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OPINION

Cheating 20th Century Prophets: Part II

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
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AP Photo/Matias Delacroix

Scipio dreaded for you, when he stopped the building of theaters, when he saw how easily you could be corrupted and perverted by prosperity... He did not think that a city is fortunate when its walls are standing, while its morals are in ruins. 

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–St. Augustine, City of God, Bk I. Ch 33

When working the morning shift at Fox News, I walked through New York City before sunrise on a daily basis and crossed a deserted Time Square more times that I care to count. Passing piles of not-yet collected garbage and host of slumbering unfortunate, I often found myself wondering when exactly Romans realized their civilization had collapsed. 

I found myself concluding that, for all intents and purposes, it was gone before many realized it could possibly fall. 

The beginning of the end of the Roman Empire in the west can be traced to when the Altar of Victory was finally removed from the Senate by a Christian emperor in 382 AD. By this point, the defining characteristics that most people associate with Rome had been abandoned and the empire that officially fell with the removal of the last emperor in 476 AD, had long since ceased to be a place recognizable to Scipio Africanus or even Julius Caesar. Pagan Rome died when Saint Ambrose barred the Altar’s return in 384 AD. Christendom killed it. 

Centuries earlier broad prosperity enjoyed by the Roman Republic was not confused by Scipio with the wellbeing of his nation. As Saint Augustine notes in City of God, “he did not think a city fortunate when its walls are standing, while its morals are in ruins”. Similarly, today we are in the unfortunate position of being so comfortable in our prosperity, that we tend to think of ourselves as a healthy nation. All our ills are written off as areas where the tide of progress has not yet risen. We see the moral decay, not as decay, but as a sort of social prosperity earned by embracing new and liberating ideals. But we fail to see that it is the liberation of suicide and the prosperity of hell. We do not see what Cicero told us in On Obligation, that “if we are willing to reflect on the high worth and dignity of our nature, we shall realize how degrading it is to wallow in decadence and to live a soft and effeminate life, and how honorable is a life of thrift, self-control, austerity, and sobriety.” In this, our political society today resembles the Roman society which Scipio and Cicero both dreaded in the centuries before Christ and which Augustine observed in the 5th Century after the incarnation.

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Perhaps more consequential than the political change in these early years of the 21st Century is the religious change. The social decay that Augustine linked to the Roman religion is occurring in the current century just as our culture is embracing a more Roman style of decadence and pragmatism.  The Christian world appears to be moving toward a more traditional brand of Catholicism. Protestant churches face a precipitous decline as they embrace worldly views and, in many cases, push their faithful to Roman Catholicism while fervent young Catholics look for firm footing in tradition as worldly allurements tempt away those who would otherwise seek a timely Church. The non-Christian world, meanwhile, creeps its way back toward the paganism Augustine dreaded. 

History does not tell us how the ancient pagan myths began or how Cardea’s first devotee began to worship that once venerable goddess of door hinges, but I suspect if we pay attention, we will witness it for ourselves. 

In City of God, Augustine supposes a pagan argument that was popular in his time for how the gods names came to be known, explaining, “human nature in its weakness has already felt that happiness can only be given by a god…now because [the Roman people] did not know the name of the giver of happiness, those people decided to call him by the name of the gift.” This example, specific to the goddess ‘Felicitas,’ exemplifies the naming process broadly. The Romans received a gift, then, after the fact, devised a corresponding name for the god who gave it to them. Augustine attests that “Varro,” an authoritative advocate of the gods, “himself bears witness that the reason for writing about ‘human matters’ before ‘divine matters’ was that human communities first came into existence and divine institutions are afterwards established by them.” Augustine builds a case that Roman gods were a function of Roman life more than Roman life was a function of Roman gods. This was played out most clearly in the alignment between the gods as they were worshipped and as they appeared in popular entertainment. In both they were portrayed in their grotesqueness at least as much as in their virtue. “Such disgraceful stories [of the gods],” argued Augustine, “are presented by so learned an authority as belonging not to the poets, but to the people; not to the mimes, but to the rites of religion; not to the theaters, but to temples; in fact, not to [the] fabulous, but to civil theology.” On the whole, public entertainment was not terribly distinct from temple religion. The theology of the state was little more than an officially sanctioned imitation of the virtues and vices with which even the most lurid street performers beguiled popular imagination. Consequently, I suspect the stories and plays pre-dated the gods and the theaters predated the temples. I suspect in ancient Greece and Rome, men heard stories, associated characters with dramatic virtues and vices, and over time began to revere those characters as gods. I suspect they worshipped in theaters and discovered that they had created temples. 

