The world is awash in blood, and no nation is excluded. Since the beginning of this year, radical Islamic terrorists have conducted 1,300 attacks in 50 countries, killing or injuring more than 25,000 people. Mass killings in the guise of warped religiosity are as likely to occur in Istanbul, Baghdad, Damascus or Jakarta as they are in Paris, Brussels, Nice or New York.
In the beginning years of this century alone, uncountable millions of people have been shot, starved, bombed, beheaded, dismembered or otherwise killed. Military units are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, Ukraine and South Sudan, Yemen and Burundi, as well as many other nations. Christians in the Middle East are being driven from their ancestral homelands almost to the point of genocide. Women and children in Nigeria have been systematically kidnapped and raped while their men were slaughtered. Schools, hospitals and churches are not immune from attack — in many instances, they are the targets. Entire populations are fleeing to become undesired refugees in other countries, while untold numbers die in the flight. Individual and small groups of terrorists are willing to become “martyrs” in order to kill innocent bystanders. And the killing is not limited to brutal, public acts but includes the “genteel, socially acceptable” destruction of human life through abortion and increasingly through euthanasia and assisted suicide.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia crystalized the root cause of this monumental violence when, in an address in 2010, he stated: “God has never been more absent from the Western mind than he is today. Additionally, we live in an age when … [there is] a basic confusion about what — if anything at all — it means to be ‘human.’”
In the world at present, there are two dominant cultural systems with radically different worldviews that are colliding: Western secularity and Islamic religiosity.
The West, which has been linked to Christianity for two millennia, has considered God to be the ultimate guarantor of political life and the one who set the norms for its conduct. But this relationship has and continues to change. Western nations today treat religion and belief in God as private matters that have no role in the public arena, where the shared will of the people is formed. The results are not nontheocratic governments in which the state and church are separate, allowing many religions to exist and exercise their missions in freedom. Rather, the governments are becoming secularistic, restricting the public expression of any recognized faith and replacing it with an anti-theism of atheistic secularism. In the absence of God, and unfettered by religious values and unchanging moral principles, politics is replacing religion. The state is assuming the ownership of life — how it will be begun, how it will be lived, and how it will be ended.
Past attempts to shape human affairs without consideration of God have led to dreadful consequences for humanity. In the 20th century, the world experienced the rise of two great atheistic philosophies: national socialism with its dogma that the future lay with the purity of the race, and communism that divinized the power of the collective over the individual based on a synthesis arising from the clash of opposing groups or interests. The results were the annihilation of hundreds of millions of people who were of the wrong race or who opposed the devaluation of man.
Countering Western secularism is Islamic fundamentalism, which promotes a religious fervor against the godlessness of Western society. The current resurgence of Islam is due to a conviction that it can offer a solid moral foundation for the life of the people, a basis that is no longer being provided in the West. Among many Islamic adherents, however, religious directives have been corrupted, resulting in a perverse fanaticism that is brutal, blind and unrelenting. Europe and America seem to have lost the moral conviction to defeat this fanaticism, despite their continuing political, military and economic power.
How do individual Catholic Americans react to the profound secularism in their country and its worldwide effects? Most are indifferent, as long as it does not affect them personally. Oh, they may express interest in the events of the day or indignation at the latest atrocities, but they go no further. Jaded by materialism and a drive for wealth, prestige and pleasure, they have organized their public and private lives in a totally temporal way. The result is a crisis of faith. God has become an afterthought, with one’s conscience, no matter how ill-formed, becoming the standard for personal behavior. Too many Catholics now lead their lives as if God does not exist, while others make a perfunctory commitment to religion just in case he does.
Reversing this widespread secularism will not be easy. The world is brutal and indifferent, but is not too dissimilar from the one in which Our Lord sent the apostles to evangelize. He said to them, “[D]o not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of him who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna” (Mt 10:28).
America, and indeed the world, must be re-evangelized. God must be brought back into public consideration. Let us — you and I — lead this effort by example. Pray to Our Lord, for he never fails his people. Listen for his voice in your life. Detach yourself from the allure of the world, and with faith, say the simple proclamation: “Jesus, I trust in You!” In the closing months of this Jubilee Year of Mercy, make the Rosary, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, Eucharistic adoration and frequent attendance at Mass the means to enable you to personally experience the love of our merciful savior and become his instrument to change our society.
Lawrence P. Grayson is a visiting scholar in the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America.