As recently as 50 years ago, it was still a serious criminal offence punishable by up to life in prison for anyone in Britain, Canada or the United States to commit an abortion. And much the same was true everywhere else in Western Europe where stringent laws protected human life in the womb
Today, of course, that is no longer the case: Over the past few decades, every European and North American country has legalized abortion – nowhere to a greater degree than in Canada – and most have also overturned ancient legal prohibitions on rampant divorce, adultery, euthanasia, assisted suicide and same-sex “marriage.”
What accounts for this sudden revolution in these vital, life-affirming and family-enhancing laws that for centuries, underpinned our Western civilization? The main factor is a widespread collapse in Christian faith.
In 1776, there was virtually universal support for the traditional principles of Judeo-Christian morality when the authors of the United States Declaration of Independence asserted as self-evident truths that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with an inalienable right to life. Today, these truths are still truths, but they are no longer self-evident to vast numbers of people in the United States and elsewhere who reject that most fundamental of Christian moral principles – the sanctity of all human life.
And that goes not just for atheists and agnostics, but also for millions of self-styled progressive Christians such as members of the United Church of Canada. In an exultant recent report on a survey of the moral views of the Church’s rapidly declining membership, the United Church Observer related: “After decades of activism for greater abortion access and same-sex ‘marriage’ by the denomination’s leadership, churchgoing United Church members are far more likely to support physician-assisted suicide, abortion, and embryonic stem cell research than Canadians at large.” Quite so.
Such heretical teaching has even infected the Catholic Church. For example, in Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought, a study commissioned by the Catholic Theological Society of America and published in 1977, the Society officially stated that, “All else being equal, a homosexual couple engaging in homosexual acts in good conscience has the same rights of conscience and the same rights to the sacraments as a married couple practising birth control in good conscience.”
Shortly after taking office in 1978, Pope Saint John Paul II managed to curtail the publication of such heretical views under the aegis of the Catholic Church. Then in 1993, he followed up by proceeding in collaboration with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), to expound the traditional principles of Judeo-Christian morality in an intellectually brilliant and altogether persuasive encyclical The Splendor of Truth, which can still be read with profit by Catholics, Protestants and Evangelicals alike.
Nonetheless, membership in almost all segments of the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church in Canada, the United States and Western Europe continues to collapse. What should remaining Christians do? Give up in despair?
Certainly not. The church has survived much worse crises before. One of the more recent striking incidents is the virtual collapse of orthodox Christianity during the Nazi era in Germany. In Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World, Charles Chaput, the exceptionally brilliant Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia, recalls how “the great Lutheran theologian” and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer heroically resisted to the point of martyrdom the “tepid Christianity” of his time in Nazi Germany.
“For Bonhoeffer, faith was not an academic discipline, or a personal hobby, or a collection of useful wisdom,” states Archbishop Chaput. “It was the engine that powered his life. And so it needs to be with us.” He further argues, “Knowing ‘about’ Jesus Christ is not enough, we need to engage him with our whole lives.” And that means “fighting death and fear with joy and life, one family at a time, with families sustaining one another against the temptations of weariness and resentment.”
Throughout, Archbishop Chaput admonishes the faithful never to flag or fail in proposing Christian truth to others. But in doing so, he warns, Christians should never proceed in a spirit of bitterness or self-righteous judgment. Instead, he urges the faithful to heed the advice of the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, the great Christian theologian and founding editor of the ecumenical journal First Things, who never tired of saying that in striving to bring others to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, the Church must always make her proposal “winsomely, persuasively, and persistently, like a lover to the beloved.”