A few months ago I received a fund-raising letter signed by the president of a nonprofit organization that concerns itself chiefly with political, social, and cultural matters. The cleverly written first paragraph caught my attention. The writer, whom I know, expressed his frustration with history’s most protracted presidential campaign and ended by saying something like: “The result of all this is that in November we will get to elect the worst president in American history.”
You know who was elected. I do not, because I am writing this in August, such being the lead time required for this column. Whoever was elected, my friend thought, will end up making all earlier presidents look good by comparison. The White House bumblers of our own lifetime will seem poised, the most foolish presidents will seem sagacious, and even the reputation of Millard Fillmore will go up a notch.
We will know soon enough whether my friend’s prognostication is on the mark. It is fair to say, I think, that he is no optimist, but I like to think of myself as one. Sometimes, when asked by an audience what I predict the future holds, I contrast myself with the doomsayers and answer, “I have to say that I am an optimist. I am absolutely positive that things will get worse.” Usually this elicits a chuckle. My listeners think I am joshing with them—until I say that I really do think most things will get worse, even while some things will get better. I think that because we are at the end of a civilization and find ourselves in a situation not unlike that of Augustine at the end of his life, when the barbarians were camped outside the gates.
Sixty years ago, Winston Churchill regularly made reference in his speeches to “Western Christian civilization,” even though he was not a believing Christian. If the phrase was a fair descriptor of our society then, it certainly is not now. The “Christian” part was jettisoned a long time ago, with the jettisoning actually starting long before Churchill’s time. The “Western” part now is largely gone too—for instance, just try to find a college that offers courses in Western civilization or where the faculty and students will not have a fit if a professor were to claim that the culture of the Medici was superior to that of the Aztecs. Even the “civilization” part is tenuous now. Barbarians outside the gates? They already are within and largely are running things.
My quip about being an optimist actually has more depth to it than it might appear to have at first. I really am an optimist, even though I am convinced that things, on the whole, will get a lot worse. This may seems contradictory, but let me explain. As you do, I see all around us decay—moral, ethical, and mental. It is everywhere in government, everywhere in popular entertainment, everywhere in everyday life. When we learn about a just legislator, a chaste entertainer, or an intellectual intellectual, we marvel at his existence because, nowadays, it is so out of the ordinary. We celebrate the rara avis, but he is getting all the rarer. Not a good sign.
But it has to happen. Like the drunk who has to hit bottom before he sobers up for good, so our society, it seems, will have to hit bottom before it reforms itself. How far away the bottom is I cannot say, nor do I have any idea when the reform will come. The only thing I am sure about is that it will come about through the same agent that ushered in the reform that followed the civilizational collapse that Augustine was witnessing. That agent is the Catholic Church.
The Church will stand until the end of time. Our narcissistic culture, our corrupt government, our foolish trendsetters all will pass away. The Church will perdure—and more than that. The Church will remake the world, because Christ, the head of the Church, rules the world and provides the Church with the grace and wisdom needed to carry out that task. It is just a matter of time.