Evangelizing the Hiltonized

One of my deepest hopes for Pope Benedict’s visit to America in 2008 is that it will have had something of the same tectonic effects that John Paul’s visit to Poland had in 1979. We are, like the Poles at that time, a people living “under the ice” in the memorable phrase of Timothy Garton Ash. To be sure, we are not living under the ice of a soul-killing dictatorship of communism. Rather, we are living under the ice of a soul-killing dictatorship of relativism, as Pope Benedict himself remarked during the conclave that culminated with his election as successor to Pope John Paul the Great.

When Benedict arrived on our shores, he did so as a herald of a tradition that celebrates liberty; a tradition whose earliest writings proclaim “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). Saying that in Millennial America is to invite catcalls, of course. The catcalls go something along these lines: “Benedict the Enforcer: A celebrant of liberty? Surely, by now everybody knows that the Catholic Church hates and fears liberty? After all, 27 journalists in a row have all repeated the same phrases about ‘God’s Rottweiler’ one after one another to reinforce to one another that they all agree that they are the independent thinkers and the Pope is merely spouting ‘dogma’. And we media-suckled Americans always agree with what the talking hairdo on the tube tells us about the Pope because we are not unthinking robots like Catholics are.”

So when the Pope speaks at Regensburg about the distinction between the Christian intellectual tradition and the Islamic conception of faith and reason, catcallers all agree that he was just trying to aggressively insult Muslims. After all, our TV said so and we always listen because we are bold independent-minded Americans who don’t let the Church tell us what to think. Likewise, when Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins quote each other quoting each other, we Americans quote them too in ever-increasing numbers and laugh about how people who listen to the “infallible” Benedict are victims of the God Delusion. That’s because we use our reason and don’t rely on oral tradition as a source of faith—or at any rate, that’s what Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett say we do. And they have never been wrong that they are willing to admit.

The pack journalism that surrounds Benedict (and even more dispiriting, the random and illiterate combox heckling which passes for “public discourse” on the Catholic faith whenever some intelligent Catholic opens his mouth on the Internet) makes you wonder how much longer we can continue as a free people when we are so stupefyingly fat, dumb, and unhappy. You realize that the Know Nothings are alive and well—and that the Internet makes it possible for them to share all that they know with others of like mind in unprecedented ways. It all calls to mind the old joke, “We’ve all heard it said that a million monkeys at a million keyboards would eventually type the works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know that isn’t true.”

All this could, if you believe in politics as some believe in God, reduce you to despair. Henry Kissinger once remarked that the reason academic politics are so bitter was because the stakes are so low. American politics, especially this year, was equally a sport for the dumb at heart. One week it was Obama's dumb elitist remarks about bitter losers voters clinging to guns and religion. The next week it was Hillary boasting about her courage under fire. After that, it was a tedious round of breathless reportage about McCain screaming “You kids get off my lawn!”

It’s all so trivial. It's the same sensation you get when you look back on, well, the entire Clinton presidency. We are a Paris Hilton people in charge of an apocalyptic world. It’s all American Idol this and Beyonce that. If we read (which is becoming rarer) we make schlickmeisters like Dan Brown rich while we marvel “I learned so much!” from the preposterous drivel they pump out. And all the while we labor to make ourselves stupider and more trivial, we are running full tilt toward cloning humans, financial disaster, and tyranny. But the crowning exasperation has to be that, throughout this, so many TV watchers pat themselves on the back for their intellectual and moral superiority over “the Nazi Pope”.

The Prophet Chesterton observes:

If there is one fact we really can prove, from the history that we really do know, it is that despotism can be a development, often a late development and very often indeed the end of societies that have been highly democratic. A despotism may almost be defined as a tired democracy. As fatigue falls on a community, the citizens are less inclined for that eternal vigilance which has truly been called the price of liberty; and they prefer to arm only one single sentinel to watch the city while they sleep.

I think that is the state our culture is fast approaching. To paraphrase Barbie, democracy is hard and many of us are tired of it. We’d rather sleep.

But I pray our sleep will be interrupted. My prayer is that Pope Benedict planted seed last April that will wake us up. I know he tried, because when he got here he spoke the truth of the gospel, which is the only thing that can ever free us. That gospel is the truth: the truth of the human person, made in the image and likeness of God. The truth of the Logos who ensures that we live in a reasonable, albeit mysterious, world in which reason and faith go hand in hand. The truth of Hope in a day when despair is beginning to creep into our bones and freeze our ability to act. The truth of Love in a time when hearts are becoming cold, selfish and afraid. The truth of Christ, who said “You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). Benedict’s confidence is that the Truth who is Christ can reach even a culture that cares more about Tori Spelling’s nose job than it does about the titanic issues—and perils—that God has entrusted into our ten-thumbed hands. God grant him the grace to ignite in his Church the fire of the Holy Spirit that we may indeed be a light to the world!

Copyright 2008 - Mark P. Shea