A Short Diatribe Against Catholic “Time Travel”


The Time Machine (1960):  the past is a foreign country.  They evangelize better there!

I recently heard a talk by a priest of Opus Dei, the organization founded by St. Jose Maria Escriva, and whose members sometimes get a undue amount of criticism for their modus operandi, at least in my opinion.  The priest, whom I shall not name, was in my town to speak to the local young adult community.  The talk was at a local shrine devoted to the Divine Mercy, and was billed as a holy hour of adoration. In fact, the talk consumed most of the hour.  In it, the priest talked at length about the “New Evangelization,” and the need for Catholics to evangelize.  He recounted his experience as a chaplain at a Newman Center (a campus center for Catholics at a very prestigious university), as well as his experience of World Youth Day in 1993 in Denver, when St. John Paul II visited the U.S.  He framed his talk by stressing the need for the Church to “turn back the clock”–not to the 1940s and 50s, but to the early Church, to the Apostolic era.  He also emphasized the primacy of the laity, saying that in the early Church this was how it was mostly spread.  He seemed to argue that the Council of Trent had erased the laity from the Church, and seemed to suggest that Vatican II had released the laity this Tridentine bondage.  It is the role of the laity, especially young people, he said, to carry out the task of the “New Evangelization,” because our society has become a modernized version of the pagan, Roman empire.

I want to be charitable, and not judge too harshly, but I disagree quite strongly with virtually everything I heard in this speech.  Never mind the fact that his tedious, repetitive sermon deprived us of any significant amount of time in silence before the Blessed Sacrament; it contained numerous clichés and emphases concerning the Church which have been prominent since the Second Vatican Council which I find insupportable.   The dubious if not outright false comparison between modern America and the ancient Roman empire; the suggestion that it was the Church’s corruption that incited the Reformation; the evocation of the clergy/laity divide, which I find pointless; the denigration of the Church’s recent past (i.e., from Trent up to the 20th century) in order to flatter the people presently in the pews; and the overuse of the slogan “New Evangelization,” all grated on my sensibilities as I listened.  I was quite glad when he had finished.

There are too many things here for me to criticize, but I only want to point out the problem with one very big assumption in father’s speech.  The idea that one can just leap back in time and become like the Apostles is an essentially Protestant one.  (A similar idea is present in the theology of the Church of Latter Day Saints, from what I understand.) The idea the Church has become so corrupt it must forsake the intervening centuries and go back to the beginning, is beguiling in its seeming reverence for the past, but is in fact a repudiation of it.  This is because it ignores the mediated aspect of time for us:  we cannot have direct access to the past, but must accept the mediation of the (always inadequate) remains of that past, of the evidence which abides.  Which is another way of saying:  you can only have a connection to the deep past by staying connected to the recent past.  Any sort of violent break with it will eradicate this linkage.

In fact this urge for “Catholic time travel ” is not so much about the past as the present. The idea is that the Church is so corrupt that we have to start over from “Year 0,” as it were, to put things right.  Never mind that such “time travel” is impossible, but it would not be a good thing if it were. Our historical situation is different and presents unique challenges even the Apostles did not have to face.  Wishing to reenact what they did is a comforting idea, I suppose, because it means our problems have known solutions, that they are already “out there” somewhere.  In fact, history is full both of continuity and discontinuity; there are some things we share in common with late Antiquity, but too many significant differences exist for it to be a complete model for our times.  Of course, the Holy Spirit is with us, as it was with them, if we remain faithful to Christ.  I do not mean to suggest otherwise.  Nor do I mean to say that the Apostles and the Fathers of the Church are not the foundation of our faith, in human terms.  But we derive our connection to them the same way we derive our connection to Christ: through the human mediation of others.  This is why we cannot act as if 2000 years of Church history, of doctrinal and cultural development have not taken place, and simply act as the Apostles did.

This is why we cannot and must not try to “turn the clock back.”  The  Apostles are present with us, just as Christ is, at every mass; they worship along with us, as do the angels in heaven.  They have never left us; we do not need to go time traveling to find them.  But their eternal presence must be mediated to us by the Church in time, as it is now, warts and all.  Acting as if the Church had fallen into fundamental error prior to the Reformation or at Trent, and only rediscovered its true vocation at Vatican II, is tantamount to saying it is not really the Church, that it is somehow been “lost” or become invisible.  This was the argument of Luther, at least in Bondage of the Will, that the Church had become so corrupt it was now limited to a band of invisible believers known only by God.  The twist here is the idea that we can somehow make it visible again, make it attractive again,  by our efforts at evangelization.  I suspect part of the reasoning here is something like this:  the Church was a visible presence because of its fervor, its enthusiasm, in its early form.  Therefore, we must go back to recapture that same passion for today.

There is probably another subliminal but dubious assumption here as well, namely that increasing signs of “passion” are going to convert the “neo-pagans” in our midst.  Hence the emphasis in the modern Church on youth–World Youth Days, Life Teen, Koinonia Retreats, and so on.  To this way of thinking, the Church’s life is like the natural life of a human person: in the beginning we are passionate, and then slowly it burns out. Thus we need to rekindle it by going back to the beginning.  Now, I would not denigrate the role of the passions in a person’s life, nor would I like to say that big emotional gatherings can’t or don’t play a role in reigniting some people’s faith in the modern world. They can be a beginning for some.  But half a century on from Vatican II, I think it’s safe to say that this approach, as a general cure all for the Church’s declining observance, attendance and membership in America and Western Europe, has failed miserably.  It was all the more surprising to hear a priest of Opus Dei wax nostalgic for World Youth Day, as St. Josemaria made a point of emphasizing the faith in the daily, humdrum activities of our lives, and not merely in large, gratuitous displays of emotion.

Those in the Church need to recognize that there will always be challenges that are unprecedented for us; we are going through some right now.  We can always trust God’s providence, but we will not always (and perhaps rarely ever do) have a precise understanding of how it will manifest his will for us.  This can be disconcerting, but it is no reason to disparage the Church’s recent past in order to exalt its distant past, much less to pretend we can or even need to evangelize exactly as the Apostles did.  Only by embracing the whole history of the Church and taking our own place within it can we redeem the present by evangelizing as we should, in the light of the eternal love to which that history points us.

~ by Alypius on June 13, 2017.

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