[An article from ca. 2014]
Last year in this space I argued that the classical idea of natural law in its Christian form, which Anglicans have always maintained, can provide a framework for social peace and cohesion even in a community of many and no religions. Christians can placidly accept the existence of non-Christians and can respect them because we believe that our God loves them and because we believe in the dignity of their consciences, even if they be erring consciences. We can cheerfully work and live with non-Christians because large areas of public life are governed by natural laws and rules that do not require day-to-day reference to revelation or religion. The sewer system and the traffic laws help the community and do not require us to invoke Bible or Church Fathers.
I also noted that two alternative ideas for achieving social harmony are inferior. One alternative flowing from the modern Enlightenment is classical liberalism. This approach relegates religion to the private sphere and lowers the goals of public life from the pursuit of salvation and virtue to secondary goals (life, liberty, prosperity). This system has long ‘worked’ in many ways. It depends, however, on a population that has a respect for law and other private virtues (diligence, willingness to delay gratification, honesty, and so forth) which require ultimately a religious underpinning. In the long run the system itself tends to produce secularists and materialists and so undermines the religious foundation on which all rests. A secularized populace, which the system tends to produce, tend to lack the moral fiber necessary to sustain the system.
The other principal alternative is another, non-Christian religion, and in Africa, Europe, and most other places now the only viable non-Christian candidate is Islam. As I wrote last year,
Islam so emphasizes the absolute character of God’s will and power that it is reluctant to speak of natural law. Any law but the will of God seems to many Muslims to detract from God’s absolute sovereignty and power….But in the absence of a natural law theory it becomes almost impossible to have a reasonable discussion of morality with people of differing religious views. If everything is governed by revelation there is little room either for science or for any social harmony except harmony built on religious uniformity. For many Muslims the only proper law for society is sharia, Muslim law, which is entirely all-encompassing. And therefore for many serious Muslims there can be no real social peace with non-Muslims, only temporary truces, whether explicit or implicit, until all become Muslims or die or are utterly subjugated into the dhimmi status that sharia may grant them if they keep quiet and do not belong to some groups that are never to be tolerated.
I see no reason to alter this basic summary of our situation. The key question that arises from this analysis is, what then are we to do? Not surprisingly, I think the only appropriate answer is religious. Our problem is essentially religious, and its answer is essentially religious. The entire modern era depends on deposing religion from the center of public life. But the resulting secularized liberal world depends on Christian foundations and virtues inculcated by Christianity, and it will fall if it undermines its own foundations. The question is not whether enlightened secular regimes will long endure. The question rather is, what will replace them?
For Christians the situation, then, seems simple. The only proper response to our secularizing societies AND to the Muslim world that challenges both us and our secularist leaders, is the same. The answer is a return to the deep wells of our faith. A Western military response to Islamic extremism may or may not be appropriate, but it will only postpone the essential conflict. The essential conflict occurs within the soul of individuals within the West, who have by the millions abandoned the faith of their civilization for an empty and unsatisfying secularism. And our leaders and elites – in business and academia and the military and law and politics and the foundations and the international organizations and even in many churches – are more, not less, secular than those whom they lead. There is no reason to hope that a renewal of the Christian world will come from that quarter.
The answer most certainly is not despair. The answer is deeper conversion of you and of me. The answer is fervent prayer, penitence, devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, fasting, and charity. Hatred, including hatred of murderous Muslim extremists, is anti-Christian and undermines the only path that can extricate us from our problems. Love of our enemies, including murderous Muslim extremists, is the burning force that can convert them. Love of our enemies does not mean blindness to the dangers we face from them, nor does it preclude the conscientious use of power by the public authorities. But we will not be saved by military force or police power or closing our borders. We will only be saved by conversion, by grace, by love, by sacrament, by prayer.
Last year I visited Bourges cathedral in France. This great building dates from the same era as Canterbury cathedral. From the ceiling hang cardinals’ hats, worn by previous Archbishops of Bourges. This great cathedral has exactly six Masses per week – not even a daily Mass. While walking to the cathedral, and then while looking at the sculptures of its marvelous front, we saw two Muslim wedding celebrations pass from the town hall. There, my friends, is the heart of the problem. The problem is not Islamic immigration to France, though that certainly was and is a problem. The problem is that the non-Muslims of Bourges have essentially abandoned their cathedral and faith. No other answer will solve the essential and central problem if the people of France and England and our own nation do not convert, embrace the gospel, receive baptism, and kneel before the altar.
There is, again, no need for despair. No one 100 years ago could imagine that which is now imaginable – a Muslim Bourges. It is difficult now to imagine 100 years from now a fervently renewed Catholic France and re-Christianized West. But if the one can happen, so can the other. For that we must work and pray and give.