Institutions form the backbone of any stable and long lasting civilization. In law, education, religion, science, government and more, institutions are the product of the accumulated experience and practice of millions of human beings. They are the sentinels of law and order, and the guardians of continuity. Arguably all the achievements of the world are the product of the harmonious and symbiotic interaction between our institutions. The institution of marriage is meant to create stable families, which benefits society by providing a loving, safe home for raising children. Educational institutions exist in order to nurture the minds and souls of young people, to raise their hearts and minds to worthy pursuits according to the gifts they possess by nature and grace. The institution of the Church exists to guide human beings to heaven, by teaching them, as Our Lord commanded, the saving truths of the Gospel.
Most, if not all, of the traditional institutions which undergird Western Civilization are under siege. This process has been centuries in the making, and appears in some ways to be a fait accompli. Most universities and their faculties are in total thrall to radical progressivism. The institution of marriage has suffered incalculable damage due to the shift in morals and expectations among the general population. And the Church in the West, particularly in Europe, has shrunk to a fraction of its original size and influence.
There are, however, promising developments in several of these areas. Alternative educational institutions, including new and robust Catholic universities, are springing up across the country. Classical curricula are enjoying an enthusiastic reception among parents and students alike, because of their superiority in forming young hearts and minds with both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills. Students who are interested in real education instead of indoctrination are beginning to eschew overpriced college degrees in favor of true and affordable liberal arts education. Or they are picking up useful trades, and so bypass the progressive education-entertainment complex entirely. These creative responses have largely been the product of the lay faithful, with their own gifts and talents being utilized effectively for the promotion of the Gospel and the common good.
Yet when it comes to the Church, it seems we are in many respects still stuck. Around the world, many bishops and priests pay lip-service to the New Evangelization, but so many seem to collapse this very broad effort into digitalization. In other words, it appears that for many priests, especially those of the boomer generation, the New Evangelization consists in getting a parish website, a YouTube account, FlockNote, and a livestream. These things may be helpful, but they are not enough. Many other people and organizations have these tools, and use them far better than us.
Moreover, what we have to offer cannot be reduced to the virtual and the remote. Our faith is practiced in flesh and blood, in the everyday contact between people and their interaction with the order of grace. This sacramental worldview is one of the hallmarks of a truly Catholic sensibility, and is the foundation of our great power to form hearts and minds after the truth of Jesus Christ. The pandemic has continued to make very clear how very impoverished or even non-Catholic are the worldviews of many of our leaders. This is a providential moment in human history for us to accentuate some very fundamental truths about our embodied humanity. Perhaps never before has the average postmodern person realized how inadequate virtual living and interacting is in order to have a fully human and healthy life. We are living in a once in a lifetime teachable moment.
When the history of the Church in the U.S. is written, I am convinced that Catholic schools and their teachers during this pandemic will be one of the heroes of our story. These men and women have demonstrated true dedication to their sacred vocation as teachers by remaining in their jobs, sharing their knowledge and their faith with children. Nothing has made more clear the difference between the government schools and ours: our true interest is, and must always be, the formation of our children’s minds and hearts according to the truths of reason and of faith.
What does this have to do with the Church as an institution? As we emerge from the pandemic period, it seems that many of our hierarchs do not understand that the religious observance of many of our people has suffered severe damage. Many dioceses are doing more webinars, more programs, more multimillion dollar studies, while parishes continue to spend thousands of dollars they don’t have for consultors to tell them how ‘to church’. This is more of the same; it is ecclesial solipsism, a turning inward on ourselves, rather than a bold engagement with the world.
Depending on the particularities of geography and demography, this is the time for us to be on metaphorical street corners and in public spaces. Personally, I was in a rush to get vaccinated. Not that I felt I really needed it to survive, but because I wanted all the excuse necessary to get into the homes of the homebound and the sick, and to invite them and their families back to Sunday Mass. If these people can’t or won’t come to Church, Church needs to come to them. Nothing can or will ever substitute for personal engagement.
