Among committed Christians of all kinds, Catholic and otherwise, it is not uncommon to hear predictions of a “coming persecution of the Church in the West.” Such talk is not limited to the fringes: the prospect is raised by prominent and respectable voices, based on the study of cultural and historical trends.
At times I have tended toward this kind of thinking myself. Lately, however, I have grown less concerned about the prospect of persecution. I am more concerned about a different and arguably more serious threat facing the Church in Western nations.
This threat is isolation. We are at risk of a twofold isolation: isolation of believers from each other, through the erosion of Christian community; and the isolation of Christians from non-believers and members of other religions, through growing alienation and mutual incomprehension.
At first glance, this scenario may not seem worse than persecution. Some may ask:Couldn’t the forces of aggressive secularism, and ideological conformity, lay waste to many of the Church’s ministries and threaten the public expression of our faith? Isn’t that the gravest danger today?
Those scenarios are possible, and my purpose is not to attack those who put their focus there. Still, I believe the most serious threat for Christians will not come from outside.
We will become our own worst enemies, if we let the Church’s communal dimension disintegrate, in favor of a fragmented association of individualistic “spiritual consumers” whose supposed unity is mainly external and institutional.
Likewise, we will lose touch with the Church’s very reason for being – the announcement of the Gospel to all creation, in word and act – if we allow our relationship with the world to become an unfruitful stalemate, defined by ideological gridlock and sloganeering crosstalk.
The Church does have enemies. But the forces that truly choke the Church, and destroy faith, are not the forces of external opposition.
Historical and global evidence suggests that a true persecution of Christians in the West – as distinct from the relatively small instances of unjust discrimination we now see – would not cause faith to die out, or the Church’s vitality to wither. The opposite is probably true.
The worst threats to faith are spiritual: apathy, isolation, joylessness; mistrust, a lack of love, mutual incomprehension. These threats combine into what I see as our worst-case scenario: a drifting-away from each other, and the outside world, on the part of those still abstractly and theoretically committed to God.