Invoking God publicly is not common in our 21st-century society. Of course there are pro forma situations in which a prayer is offered, ritualized major events like graduations or the opening of the House of Representatives. Keep in mind that we are one nation under God. The nod is given to God. But as a constitutional democracy, we the people have chosen to draw parameters around God. We must avoid sectarianism at all cost.
However, the absence of any significant reference to God in the public forum goes much deeper than prayer. David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, put it succinctly in a March 27 opinion piece entitled “The Moral Meaning of the Plague”: “We are a morally inarticulate culture.” That speaks volumes in our day and age. Our moral sense in this century goes only so far as to say, on occasion, “It is the right thing to do.” But by what standard is something the right thing to do? Perhaps is it our innate sense of right and wrong that decides. In fact, living deeply in 21st-century humanism means that any serious and pointed reference to God is definitely out of place and at least a bit archaic. Science and technology rule the day.
Yet today, in the midst of this global Covid-19 pandemic, we hear God seriously invoked now and then, on television and in other media—not much more than the word God, mind you, but some reference to a greater power nonetheless. Historically it happens that when we are at our wits’ end, when a tragedy strikes over which we have little control, when we feel helpless in the face of something that simply overwhelms our ability to cope, then God is called upon, in a small but sincere voice: God help us.
Do people really believe that prayer is going to help, that God is going to hear us and come to our assistance? The time is now when the entire world, all nations, are actually threatened with the most catastrophic event that has befallen us in the past several decades. And we have yet to discover if, in fact, it may be the worst thing that has hit humanity since the plagues of the Middle Ages which decimated a good part of the earth’s population. This pandemic could be that catastrophic. With all our scientific and technological advances, we are still saying we don’t know. How humbling for humanity! It is time to pray, not necessarily because we believe a miracle will happen, but because we can do nothing else.
Indeed, people are starting to make reference to God in a public way. It is hardly more specific than that—just God. We are not going to hear anything about the intercession of Mary, Mother of God, nor even about Jesus, Son of God. That is getting a bit too specific for our diverse society, our world of many religions and beliefs. At one time it may have been acceptable in Italy or France, the heartlands of Christianity generally and Catholicism in particular. In America, never. We are liberated, constitutionally. But even formerly proud Christian Europe doesn’t invoke its theological heritage anymore since it has become enlightened. If there is reference to the divine and spiritual life, it takes place in a setting of music and art, but not in the politics of our time.
When Pope Francis speaks in a public forum, there are two groups of people who are attentive to him and in two entirely different ways. There are the believers, mainly Roman Catholics, who will listen to him and understand to varying degrees what he is saying when he uses language particular to Catholics and perhaps Christians in general. Then there are the others who see and hear him, but his words don’t mean much to them. They don’t understand all of his terminology, yet many like him and what he is doing because they consider it a good thing for humanity. It’s nice. It’s quaint. It feels good. It’s the “right thing to do.”
Too often when clerical types are cast into the public arena, they are inadvertently inclined to use a restricted speech code. But the world speaks an elaborated speech code, in ideas and words that are common to most people. Everybody understands, even if they don’t agree. A restricted speech code is reserved to “in” groups, like Catholics, who might understand the meaning of the word sacrament, or titles such as “Our Lord” or the “Blessed Virgin.” When speaking to the public at large, however, church leaders must be sensitive to their audience and realize they need to be mindful about using restricted speech. Without that attentiveness, clergy will simply turn off a good portion of their potential audience, and the public summons to a higher moral standard than just another mundane “wringing of hands” will fall flat.
Today religion is seen as quaint, largely misunderstood, shunted off to the side as something that was useful at one time but is now obsolete. Perhaps we reintroduce elements of religion into our public discourse during moments of crisis such as the one we are facing now, but, for the most part, religious institutions have lost their sacredness, their mystery and wonder, their power to captivate people and their authority to turn heads and stir minds and heart.
Why is this? I propose that the concept of one’s “worldview” has a lot to do with what has happened, particularly in the age of instant communication. Our worldview today embraces all the things that we hold near and dear, that make us who we are in 2020: our hopes and dreams, our creative and inventive capacity as a species on planet earth, our idea of technology and what it can render, our idea of science and truth, our opinions of world leaders, globalization, nationalism, economics, politics, and the other key issues of our time. Worldview is the sum total, taken individually and collectively, of our values and what we hold to be true and good, right and just, for the conditions of our world at this historical moment.
Our worldview in 2020 says that everything is relative, changeable, and that there are, in fact, alternative facts; that truth is not truth without question and audible dissent. Our worldview throws everything into a time machine that says there are no God-given and earthbound absolutes. Divine law? No such thing. God did not decree certain things to be right and other things to be wrong. It is all relative depending on the time, place, and circumstances. Our worldview in 2020 ends with us being in total flux.
This is not the idea of a “worldview” espoused by the Roman Catholic Church or other religions that thrive on the past and that are dependent upon absolutes in their beliefs and practices. As Catholics, we must be true to who we are and what we believe in and still situate ourselves in the worldview of 2020. Can we do this without reducing everything to relativity and alternative facts? I believe we can. In our modern world, religion is the last port in a storm. We can put our good theology and moral teachings in modern dress so that the world might sit up and take notice and not just think that prayer is a “nice thing to do” in trying times.
The coronavirus has radically changed the lifestyle of our entire world. The global economy has fallen into a recession, but it is much more than that. People’s lives are totally disrupted, changed fundamentally. We are quarantined. Public entertainment is put on hold. Sports and other national pastimes have ended. Schools are closed and new methods of education are being attempted with tentative success. Parents are scared for their families’ welfare, financially and physically. Old people are convinced their time has come. Social distancing imposes barriers on our need for human interaction. Formerly simple tasks such as shopping and meal preparation take on new and difficult turns.
Can such a revolution in our lifestyle and all that we have taken for granted open us to deep and serious thought about our world? How can our military fight for us now? How will our national security teams protect us now? How will our defense systems come to our assistance? Can we remain “morally inarticulate” when the world that was swirling ever faster around us has suddenly stopped and we are forced to think more critically and reexamine our values?
Now it is a matter of survival. We are made to become men and women of spirit, and this new spirituality is about weighing what is important in life. Faith, hope, and love come into play here. In this time of crisis, these three things are left for us, and the greatest of them is love—for our families, for each other. To communicate this is to be morally articulate without wearing a red hat, a black soutane, a bishop’s cross, or white garments.
Gene Ciarlo is an ordained Catholic priest no longer in the active ministry. He lives and works in Vermont. He has been writing for Today’s American Catholic since the early days of its publication.