Democracy and liberalism tend to erode Catholicism, but they invigorate Islam. The record is clear. One struggles to think of exceptions. How to explain it, though? Is it that Islam is more compatible with liberalism? Perhaps it is less compatible and gives liberalism less of a foot in the door? Is Islam simpler, and thus better suited to mass appeal, or is it more complicated, and thus better able to rebut modernist criticisms?
A liberal would frame the phenomenon as Catholicism’s inability to thrive under conditions of “freedom”, that is, in an “open society”. Of course, we non-liberals know that neutrality at the top is impossible–to rule is to decide. Catholicism does poorly when a hostile faith like liberalism is established. That is certainly not surprising, although Islam seems to feed off the provocation of a secular establishment. Catholicism also does poorly in situations where the dominant ideology is contested, uncertain, or disguised, as in vigorous democracies. Muslims rally to a fight, while Catholics become demoralized and indifferent.
Tertullian said that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church. This is true if it refers to the blood of heretic martyrs. To paraphrase General Patton, the way to succeed over rival religions is to make the other dumb bastard die for his faith.
If we look at the Church’s history, the unbelief of today’s laity is probably exceptional, but their indifference is not. Catholicism has nearly always been imposed by force. The early Church had no access to the state’s coercive power, but her growth was mostly in the East, the region that would become Eastern Orthodox. Christianity only became prevalent in the Western empire following imperial favor. After the initial missionary work by Arian heretics, the barbarian kingdoms also became Catholic from the top down following royal conversions. Other lands, like the new world, were made Catholic by conquest.
Thus, we lack historical evidence that Catholicism is attractive absent social pressure. Who wants to believe in original sin and predestination/reprobation without having the Protestants’ compensating assurance of being among the elect? How many of us would be Catholics if our parents hadn’t (thankfully) used their authority to instill it into us as children? And we needn’t be bothered by this. Why should one imagine that the truth is agreeable to humans? Is it not more likely that it isn’t, in which case the true faith would be one that can only hold the allegiance of souls by social coercion, one that is thus free to be as unappealing as the truth itself? And if there’s one thing we’ve learned from political correctness, it’s that when people are told to believe something, they don’t just pretend to believe it; they really do believe it.
Religious enthusiasm in the laity has usually been neither encouraged nor welcomed, clerics fearing (rightly, as it usually turned out) that zeal is a prelude to heresy. Even in the twentieth century, Ronald Knox could still speak of “enthusiasm” mostly as a heretical pathology. (Atheists who claim to disapprove of “organized religion” should take a closer look at disorganized religion, with its superstitions, millenarian frenzies, witch hunts, and status earned by gruesome displays of self-mutilation. Then they’d be praising the great anti-religious work of the Catholic clergy.) Pope Francis clearly hates “ultra-conservative” Catholics, i.e. Catholics who care about doctrinal consistency. Is this exceptional, or is the Church returning to type, in which the ideal layman is a half-assed Catholic who doesn’t care about his religion because that’s the clergy’s business?
The period between the French Revolution and Vatican II was exceptional. One might call it the “Pius X” era of Catholic Action, frequent communion, integralism, and, in general, the mobilization of the laity. What was it, an orthodox echo of the Lamennaian idea that the Church could beat her enemies at the contest for popularity? Had the papacy discovered the trick of high/low vs. middle, as Pius IX mobilized conservative Catholics against Gallicanism and Pius X mobilized them against modernist theologians? If so, it was an unstable arrangement, as John XXIII and Francis I discovered they could mobilize liberal Catholics against tradition, and the papacy now rules unchecked over a wasteland.
In fact, I think what made Catholicism genuinely popular for a time is what most historians imagine made it unpopular: the fact that it was politicized, that it was associated with the political Right. Although mass participation remained heavily female, masculine virtue in the laity was appreciated in a way it hadn’t been since the Crusades. Despite the enervating doctrine of indefectibility, Catholics who lived through the Revolution came out with a visceral sense of having barely evaded collective death, something never experienced even during the Protestant Revolt. Now the Church wasn’t just the mystical body of Christ; it was a party, a cause. Ordinary men can’t figure out much to do with a boyfriend Jesus, but they will love a cause to fight for, a cause whose fortunes depends on their strength and cunning. The soldier fighting revolutionary armies, the apologist and professor with their arguments, the journalist with his propaganda all could use their natural manly combativeness in the service of Christ. Protestantism has always had a greater element of this. No one claims that the formulation of Lutheranism was a supernatural event or that it is supernaturally preserved. Lutheranism is the party of Luther, a theological school invented by a man and forgettable by men, and the Protestants own their sects (in the sense of being the ones ultimately responsible for their preservation) in a way that only Jesus Christ owns Catholicism. Now that the Church is submissive and sentimentalized, she has little use for those prototypically masculine attitudes of loyalty, group pride, and argumentation.
This is the most striking thing about Catholics–while the collapse of the Church is plain for everyone to see, almost no one seems to be bothered; no one is panicking; no one feels responsible. We act more like customers than like citizens. “If it’s Christ’s Church, let Him take care of it.”
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