Passing on True Religion
Louis R. Tarsitano on Islam, Christianity, and Moral Education
The unsettling, but predictable, news comes from Britain that a recent survey of teenagers of all religious backgrounds revealed that while most Muslim young people believe the teachings of their inherited faith, most young Christians openly reject the teachings of the Church. In other words, young Muslims are much more likely to be Muslims, than young Christians are to be Christians.
The study, conducted by the Reverend Professor Leslie Francis of Bangor University, found, among other things, that only 15 percent of young Roman Catholics believe their Church’s teaching against sex outside marriage. Furthermore, despite their Church’s clear teaching on the sanctity of human life, only half of them opposed abortion. The results among other young British Christians were just as dismal.
Although Islamic leaders will no doubt find room for improvement in the statistics, at least they have the consolation (in comparison with the Christians) that 49 percent of their young people believe that sex should be confined to marriage and 58 percent oppose abortion. If religious groups were scored on the curve, the Muslims would have the “A” students.
I would identify at least two factors behind this disparity of results, all of which were obtained in the setting of an industrialized Western nation. This was not a comparison of young Britons with young Saudi Arabians, but a study of young people of different religious inheritances living in, or at least surrounded by, the same secular culture.
Islamic faith, at least for the present, is proving more resistant than Christian faith to being made over in the image of that secular culture. Why this should be so has more to do with the Western Church’s often abject surrender to modernism and the failure of Christian clergy to provide young people with an intact ecclesiastical tradition, than it does with some sort of “natural superiority” of Islamic sexual ethics.
Sexual morality does matter, of course, in an absolute way; but it may also serve as an indicator of a church’s or a mosque’s effectiveness in teaching its youth the fullness of its faith. How we treat one another sexually says as much about our answer to the question “Who is God?” as it does about the question “Who am I?” The promoters of modernism have always known this, and they have promised limitless sexual favors to those who will adopt the materialistic agenda of their man-centered creed.
Modernism, which has long claimed for itself the status of mainstream Western culture, has been empowered by its pandering to the worst in fallen human nature, offering an ever-expanding menu of casual, varied, and frequent sexual intercourse without responsibility. Postmodernism (modernism’s “new and improved” second release) continues the pattern, with an even greater stress on the supposed “relativity” of the morality of every sort of relation among persons.
Neither modernism nor postmodernism, however, has been able to do away with shame, the fig leaf that remains of the innocence of Eden. Treating other people as sex toys or as the clinical instruments of personal gratification elicits shame from all but the sociopath.
Since human nature and its capacity for shame cannot be changed by human fiat, the unhappy (because he feels shame) sexual slob has to blame something outside himself for his discomfort, such as the practical social structure of the family or the written expressions of a moral code. Thus, in its futile efforts to banish shame, the rutting party must question the organization of the family and the express doctrine of the churches.
It may even seek, by civil law, to change them, in alliance with other groups of modernists who prefer other cultural perversions. At this point, all “progressives” can divert themselves from feeling their shame by patting themselves on the back for being tolerant and open-minded (except, of course, where religion is concerned).
Without agreeing with Islam, let alone the grotesque excesses of certain contemporary Islamic regimes, one can sympathize with the mullahs’ designation of the West (by which they mean “Western modernism”) as “the great Satan,” the great adversary of everything they call “holy.” It is just as true that general Western culture, in the thrall of modernism, has been in an equally adversarial relation to the historic catholic faith. The Muslims are trying to do what Christians did not manage to accomplish—namely, protect their people from a perverse and perverting enemy.
For the time being, at least, a greater number of Muslims living in the West still believe in their religious understanding of the family, and so they still believe that it is proper to feel shame when they transgress their moral code. Because they have not yet capitulated to Western modernism, they have not yet talked themselves out of feeling shame. They can still admit that certain practices are shameful, even if they indulge in them. This practical adherence to the faith (even when it is the tribute that vice pays to virtue) liberates them to confess their faith and its formularies publicly.
The Clergy’s Failure
The other factor behind the Western defection from Christian moral standards I blame almost entirely on the clergy, and especially on the bishops (or whatever the chief pastors are called in the various Western traditions). The Second Vatican Council was the formative event for all of the contemporary Western churches, including those that choose to pretend that the Roman Catholic Church does not exist or is not a factor in their lives.
It does not matter whether one praises or condemns aggiornamento, or chooses to stipulate that it has been abused. From Vatican II on, the Western Church has forgotten the first rule of sustaining a religion and its moral code as credible. That rule is this: Change nothing in the Church, especially as it affects the day-to-day life of the people of God, by the raw exercise of power.
This rule has three corollaries. The first corollary is the one exception to this rule: Immediate change is pastorally necessary when it has been discovered that some previous enactment is in such grievous moral and doctrinal error that it endangers the people’s very souls and eternal life.
