In yesterday’s post we pondered the decline of the Catholic faith in the United States. For us, the exodus began in the late 1960s. In Europe it had begun long before. Hard figures are difficult to come by, but in most Western European countries today, it is estimated that less than 10 percent of Catholics attend Mass weekly. C.S. Lewis lamented the great collapse of the faith in Europe in writings going back to the late 1940s.
Of all C.S. Lewis’ works, a collection known as The Latin Letters, is one of the least well known. They are his correspondence in Latin with Rev. Fr. Don Giovanni Calabria. Part of the reason for their relative obscurity is that they were not translated into English until 1998. The full collection of these letter can be found here: The Latin Letters of C.S. Lewis.
The letters covered a variety of topics over the years, among them the decline of faith and the erosion of moral life in Europe. This was linked to the horrifying experience of two world wars, which seem to have both resulted from and further exacerbated the decline of faith there.
At Fatima in 1917, Our Lady warned,
The war [World War I] is going to end, but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out during the Pontificate of Pope Pius XI. When you see a night illumined by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign given you by God that he is about to punish the world for its crimes, by means of war, famine, and persecutions of the Church and of the Holy Father (Second Secret of Fatima).
Of course, we know what happened: the repentance did not take place. Following one of the most vivid displays of the Northern lights ever recorded (Jan 25, 1938), Germany annexed Austria in March of 1938 and invaded Poland in 1939; World War II was engaged.
Most Americans today do not fully appreciate the horrifying blood bath that was the 20th century. Conservative estimates are that 200 million people died in wars or were exterminated for ideological purposes. Loss of faith was a lasting effect of a century marked by amazing invention but at the same time an almost unimaginable body count.
These letters of C.S. Lewis open a window to that mid-century period of European history. Indeed, I would call his insights stunning in many ways. Lewis argued that Europe was in a far worse state in 1950 than she was under paganism. Would that she were even pagan, for at least the pagans accepted Natural Law. Europe, having cast off the faith, was and is in a state far worse than before she had ever heard of Christ.
In the excerpts that follow, Lewis makes the case and then proffers a solution we may wish to consider in these times that are even darker. The following passages are from the English translation by Martin Moynihan. The text is shown in black, bold italics, while my comments are in plain red text.
Let’s begin with Lewis’ assessment as to how and by what stages Europe lost the faith:
But (this) did not happen without sins on our part: for that justice and that care for the poor which (most mendaciously) the Communists advertise, we in reality ought to have brought about ages ago. But far from it: we Westerners preached Christ with our lips, with our actions we brought the slavery of Mammon. We are more guilty than the infidels: for to those that know the will of God and do not do it, the greater the punishment. Now the only refuge lies in contrition and prayer. Long have we erred. In reading the history of Europe, its destructive succession of wars, of avarice, or fratricidal persecutions of Christians by Christians, of luxury, of gluttony, of pride, who could detect any but the rarest traces of the Holy Spirit? (Letter 20, Jan 7, 1953).
This is a remarkable, sobering description. In effect there grew an appalling lack of love for God, for the poor, and for one another. Greed and sloth also took their toll. To some, even Communism seemed more virtuous than this “lip-service” faith.
The wars of which Lewis writes include not only those of the 20th century but throughout the Christian era. Consider this shockingly long list of wars, most of which involved Christians killing other Christians: European Wars of the Christian Era.
To be sure, the 20th century dealt a mortal blow to Europe. These terrible things happened on the Christian watch. However, good, even wonderful, things happened during that time as well: the building of universities and hospitals, the great flowering of much that is best in Western culture. It can be argued that the faith also prevented things from being far worse. A gradual internecine lack of love also took its toll and after the bloodiest century the world has ever known, Europe woke up to a largely faithless landscape.
Next, Lewis describes the depth of our fall:
What you say about the present state of mankind is true: indeed it is even worse than you say. For they neglect not only the Law of Christ, but even the Law of Nature as known by the Pagans. For now they do not blush at adultery, treachery perjury, theft and other crimes, which I will not say Christian doctors, but the Pagans and Barbarians have themselves denounced. They err who say: “The world is turning pagan again.” Would that it were! The truth is, we are falling into a much worse state. Post-Christian man is not the same as pre-Christian man. He is as far removed as a virgin from a widow … there is a great difference between a spouse-to-come and a spouse sent away (Letter 23, March 17, 1953).
