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Church in Crisis

The Enlightenment and its Impact upon Today's Church

Martin R. Tripole. S.J.

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For some time I have been troubled by the serious crisis that exists in the Church. Webster's Third New International Dictionary defines the word "crisis" in several ways, but significant for our discussion regarding the Church would be the following: "the point of time when it is decided whether an affair or course of action shall proceed, be modified, or terminate; decisive moment; turning point"; or perhaps, "a psychological or social condition characterized by unusual instability caused by excessive stress and either endangering or felt to endanger the continuity of the individual or his group; especially such a social condition requiring the transformation of existing cultural patterns and values."

All of these seem to apply to our contemporary experience of the Church. Perhaps we might synthesize the above by saying that the Church is at a point of such conflict and division regarding what it is and what its course of action should be that many serious questions have to be investigated: What are the conflicts at issue, what are the origins of the problem, how did matters get so divisive, and what can be done to correct the problem? Resolving these issues would be decisive in that it would bring unity and peace to the Church even as it would determine the direction the Church might take for years to come.

Surely involved in such a discussion would be the question as to whether or not the Church should continue as it has for centuries, or needs to redirect its course, even as it proceeds to its predetermined destiny to become the new Jerusalem of the Kingdom of heaven. Are there better ways to get to that destiny, or are those of the past satisfactory? Knowing previous history that has led to the present crisis situation will be very helpful in addressing the nature of the problem and signaling a course of action.

The thesis of this publication is that crisis in the Church in America, though most acutely felt since the recent breakout of the sex-abuse problems, has been going on for centuries, and is the result of the growing dominance of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment mentality that supports the primacy of reason over revelation and faith in the pursuit of knowledge of the truth. The origins of the Enlightenment mentality can be traced to William of Ockham in the fourteenth century, who is the first major figure to give the argument for the separation of reason from faith its justification. While the Enlightenment has had much positive effect on the Western world, I would argue that its negative impact has been even greater. The origin and growing dominance of the Enlightenment mentality are discussed in chapters 3 through 5.

I argue that evidence for the growing pervasiveness of the Enlightenment mentality may be found from its effects in various areas of life, especially in the breakdown in the acceptance of the Church and its teachings. The loss of the authority of the Church and of fidelity to its teachings may be seen in copious statistical data available today documenting the rationalistic orientation of contemporary American Catholics, especially as seen among today's youth. Such statistical data is presented in chapters I and 2.

But the Enlightenment mentality does not simply begin and end with the Church; rather, the Church is part of a larger Enlightenment movement in the Western world, whose effects are slowly overpowering life in the Church and leading good Catholics off the proper course. Special areas where the Enlightenment mentality shows its dominance in America are to be found in Catholic higher education, the social apostolate, the misguided movement known as separation of church and state, and the recent sex-abuse crisis. All of these issues are treated in chapters 6 through 9.

I argue, finally, in chapters 10 and 11, that the only way to correct the problems caused by the Enlightenment is to restore the primacy of faith and revelation over reason, as argued especially by Pope John Paul II in Fides et Ratio. It is critical that this primacy be restored, not only to preserve the unity of the Church, as argued by Paul in the Letter to the Ephesians, but especially for the success of Christ's redemptive mission for the world as presented in John's Gospel.

This book is directed primarily toward overcoming the divisions that are impairing unity within the Catholic Church and impeding Christ's saving mission for the world. Our ability to overcome the present crisis will take a lot of soul-searching on the part of the disparate factions within the Catholic Church, so as to put the unity of the Church and the success of Christ's mission ahead of their own particular agendas. But this work is directed also to all the members of the disparate groups within the total Christian community, urging them as well to foster unity in the one true Church of Christ for the success of Christ's saving mission for the world. This goal is so important to all true Christians that it supersedes the values to be derived from fostering any of our particular agendas.

I owe a supreme debt of gratitude to all those who have made this work possible, especially Dr. Matthew Levering, Professor of Theology at Dayton University, who was enthusiastic about the project from the beginning; Diane Eriksen, Managing Editor of Sapicntia Press, and the staff of the press, for their patience, kindness, and expertise in composing the final pages of this document; and Joseph Pearce, Editor-in-Chief of Sapientia Press, for his gracious support of me and this publication. I also wish especially to thank my sister, Nina M. Koehler, for her gracious subvention toward this project.

Copyright © 2012 by Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University, Ave Maria, Florida. All rights reserved

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Version: 24th October 2013

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