The real challenge of rolling back secularism
Benedict XVI’s resignation has put the focus on a pope’s executive ability as never before, with journalists and commentators wasting no time after the pontiff’s announcement to propose executive agendas for the next pope. Recent sex-related scandals and wire-tapping revelations – on top of last year’s “Vatileaks” scandal involving a conspiracy to derail Benedict’s efforts to root out corruption in the Vatican bureaucracy – have only heightened the sense that the Church needs a pope who is not only a father, but a CEO.
Observers such as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat have pointed out the troubling implications of such a shift. After all, the Church is not a business corporation or even a non-profit. As then Cardinal Ratzinger made clear in a 2001 lecture, quoting the theologian Romano Guardini: “the Church is not an institution devised and built by men … it is the organism of the Holy Spirit.” What he meant was that the Church’s success or failure is not a matter of technique, but of God’s grace. The Church is in God’s hands, not ours. This emphasis on divine rather than human action explains why, when discussing the Church’s plans for the “New Evangelization,” Benedict has always made prayer the first priority. According to him, only through a deeper encounter with the living God, who is love, can Christians receive the grace needed to build up the Church and spread the Gospel.
During the Second Vatican Council, then Cardinal Ratzinger and other theologians believed prayer was the cure for modern man’s lack of spiritual interiority, and his penchant for excessive activity, or activism – trying to do good on your own power, without God. That’s why he chose St. Benedict of Nursia, the monk who founded European monasticism, as the model for rebuilding western culture.
But while Catholic tradition says contemplation is the highest priority, it also says prayer is not opposed to action – the two aspects of Christian life are complementary. In The Ratzinger Report, Cardinal Ratzinger said it was a matter of “finding a new equilibrium … to live that none-too-easy balance between a proper incarnation in history and the indispensible tension toward eternity.”
That balance is illustrated by a new book from the acclaimed historian Peter Brown, that shows how the growth of the Church and the rise of Western Civilization owe as much to bold men of action as it does to St. Benedict and other great contemplatives of late antiquity and the Middle Ages.
“Through the Eye of a Needle” is Professor Brown’s richly textured history of the waning years of the Roman Empire, from 350 to 550 AD, when the ascendant Catholic Church was tasked with absorbing great sums of wealth donated by newly converted nobility. The 806-page book is one of the most comprehensive, detailed, and nuanced examinations ever written of the Church’s expansion in those pivotal centuries, with in-depth profiles of the great “managerial” bishops of that era – Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo, Gregory of Tours, Paulinus of Nola, and many others – who channeled the Church’s new assets into building the vigorous, tight-knit Christian communities of Italy, Spain, Gaul, and North Africa, which became the cornerstones of Christendom.
The Church’s newly acquired wealth was mostly in the form of land and laborers, and the men who became bishops needed the spiritual wisdom of fathers and the expert management skills of Roman administrators to successfully run these complex, people-intensive estates. What’s more, they had to operate amid increasing social disorder and bureaucratic chaos, as the administrative structures of the western Roman Empire slowly crumbled.
For the most part, these bishops were up to the task. Brown’s historical research (he is credited with creating the field of historical study called “late antiquity”) is based on newly discovered primary sources that in recent decades have helped slowly debunk the notion of a post-Roman “Dark Ages.” (See the Wikipedia entry on this term to see what I mean).
Although the 14th century Italian poet Petrarch was the first to posture the idea, it was primarily the anti-Catholics of the Reformation and the Enlightenment who concocted the “Dark Age” myth of anarchy and ignorance in Europe induced by the Catholic Church after the fall of Rome. According to the historian Rodney Stark (who is not a Catholic), the dark ages “not only weren’t dim, but were one of the most inventive times in Western history”.
For that, we can thank the spiritual and administrative genius of the Catholic bishops (and, later, monks too). “Far from continuing into an ever deeper spiral of disorder,” writes Brown, “the nobles and bishops of the age of Gregory of Tours brought to a close the ‘Time of Troubles’ associated with the breakdown of the Roman empire in the course of the fifth century.”
It’s thrilling to read about an era when bishops had the leadership skills to restore order to a crumbling society. Consider whether the Church could use more men like this in the Curia today:
“Gregory of Tours was very much the child of the new age of the managerial bishop… What he wished to be was not a senator but a man of the Church. He was a tenacious upholder of canon law procedures. We would not have been able to read in the works of Gregory so many vivid tales of rancor, treachery, and egoism among the clergy of Gaul if it were not for the fact that Gregory regarded such actions as breaches of the Church law to which he was deeply committed. He liked a bishop to be strenuus in labore, an active and no-nonsense administrator, loyal to the laws of the Church.”
According to Brown, “There were many bishops and clergymen like him in Gaul.” He quotes Gregory describing his uncle Nicetius, Bishop of Lyon from 552 to 573: “‘He was a great almsgiver and strenuously active. He was most diligently engaged in setting up churches, organizing estates, sowing fields, and digging and trenching vineyards.’”
Of all the bishops profiled by Brown, Ambrose of Milan stands out as the most outstanding leader; although not a pope, he established the model for future bishops. In fact, Brown says, the Christianization of the Roman Empire really gained momentum not with Emperor Constantine’s religious conversion in 312, or his later edicts granting religious freedom and privileges to Christians and clergy, but with Ambrose’s episcopate in the last quarter of the 4th century.