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A generation of Americans is currently undergoing life’s initial formation with the fictional heroes of Marvel, Harry Potter, and Disney serving as its models of virtue and caution against vice. For decades already, the cult of Gaia has grown among the materially-minded for whom the environment is the alpha and omega. This goddess has long been known to history, but, I suspect, is soon to be re-discovered in name by those who for years have been worshipping her in form. Similarly, worship of ‘Mammon,’ or the Roman god of money ‘Pecunia,’ are ever-present in humanity. The Norse gods, who now have an extensive following in popular culture, as a result of the Marvel movies, are likely next to regain genuine worshippers. The devotion to these gods is already present as a means of entertainment similar to the gods in the theaters in the time of Augustine and earlier. Each Marvel film can gross upwards of $1 billion and attract audiences across the spectrum of American society. Millions of Americans make a point of seeing each new film as it is released and grow attached to particular characters, their values, and their stories. It is unlikely devotees of Thor or Captain Marvel will risk their lives in the name of their lesser gods in the way worshipers of Gaia or Mammon may be inclined to do, however, for as long as they are in favor, millions of Americans will continue to draw moral lessons from these figures of fiction and sacrifice hard-earned treasure at their altars. They will, in the absence of True Faith, continue to put their trust in these creations and seek to conform the world to the ideals these “gods” communicate. 

As a result, the world that abandoned the true light of Christ is not characterized by clear-headed secular enlightenment, but by a hazy popular paganism. This Romanization of our religion is perichoretic to the Romanization of our social and political life. Unnervingly, this is the better of 20th Century dechristianization’s two biproducts—the Roman world, it should be remembered, made for speedy evangelization of the Gospels—the far darker consequence is also on the rise, though is already doomed to defeat. 

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Belief in witchcraft and witches is on the rise. In 2018, it was estimated that up to 1.5 million Americans claim to practice Wicca (a formal name for pagan witchcraft) or paganism, up from 340,000 in 2008 and 8,000 in 1990, presently making pagan witches more numerous than Presbyterians. Similarly, despite fairly scant census data, a cursory scan of popular media—as well and its notable public following among musicians such as singer Sam Smith in his performance at the 2023 Grammys and rapper Lil Nas X who launched Satan-themes sneakers—suggests a rise in Satanism. Neither of these practices are new and their popularity should not be surprising to those who have observed our culture’s embrace of the “non serviam” mantra chanted by each and every anguished demon cast into Hell. For “there is,” according to GK Chesterton in The Everlasting Man, “[a] sort of superstition that does definitely look for results; what might be called a realistic superstition… There [has been] a sort of secret and perverse feeling that the darker powers would really do things; that they had no nonsense about them.” These dark beliefs are directly at odds with the Faith and so it is no surprise that a pragmatic culture which rejects God and expects instant results would turn to them. The seekers of Earthly paradise, however well-meaning they may be, can be easily tempted down this path. It promises real-world results, real-world prosperity, and real-world pleasures. But it is ultimately the path of pride and hedonism and has been allowed to flourish under the guise of liberty by a world order that believes itself the humane way of perfection. This, the fruit of liberalism, however, has been spoiling and increasingly it feels like a new vine is growing. 

Just as it was a Roman world in which the Gospels spread in the early centuries of the first millennium, it appears to be the case that it will be a Romanized world that spreads them again in these early centuries of the third millennium. The majority of priests I talk to on a daily basis say they can sense a movement of the faithful they have not felt before. They report an increased number of penitents in confessionals compared to previous years, and a renewed fervor among the young. The Church may be losing members, but those who remain are growing more and more vibrant. Young Catholics in the United States are tending to embrace traditional forms of the faith. The doldrums of 20th Century disbelief may be nearing the end. Much like in the socio-political sphere, this will not mean an immediate shift, and there will be many who look at the church and feel like the world is ending—because the world, as they knew it truly is ending—but we Christians know at the end is resurrection. In Chesterton’s words, “Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” It seems to me the death either has just, or is about to take place. Either way, one can already sense movement in the tomb. 

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Just as Christ cheated sin and death in resurrection we cheat that well-informed 20th Century prophet. In his analysis of society, the prophet supposed continuation. His progressive mind could only anticipate the constant change that leads to an inevitable end. What he could not predict was a lack of change that leads to the unexpected. “If all things are the same,” attests the protagonist in Chesterton’s Napoleon of Notting Hill, “it is because they are always new. To each man one soul only is given; to each soul only is given a little power—the power at some moment to outgrow and swallow up the stars… Yes, O dark voice, the world is always the same, for it is always unexpected.” In every age man does something to thwart the calculations of the learned. Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground summarizes man’s tendency well, observing, “shower upon him every earthly blessing… give him economic prosperity, such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even then… man would play you some nasty trick… simply in order to prove himself—as though that were so necessary—that men are still men and not the keys of a piano, which the laws of nature threaten to control so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar.” To cheat prophets of liberalism, man has become pragmatic. To cheat prophets of science, he has turned to witchcraft. To cheat prophets of atheism, he has become pagan and to cheat prophets of secularism, he will become a crusader. Showered with every earthly blessing, man has played a nasty trick and done the unexpected. He has once again set the stage for open war between a pagan empire and the faithful followers of Christ Jesus. 

Frank J. Connor is the author of The Ridiculous Man and The Progressive Reports. He is a former Fox News journalist and worked as an analyst at a prominent bond rating agency. After years of discernment, he responded to a call to the Catholic priesthood and is currently in religious formation.

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