional Catholicism, and the Jewish traditions from which it drank, are heading in the right direction. The Catholic story, when centred squarely and courageously on Christ, demonstrates that the message is marketable and improves humanity. The mix works when we work with the Lord.

My second suggestion is that all of us, strive to understand that secular modernity causes multiple forms of suffering that we can often ameliorate when we understand their true origins. We also need to remember that Christ was a healer of the blind, the disabled, the sick and the possessed. We need to bring His healing to others. Your support for aid to the Church in need is in this grand tradition.

Eberstadt is quite explicit that this truth has gone unsaid for too long. Secularism is an inferior culture, small of heart, which defines suffering down, so that victims are not acknowledged as victims but as justified collateral damage. Compare this to the heart of the Lord we see in the Gospels, in his response to the victims of sin and suffering. This is the heart that we must have. The secularists are wreckers and they are busy at work. Chaos is the end result. Chaos is the main characteristic of the way of life the secularist wreckers are imposing upon us, not liberation. Not health or peace of mind or communities united beneath and beyond their differences, but a tribal, fretful void, anxious, divided and regularly frightened: now by COVID and the spectre of global warming. The forms of misery today are acute and various.

Is the widespread sexual dysfunction caused by pornography in Japan to become the norm in our society; yet another cross for our beleaguered youth? Language is used cleverly to define suffering down. Homosexuals are gays; when all the evidence shows they are often as miserable and sad as the rest of us. Prostitutes are sex workers sometimes ranked ahead of the churches in the COVID crisis as providing essential social services. Data about the transgender population is often whitewashed such as data about suicide rates, eating disorders, substance abuse and other forms of mental distress. In England this has been recognised and the Tavistock Institute closed the centre for such abuse. Similar processes are at work among young people generally, especially those from broken and blended families where love and stability have been missing.

There is a strong correlation between mental distress and the decline of organised religion when social bonds are weakened. Damaged people do not thrive, but Christianity in particular deepens the sense of community and social belonging. Anxiety and depression are connected with disconnection and loneliness. Drugs, such as marijuana, are long-term depressants; drugs damage perceptions and self-understanding, but it is a reassurance even for fevered minds if they are aware that God is in charge, that God is good, and beyond this vale of tears, all will be well. The damage from drugs – think of the opioid crisis in the U.S. – now rivals the damage from alcohol.

Children in particular suffer in fractured families, but not just the children; so do the spouses or partners suffer too from nervous distress, hurt and the subsequent substance abuse from drugs and opioids. In America at least, and I suspect in Australia and the U.K., the no-religioners, the nones, are the most mentally afflicted. And we have the scourge of youth suicide, so terrible and so sad. So often problems in the home don’t stay in the home. We must encourage our teachers to continue their valiant work in our schools to bring help and healing to their student victims of the chaos. There are no substitutes for kindness and long-term support – which is the practical, day-to-day expression of real love.

I believe that today’s generation of young Christian intellectuals are presented with an unusual opportunity to speak the truth to the void, to give voice to the voiceless as Eberstadt challenged the social scientists to so act. And we can all do our bit to spread the news.

Change for the better will only come with two things: when many voices present the facts, figures, arguments, and evidence about the human causes and costs of the secularization push. The chaos should be named and shamed; while Christians continue to show that they will not abandon those who have been abandoned, offering them instead healing and friendship and the Good News of the one true God’s great love for us.

Let me conclude. My basic claim is that Christ’s Church, our Catholic Church is resilient, provided we remain faithful, still attached to the vine in these new and treacherous times. Our faith gives us hope and history justifies our confidence. Napoleon famously claimed to an Italian cleric when Pope Pius VI died in French captivity that the Church was finished. “Sire,” replied the Italian, “we clergy have been unable to destroy the Church in 1800 years. The task will also prove to be beyond your powers.”

Let me leave the last word to an Englishman, probably the best apologist in the twentieth century, although I find some of his writing irritating, much too clever and paradoxical; but at his best, he is magnificent.

I speak, of course, of G.K. Chesterton, who declared he was a pagan at the age of twelve, an agnostic at sixteen, became an Anglican at marriage, and was received into the Church in 1922 at the age of 48. In his best-known book Orthodoxy, he writes of the “thrilling romance of orthodoxy.” For him, it is easy to be a heretic, easy to let the age have its head. To have fallen into “any of these open traps of error and exaggeration” would indeed have been simple.

But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.

After eighty years of Catholic living, this is my vision also.

The above is the transcribed text of an address to Aid to The Church In Need, delivered in Sydney on August 6, 2022

6 thoughts on “The Church Under Pressure in a World Under Pressure

  • Daffy says:

    “victims of chaos” That phrase nails it, IMO.

    Pell refers to child sexual abuse in church organisations…my reflection on that is not to be too hard on yourself.

    Victoria is the great example of why. Predatory priests protected by police. Parents, teachers and good priests discouraged from complaining about known cases. Police and government indifference and negligence. Government failed. It did not pursue cases, police refused to investigate or seemingly take the matter seriously (while I know some did take it very seriously), were perpetrators put before the courts? What did the courts do? Which MPs stood up in parliament to expose this corruption? Which governments trusted organizations without legal, investigative or judicial training or oversight to police themselves? Governments failed to properly regulate and inspect (randomly, without notice) boarding schools and other institutions. It was the great betrayal by government. If it had done its duty by society, no child predator would have survived a first offense. No child would be discouraged from reporting, no parent would have been confused about where to reporting, no police officer would have been prevented from investigating, no prosecutor told to drop a case. The good priests would be ‘under armour’ in their complaints, with the artillery of the state behind them.


    Rejoice! This is where the true church is meant to be. The apostle Paul said in 2 Timothy 3:10 (ESV) ” Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted….”

  • citizen says:

    Thank you so much for publishing this Quadrant.
    His Eminence’s great faith, his vast knowledge of the ills that afflict our society and his vision for the future remains an inspiration.

  • davidbarton says:

    George Pell was a great thinker and a very committed man. There are few like him; certainly a religious statesman. In some respects, despite his occasional clumsy public ways, Australia will be the poorer for his passing, although there are many who trust he will burn in hell. They are wrong, for there is no hell, and even if there was, he does not deserve such a fate.
    As a committed Christian for 37 years, and now an atheist, I have some sympathy for his views here expressed. However, Pell and others ‘of the faith’ always seem to miss the critical point, and that is, people are finally waking up to the fact that the Christian ‘story’ is simply not true, that ‘prayer’ is a largely pointless ‘feel-good’ activity that doesn’t work, and the idea of a ‘loving God’ as expressed in the ‘scriptures’ is simply preposterous and does not align with our experience of reality at all.
    Life for most people was not great under the church for many centuries, and despite the advances made during the Christian heyday from the 1840’s to the 1960’s, those days are long gone. Yes, there are many challenges to the emerging ‘chaos’ of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, that is beyond denial, but the solution is not a return to the past. God will not save us, and nor will the ‘church’.
    ‘God’ cannot save us, for ‘He’ is not there. The ‘church’ cannot save us as it has collectively adopted and joined in the chaos. That is the great realisation of modern man, no longer cowed into a fearful belief. It is now clear that the Emperor’s Church has no clothes – so what is the answer?
    That is the real challenge that Pell has failed to address. If the West is to survive and if we are to find a real way to care for each other and to value the life of every human being, then we shall have to move past the ‘church’ and past religion. This is the real challenge for our social evolution – how to create a humane and caring society without recourse to myth and fantasy, or a descent into ideology and fascism.

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