Throughout most of that century, Brown explains, through the reign of Constantine (306-337) and his son, Constantius II (337-361), “the non-Christian subjects of [Constantine’s] empire were left largely to themselves. The Roman West remained a predominantly pagan world.” This goes against the simplistic notion of a Constantinian corruption of the faith, whereby Church and State colluded to impose Christianity on a passive population. It took several centuries of hard pastoral effort for the Church to forge a genuinely Christian society, built upon a decentralized network of communities of work and prayer. It was accomplished through the visionary leadership and intensely communitarian spirituality – Brown calls it “spiritual communism” – of these managerial bishops.
Consider this description of Ambrose, and his impact on Milan, and Roman society:
“In creating in a major western city a Christian community sheathed in an aura of inviolable cohesion, Ambrose had begun a work that would be continued in many other cities of the West. He gave a language to this great enterprise. He conjured up an imagined community in which the distinction between the poor and the plebs was deliberately blurred. He brought the poor into the Catholic community. He presented the care of the rich for the poor as a necessary consequence of the unity of all Christians. Last but not least, Ambrose presented the unity of the Catholic community of Milan as the living core of human society as a whole. A fractured human race could regain its long lost solidarity by entering the Catholic Church. It was by his attention to social issues, judged in the light of that great hope, that Ambrose came to forge a language that proved to be well adapted to the ambitions of a religion that had dared to think of itself – at last and for the very first time – as a true ‘majority religion,’ as the church rose ‘like a moon waxing in brightness’ above the Roman world.”
What possible relevance could the example of Ambrose and the “managerial bishops” of late antiquity have for the Church – and the world – today? Massive relevance.
It would take an entire book to draw out the implications of Brown’s historical and theological insights for the Church’s New Evangelization, but I’ll only mention a few that are applicable to the selection of the next pope, and the re-evangelization of the United States and Europe, where the Church is facing its most difficult challenges.
While the Church is no longer of the world – she has given up temporal power and no longer governs states or manages businesses – she must still function in the world at the diocesan and non-profit level, interacting with Catholics and secular society in significant ways (a point which has been made painfully clear through the sexual abuse crisis, the Vatican’s communications problems, and Obama’s contraception mandate). Unless the plan is for ecclesiastical structures to wither to a very minimal level, there is no escaping the issue of how to act effectively in the world – a goal that will require coming to terms with management excellence.
The late Peter Drucker, the great philosopher of business management, wrote that the most effective persons and organizations are the protagonists of the modern knowledge society. Where once the ideal was the all-around educated man or women – the aristocrat, for example – today, wealth and power are based on the ability to bring knowledge and expertise to bear on problems and opportunities and deliver results.
The vivid example of the managerial bishops shows that an emphasis on effectiveness was an integral factor in the early growth of the Church. After all, the original mission statement of the Church was Jesus’ great commission: “Go and make disciples of all nations.” And the story of the Church begins with the Book of Acts. It was about taking action after a period of intense prayer. Yes, the Holy Spirit deserves the credit, but he worked through the actions of the Apostles.
To deny centuries of Catholic history because we are in a post-Constantinian era where the Church is separate from the State is as bad as the early Marcionist heresy that denied the validity of the Old Testament. Yes, we are clearly in a new era – one that calls for new methods and expressions of faith to reflect the new realities that the Holy Spirit has brought forth in the world – especially in regards to human dignity and freedom. Yes, there is no going back to the Middle Ages, as some Catholic dissidents have warned. However, that doesn’t mean forgetting or renouncing the past and its successes; it means letting them inspire us so we can apply their lessons to the new contexts of the modern world.
The Church’s flight from “effectiveness” in reaction to the activism of secular society has hurt the New Evangelization. It has enabled a “dualism” that keeps faith and culture, faith and real life, apart. “Good intentions alone,” said the Catholic philosopher Joseph Pieper, “do not enable us to do what is good.” We must act based on “the reality of the actual world.” That is prudence – the “mother of all virtues.” Effectiveness is from God. It is necessary for the common good, and the good of persons – for feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and other works of mercy, both corporal and spiritual. The Church must restore action and effectiveness to its rightful place next to prayer and contemplation.
Just as no CEO can do everything, neither can one pope do it all. John Paul II’s priority was preaching, and Benedict XVI’s was teaching. The daunting task for the next pope is to reform the Church so that its structures are no longer an anti-witness to the Gospel, but become laboratories for innovation in community and economic life, based on the principles of “reciprocity” and “gift” outlined by Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate. Such a “Theology of Work,” by synthesizing the principles of effective action in the marketplace and society with the good of persons and the common good, can parallel what John Paul II accomplished in the “Theology of the Body,” which integrated the goodness of human sexuality with the good of persons in marriage. It holds the promise of humanizing our secularized global economy, and providing the ground for the Church’s mission to the world.
“Pray as if everything depends on God, work as if everything depends on you.” This aphorism, attributed to St. Ignatius of Loyola – one of the Church’s great builders – and exemplified by St. Ambrose and all the great saints of history, has always been the basis for divinely inspired excellence in human culture. If we keep it in mind, we’ll have no reason to be embarrassed about discussing the leadership qualities and priorities of the next pope.
Angelo Matera is a business consultant specializing in media start-ups and development. He published the online magazine GodSpy.com from 2003 to 2008 and writes on Catholic culture, politics, and social teaching.