Powerful analysis indeed! The modern European (and I would argue the modern American) is in a state below paganism. At least the pagans believed in the supernatural, had some respect for Natural Law, and accepted what reality plainly teaches.
The pagan world was a virgin waiting for her groom; the modern West is an angry divorcée: cynical, angry and “so through” with Jesus. What will be the fate of the secular West? Will she die in her sins or will the miracle of a broken, humbled heart emerge? Pray! Fast!
Lewis reiterates and adds a stunning, biblically based insight:
I certainly feel that very grave dangers hang over us. This results from the great apostasy of the great part of Europe from the Christian faith. Hence, a worse state than the one we were in before we received the faith. For no one returns from Christianity to the same state he was in before Christianity, but into a worse state: the difference between a pagan and an apostate is the difference between an unmarried woman and an adulteress …. Therefore many men of our time have lost not only the supernatural light, but also the natural light which the pagans possessed (Letter 26, Sept 15, 1953).
This is a powerful reminder that leaving the faith does not simply put one back to where he was.
Jesus made a similar warning: When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first. (Luke 11:24-25). Having found the house bereft of the Holy Spirit, quite empty of true faith, Satan returns with seven more demons.
St. Peter makes the same point: For if, after they have escaped the defilement of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first (2 Peter 2:20).
Calling for hope, Lewis considers a way back:
But God who is the God of mercies, even now has not altogether cast off the human race. We must not despair. And among us are not an inconsiderable number now returning to the faith. For my part, I believe we ought to work not only at spreading the Gospel (that certainly) but also to a certain preparation for the Gospel. It is necessary to recall many to the law of nature before we talk about God. For Christ promises forgiveness of sins, but what is that to those who, since they do not know the law of nature, do not know that they have sinned? Who will take medicine unless he knows he is in the grip of a disease? Moral relativity is the enemy we have to overcome before we tackle atheism. I would almost dare to say, “First let us make the younger generation good pagans, and afterwards let us make them Christians.” (Letter 26, Sept 15, 1953).
To some extent, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have said the same: we have to begin all over again. Lewis’ point goes even further by pointing out that at least the apostles found a Europe where people accepted the testimony of reality as a reliable guide, where people respected the spiritual realm.
We in the post-Cartesian and existentialist West have retreated from reality and into our minds. Reality and Natural Law are no longer common ground on which to meet. There is no accepted reality, only thoughts, opinions, views. Existentialism is everywhere! There is no objective meaning outside ourselves to which we owe allegiance. No, we live not in reality but in a world of thoughts and abstractions.
Think I’m exaggerating? Try telling a “transgender” person that sex is an unalterable reality, that the body manifests our sex. “What’s my body got to do with it? It’s what I feel that matters.” Apparently, our bodies have nothing to say to us (nor does anything else in the real world).
Our task in reintroducing the West to reality, to Natural Law, will not be easy, but C.S. Lewis thinks we need to begin there.
Lewis’ insights are powerful and thought provoking.
There were some in America who wondered why the Second Vatican Council was called, believing that there was no crisis that needed to be addressed. That was a uniquely American view, however, flowing from the fact that our churches, schools, seminaries, and convents were filled to overflowing. Not so in Europe, where a crisis of faith was underway, as C.S. Lewis described.
Clearly this condition has reached the Church in the U.S. At some point we could have reached over and drawn our European brethren back to the faith, but instead we chose to imitate them; now we are suffering the same consequences. Perhaps the Church in Africa can help reground us.
Meanwhile, I await a day of redemption from the Lord, when He will, perhaps miraculously, buy us back from the slavery to which we have consigned ourselves. I know only one path to follow: Preach the gospel, celebrate the sacraments with devotion, and wait for the Lord until this storm passes. With the disciples, who in fear woke the Lord during a storm, I cry out, “Save us, Lord. We are perishing!” (Matt 8:25)