A similar dynamic is coming to pass with the so-called “Synodal Way” which Pope Francis has just recently announced. Precisely at a time when the Church boldly must go out to proclaim Christ Jesus, we are turning inward with more ecclesiological disputes, more committees, more meetings. Is this because we feel we need to be ‘busy’, that we are in fact doing something to stop our decline? Much has been made in recent days of the German Church’s insane move to bless homosexual “unions”, in clear defiance of Rome. How much of our energy and vitality is sapped, because we somehow believe that we can dialogue with bad actors? Such people have made clear that no amount of discussion or concession will stop their goal to subvert completely the Church’s teaching on a whole host of topics.
But we will continue to spend our precious and finite time holding up a Potemkin village, shifting the proverbial chairs on the deck of the Titanic. In Church affairs, this is the equivalent of passively watching Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia. The intentions of our opponents have been made clear: they do not want peace, but submission to the new progressive paradigm. Only by fighting can we preserve the faith.
To be a man or woman of the Church is to be, on some level, an institutional person. But there is a difference between being a person who upholds an institution, and an institutionalist. That is, a person who upholds the formality of the structure without promoting the inner logic of its being. And that is what our societal institutionalists are doing all over the place, and is the very reason that our institutions are moribund and ineffective.
It is also the reason why people express a record-low trust in our institutions: people instinctively know when an organization has ceased to believe in its founding principles. To return to an earlier example, many German Churches no longer have a priest, but they have a parish psychologist, welfare coordinator, and other employees more indicative of a NGO than the Holy Church of God. The same dynamic may be found in other dying Churches: the Priest is the CEO who manages the money and the physical plant, and meanwhile they can’t be bothered to give out Holy Communion at Mass or visit the sick, while they ask an army of Extraordinary Ministers to do what they alone have the intrinsic authority to do. The priest, who par excellence is the guardian and promoter of divine worship, outsources his particular competency to worship committees or musicians, who, although they may have good intentions, rarely possess the ecclesiological and liturgical sense which a oriest should have in virtue of his ordination, spirituality, and formation.
Many, perhaps most of the people in charge of our cultural institutions are not leaders proper, but institutionalists. They benefit from and manage the bodies they govern, but many lack the basic conviction to accomplish the goals for which their institutions were created. Notice how this derangement breaks down the whole of society. When universities become indoctrination camps, when law enforcement departments become diversity seminars, when teachers become babysitters, when children become parents, when men ‘become’ women and women ‘become’ men, when the public purse becomes the public credit card, disorders proliferate in wider society.
The ancient philosophers used to teach us that the perfection of a being is the achievement, so to speak, of becoming the fulness of its potentiality. The flourishing of a lily ought to look and be different than the flourishing of a dandelion, let alone a puppy or a human being.
One of my favorite historical figures is that of the Jesuit Missionary Matteo Ricci, who went to China in the 16th century. Although he made a few mistakes, he was truly a bold pioneer, trying to bring Christ to the peoples of the Middle Kingdom. St. Francis Xavier, too, is another hero of mine. Our history is replete with courageous men and women who used to board ships and take voyages into the farthest corners of the world, never knowing whether or not they would even survive or return home to see their friends and loved ones again.
What has happened to the Church, that we used to produce such brilliant and courageous sons and daughters, but now, we can hardly stir ourselves to share Christ in our own neighborhoods? On some level, many of us have become institutionalists, rather than men and women of mission.
The tragic irony of the institutionalist is that in their formalism, they actually destroy the organization they claim to uphold. The missionary is to the Church what a flying buttress is to a Gothic cathedral: they may be at the margins of the structure, but they expand its horizon, and are the very reason that the entire structure is able to ascend, or else it will collapse under its own weight. At first glance, one would think that the strength of a cathedral’s structural integrity is in its vaults, and columns, and interior ornamentation. But that is not the full story of the structure’s dynamism: the external supports also allow those beautiful stained glass windows to be erected, so that the precious light may enter into the internal structure.
A Gothic cathedral’s interior is full of light, whereas a Romanesque one typically is dark, because its walls are thick. In an analogous way, upholding the institution of the Church means not becoming an institutionalist, devoted solely to her formal structures, but rather her true potentiality as Bride of Christ and bearer of the saving Gospel to all the peoples of the earth. Without this shared commitment on the part of clergy and laity in a holy alliance, the living temple of the Church may very well collapse in many places.
(Editor’s note: This essay first appeared on the Scutum et Lorica site in slightly different form.)