We live in turbulent times. The outbreak of war in Europe has radically undermined the diplomatic structures that were put in place after the horrors of the Second World War to prevent such conflicts happening again. A fragile world order was shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the return of war in Europe has destabilized this order even more. In Africa, entire nations are being pushed to the brink of starvation caused by climate change as once fertile lands that produced food are slowly becoming desert. We are divided politically, economically, and ideologically over issues such as immigration, abortion, and gender, to name but a few. The widespread availability and use of illegal drugs continue to destroy lives and families, corroding civilization.
If all this sounds grim, I do apologize. Yet we Christians need to see reality with eyes wide open and carefully observe the cultural changes in progress around us. This includes an honest acknowledgment of the disorder we see unfolding. Whether we believe or don’t, we all have to interpret what is happening in our world and ask ourselves why things are happening as they are. This interpretation will influence how we respond.
A secular response to this time of disorder might employ policies of containment, accommodation, and restoration. Containment might be a collective effort to minimize the negative effects of disorder through enforcement and control. Accommodation seeks to keep everybody happy. The restoration approach seeks to get things back on track and try to restore the order that existed before things began to fall apart.
For Christians who believe in God’s presence and action in the world, responses of containment, accommodation, and restoration to social disorder are not sufficient on their own. We must interpret a time of disorder through a different lens. For us, this lens is always the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, what we call the “Paschal Mystery.” This means that in some mysterious way, the increasing disorder in the world is part of a wider and hidden drama of reordering of God’s creation and a movement towards right ordering as God intended. As we pray in these days of Easter at Mass: “For with the old order destroyed a universe cast down is renewed and integrity of life restored to us in Christ.”
When we prayerfully read the Gospels, we see that this three-fold drama of disorder, reorder, and right order began with Christ himself. As Bishop Barron reminds us: “In a world gone wrong, there is no communion without sacrifice. Since the world has been twisted out of shape, it can be straightened only through a painful process of reconfiguration” (Centered: The Spirituality of Word on Fire, 64).
This was the right order for which Christ labored, suffered, and died—to “unite all things in himself, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10). Ironically, he was killed by those who desperately sought to maintain the order over which they presided. Yet this was an order that could not hold, for it was not underpinned by justice, truth, and right praise. For Christ to accomplish his mission of restoration of all things in himself, the old order needed to be dismantled first. That is why Jesus’ message was so subversive, because his enemies rightly intuited that he was a threat to their control of the existing status quo.
We see this in the events that led to his condemnation and death. When the teaching and actions of Jesus began to undermine the control of the existing order held by the Romans and Jews, Caiaphas the high priest, famously proposed: “It is better for one man to die for the people rather than the whole nation should perish” (John 11:50). In the end, Jesus’ innocence and the truth of his teaching were irrelevant. What mattered was to maintain the man-made order, even if it meant scapegoating an innocent man and shedding his blood.
The deep irony of this episode from the Gospel of John is that Christ’s death failed miserably to do that. The truth Christ proclaimed burst out of the tomb with him and led to a reordering of a new faith community along the lines of communion, harmony, and the peace that was the fruit of right worship and praise. We see this in the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles, where the Christian community distinguished itself by its harmony and unity brought about by prayer, adherence to the teaching of the Apostles, fraternity, and the celebration of the Eucharist (Acts 2:42). This was the vocation of the Church—to be a collective sign and instrument of God’s reordering of a world that had gone off track. In the words of St. Augustine, the Church was and is meant to be a home marked by the tranquilitas ordinis (“the tranquility of order”) (City of God, 19, 14). This continues to be her vocation today.
At a time of disorder in our world, it is important to remember this. In the eyes of the world, the Catholic Church is out of step with its thinking on a whole range of issues and stubbornly refuses to endorse a worldly order whose foundations are built on sand. These shallow foundations include containment, accommodating the wishes of as many as possible, and getting back to where we were before. It is an order that is fragile and vulnerable to instability because it is held together not by truth, justice, and righteousness, but by a fragile consensus of a fickle crowd.
We lament the disorder that causes suffering, but it is a natural consequence for a world that progressively denies that any natural order exists. If we continue with a steady deconstructionism of nature and deny the inherent order inscribed in God’s creation, deceiving ourselves by thinking are no consequences to this process, then sooner or later, things will begin to come apart. In the words of the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, the center cannot hold.
This is a time for the Church to hold its nerve more than ever. The truth of Christ and his Gospel impels us to build a world order held together not by consensus or vested interests but by the peace “fashioned by efforts directed day after day towards the establishment of the ordered universe willed by God with a more perfect form of justice among men and women” (St. Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, 76). In the words of the Catechism, this order is founded on the deep foundations of “truth, built up in justice and animated by love” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1912). It is an order that respects human nature and how that nature harmonizes within itself and in relation to the world around us. In the words of St. John Paul II, attention to and respect for this natural order must take place: “One must take into account the nature of each being and its mutual connection in an ordered system, which is precisely the cosmos’ (Sollicitudo Socialis, 34). He added: “It falls to humanity to discover the order within creation and to heed this order, bringing it to fulfillment. . . . In Jesus Christ, the visible world made through him recovers again its original link with the divine source of wisdom and love” (Redemptoris hominis, 8).
The disorder we see in the world is painful, but our hope remains that the Church can interpret this time as an opportunity to be an instrument and example of a new ordering of humanity and creation, animated by the spirit of the risen Christ, in a way that models how God intended the world to be.