The Church: Anchor or Sail?

“As a fairly secular Jew I cannot and will not speak to the theological questions, in part because I do not want to. But mostly because I do not have to. The core problem with those who glibly invoke one cliché after another about the evils of organized religion and Catholicism is that they betray the progressive tendency to look back on the last two thousand years and see the Catholic Church — and Christianity generally — as holding back humanity from progress, reason, and enlightenment. They fault the Church for not knowing what could not have been known yet and for being too slow to accept new discoveries that only seem obvious to us with the benefit of hindsight. It’s an odd attack from people who boast of their skepticism and yet condemn the Church for being rationally skeptical about scientific breakthroughs.

“In short, they look at the tide of secularism and modernity as proof that the Church was an anchor. I put it to you that it was more of a sail. Nearly everything we revere about modernity and progress — education, the rule of law, charity, decency, the notion of the universal rights of man, and reason were advanced by the Church for most of the last two thousand years.

“Yes, compared to the ideal imagined by atheists and secularists this sounds like madness.

“But isn’t the greater madness to make a real force for good the enemy because the forces of self-anointed perfection claim to have some glorious blueprint for a flawless world sitting on a desk somewhere? It is a Whiggish and childish luxury to compare the past — or even the present — to a utopian standard. Of course there was corruption, cruelty, and hypocrisy within the Church — because the Church is a human institution. Its dark hypocrisies are the backdrop that allow us to see the luminance of the standard they have, on occasion, fallen short of. The Catholic Church was a spiritual beacon lighting the way forward compared to the world lit only by fire outside the Church doors.”

Jonah Goldberg, The Tyranny of Clichés (2012) (quoted in February 6, 2015 email “news”letter).

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