Two weeks ago, I was privileged to participate in the plenary meeting of the Pontifical Council for Culture. This curial department, led by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, concerns itself with the interface between the faith and the many facets of the contemporary culture. I had been asked to share some insights gleaned from the work that I do in my Word on Fire media ministry. The opening session of the meeting took place in a sumptuous room in a palazzo on the Campidoglio, the symbolic center of the city of Rome. That evening, we heard from a representative of French television and a professor of film at the Pontifical Gregorian University.
My favorite movie is “A Man For All Seasons,” a film based on the Robert Bolt play of the same name. I first saw it when I was in high school, and I’ve watched it at least once a year every year since then. When I was teaching full time at the seminary, I would show it to my students, and on June 22nd, I would offer a screening to my fellow faculty members. That date, of course, is not accidental, for it is the feast day of the great St. Thomas More, with whose final years the movie deals.
The Catholic Church is suffering mightily today from two self-inflicted wounds. The first is the clerical sex abuse scandal, involving the gross violation of the most vulnerable members of the community by some priests and the countenancing or enabling of this crime by some bishops. This outrage has been the perfect storm. Not only has it deeply wounded young people; it has also compromised the work of the church in almost every way, since it has undermined so thoroughly the credibility that the church requires in order to teach, preach, catechize, and evangelize. If you had asked me twenty years ago what the worst moment in American Catholic history was, I would have identified the mid nineteenth century, when anti-Catholic bigots were burning down convents, attacking priests, and organizing political parties whose purpose was the elimination of Catholicism on these shores. But now I would say that we are living, right now, through the worst moment in American Catholic history.
Lord Kenneth Clark is one of my intellectual heroes. Clark, who died in 1983, was for many years the director of the National Gallery in London and was generally recognized as one of the most insightful and influential art critics of the twentieth century. He burst into the popular consciousness in 1969 when his television program “Civilisation: A Personal View” became an unexpected international sensation. I watched this ten part series (and devoured the accompanying book) when I was a teen-ager, and Clark’s perspectives massively shaped my own thinking about history, aesthetics, and philosophy. When, a few years ago, I embarked on the production of a ten part documentary about Catholicism, emphasizing both the truth and the artistic beauty of the church, Kenneth Clark was my model and inspiration.
I had the privilege just a few nights ago to address the annual Iftar Dinner which was held at the Islamic Cultural Center in Niles. This event—at the heart of which is a festive meal signaling the end of the daily Ramadan fast—brings Christians and Muslims together for fellowship, prayer, and conversation. I had been asked to reflect briefly on the topic of the future of religion in America. Given my religiously mixed audience, I decided to speak on the responsibility that all people of faith have in the presence of the growing threat of ideological secularism in our society. A 2008 Pew Forum study showed that the fastest-growing “religious” denomination in American is the “nones,” those who claim no formal religious affiliation. It furthermore showed that there is no substantial difference in the attitudes of believers and non-believers in regard to a wide range of moral and political issues. What both of these data indicate is that secularism—the conviction that God, even if he exists, doesn’t much matter—is on the rise.