The Contempt of the World

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The Dobbs decision brings the antagonism between the Church and the world into stark relief.

Thomas à Kempis, author of the 15th-century classic The Imitation of Christ, wrote that for the Christian, “it is sweet to despise the world and to serve God.” Pro-abortion activists have made it clear that the hatred runs both ways.

In the run-up to and the immediate aftermath of the Court’s decision in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health, pro-abortion activists have defaced Catholic churches across the country. Rioters have stolen tabernacles and decapitated statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Pro-abortion protestors vandalized a church in Virginia and left what appeared to be an accelerant-laced fire in a nearby mulch bed. St. Colman Catholic Church in Shady Spring, West Virginia, was burned to the ground in an apparent act of arson.

I do not wish to claim that Catholics are being “persecuted”; American Christians have an exaggerated sense of victimhood, and their persecution, such as it is, pales in comparison to that of Christians in the Islamic world or Christians in the Church’s early centuries. I do think, however, that the reaction to the Dobbs decision and the sense among both its supporters and opponents that Christianity lies at the heart of the abortion debate points to the intractable divide between Christianity and the world, which endures in spite of progressive Christians’ efforts to capitulate to the spirit of the age.

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There is an old idea within the Catholic intellectual tradition called contemptus mundi—contempt of the world. It denotes the believer’s obligation to spurn the temporal world for higher things. Scripture makes clear that the “contempt” comes from the other direction, too. Christ warns the disciples that “the world” may hate them as it hated Him. The Pauline epistles are laced with warnings about the dangers and wickedness of “the world.” Even Christ’s call to be “in the world,” but not “of the world” presupposes an antagonism between the temporal world and authentic Christian faith.

Some Christians reject the notion that this antagonism persists in liberal modernity is rejected by some Christians. They think  the modern world is basically good and praiseworthy. They insist that if a tension exists between the Church and modernity, it is the Church that must change.

This view dominates segments of organized Christianity. You can hardly drive by a mainline Protestant church in the United States without seeing a gay pride flag. Even the Catholic Church, famously antipathetic to the world and its princes, softened its posture considerably after the Second Vatican Council. As the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano wrote in 1974, the modern Church has been eager to find “points of convergence between the Church’s thinking and the mentality characteristic of our time,” and administer, in the words of Pope John XXIII, “the medicine of mercy rather than severity.”

But the Catholic Church, however mealy-mouthed its prelates, has never wavered at the institutional level on the issue of abortion. And since abortion is the central sacrament of liberal modernity—representing as it does the complete freedom of the individual against unchosen obligations—the Church finds herself the natural and inevitable object of the world’s hatred. This antipathy between the Church and the world has endured across generations, because, as the Swiss-Italian theologian Romano Amerio observed, the Church insists upon those virtues most deficient in each era:

One can therefore conclude to a general rule that while Catholicism’s antagonism to the world is unchanging, the forms of the antagonism change when the state of the world requires a change in that opposition to be declared and maintained on particular points of belief or in particular historical circumstances. Thus the Church exalts poverty when the world (and the Church herself) worships riches, mortification of the flesh when the world follows the enticements of the three appetites, reason when the world turns to illogicality and sentimentalism, faith when the world is swollen with the pride of knowledge.

Amerio points to the thirteenth century, when the Church confronted “violence and greed” with the “spirit of meekness and poverty in the great Fransiscan movement,” and the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the Church responded to the modernism crisis by “condemning the principle of the independence of reason.” It is why the Church today is accused of being “obsessed” with sexuality; the world insists that the Church’s teaching is wrong, and the Church insists, with equal vigor, that she is right.

So as churches are defaced in response to the Court’s ruling in Dobbs, the proper response is not, as some progressive Christians have done, to insist that the overturn of Roe is a “bastardization” of Christianity, that Jesus Christ would have been fine with abortion, and that the Church must change to meet the demands of the times. Neither is the proper response to whine and whimper on social media about the “persecution” of Christians. The proper response is the one Kempis identified in the apostles: “they had their conversation in this world blameless, so humble and meek, without any malice or deceit, that they even rejoiced to suffer rebukes for Thy Name’s sake, and what things the world hateth, they embraced with great joy.”

Instead of complaining on television or adapting ourselves to the spirit of the age, Christians ought to consider that if the world doesn’t hate us, we might be doing it wrong.

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