The second corollary is the alternative to coercive change: the pastoral decision to formalize such changes in practice as have grown up over time by “custom” (as defined in the usual way by the general canon law of the Church). In every such case, however, even popular custom must never be permitted to depart from the historic faith and its necessarily connected practices.
The third corollary is the foundation for making changes that deepen and do not undermine the peoples’ faith: In any case, teach, teach, teach the unamendable basics and necessities of the Faith, so that any legitimate changes, by legislation, by decree, or by custom, will be understood as preserving and not changing the Faith.
Imposed liturgical changes (even in churches with a customary, rather than a written liturgy) set every sort of Western Christian adrift in a sea of change. Little of what had been learned by heart was applicable in the new worship, and less of what was offered in its place was in any way memorable.
Arbitrary and periodic changes in fasting rules and other matters of spiritual discipline made clowns of pious traditionalists, to be mocked for their old-fashioned ways. Where the strongest traditions of liturgy and piety had once prevailed, priests relaxing in their “presidential chairs” while laymen administered the Holy Communion to people forbidden to kneel made nonsense of the sacramental reverence once shared by prelates and scrub ladies alike.
Experiments in feminism at the altar and in the home sought to obliterate the created and revealed order of the sexes that is the necessary foundation for a moral sexual order. The forced remodeling of church buildings, while played out like domestic farce (“Put the altar over there. No, how about here? No, let’s try it again back there”), in its removal of beauty and transcendence would have made a Roundhead soldier blush.
Taken together, these changes, enforced by a blatantly self-indulgent clergy obsessed with novelty for its own sake, have convinced the people that all religious rules are strictly arbitrary. A human being might well sacrifice his appetites for the sake of companionship with God and a vision of eternal order, as delivered to him by means of rites, disciplines, creeds, and moral codes with the authority of generations of saints behind them. But who will do so for the sake of this year’s rules or this month’s paperback worship?
Some heroes will, submitting to these ephemera out of a glorious loyalty to what the Church ought to be, and clinging to a vision of the Kingdom of God despite the officially imposed human chaos around them. But mankind in general is not heroic.
Worse still, how exactly do the heroic faithful promote the unchanging verities of the Faith to doubters and unbelievers when all they have to offer them is the foolishness of the churches caught up in constant spasms of change? Unstable churches make the argument for deferred gratification sound even more implausible to those who have been elsewhere promised a life of instant physical pleasure.
If Christianity is a concrete, specific life in Jesus Christ, then it makes sense to live it—to fast on Good Friday or to worship God every Sunday in his Church as the redeemed have always worshipped him, or even to reserve sexual intercourse for the marriage bed. To do these things is to live a life with Christ and his saints as a particular member of his particular Body.
On the other hand, if Christianity is nothing more than a set of religious fads and mutable opinions, then the Body of Christ is the thing least like a real body in the whole world, and the warm human body on the adjoining barstool cannot help but exert a greater attraction.
Restoring the Old Religion
This is not, God forbid, an argument for simply freezing things as they are today, as if that action could somehow make Christian youth continue in the teachings of their churches or provide Western Christians in general with a new stability. I can’t think of a single imposed change since Vatican II first opened the present season of imposed changes in the Western Church that has had any constructive value. Nor is it possible now, after these changes have been injected into the bloodstream of the Church, merely to recall them by fiat.
Rather, it would be best for the churches to allow people, parishes, and dioceses to return as they wish to the traditional religion, without penalty or persecution. The old religion will survive, as it always has. The new religion will simply change itself into extinction or remove itself entirely from Christian ground.
In any case, the practical, visible witness of traditional Christians with their traditional families and traditional churches is the only means of offering the victims of modernism an alternative. Those Muslim kids get a lot of things right because they have seen traditional Islamic families and faithfulness with their own eyes.
For Christians to get the same results with their own children, or better yet to surpass them, they must not only tell their children to be good. They also must be good themselves, in the ancient, changeless, and permanent Christian way, so that their children can see an alternative to what a corrupt Western culture has to offer.
Tradition works by example. Young Christians and could-be Christians are a mess, because the example given to them by the Christian churches and their members is, by and large, a mess. Tradition is working perfectly, but we are passing on the worst possible things.
The article from which the statistics were taken is “Britain’s Young Catholics Disagree with Church’s Teaching,” CWNews.com, 14 March 2001.
Louis R. Tarsitano (d. 2005), a former associate editor of Touchstone, was a priest of the Anglican Church in America and rector of St. Andrew?s Church in Savannah, Georgia. He also was the co-author, with Peter Toon, of Neither Archaic Nor Obsolete: The Language of Common Prayer & Public Worship (Brynmill Press, Ltd., 2003).
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“Passing on True Religion” first appeared in the December 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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