Reading through Augustine’s City of God, one inevitably begins to draw parallels between the Fall of Rome to the Descent of the West in modern times. Catholics might also see similarities between the ancient Fall of Secular Rome and the Auto-Demolition of Catholic Rome in the last half-century. As Rome’s glory was unceremoniously snuffed out, the finger-pointing began in great earnest. Those attached to the previous religious tradition (so to speak) accused the newfangled Christians of removing the supernatural protection that Rome had once enjoyed from the pagan deities. Augustine calmly explains that Rome had experienced many such calamities at the time when Terminus and Jupiter supposedly protected her from all harm, and exposes the inanities of the neo-pagans’ nostalgia.
More realistically, attributing the cause of the Fall of Rome was not as simple as pointing to this or that religious cult. Augustine notes that God sometimes allows the destruction of worldly kingdoms as an opportunity for their citizens to detach themselves from the world and to begin attaching to the heavenly kingdom. He also suggests, in keeping with the more ancient Hebrew prophets, that the sins of the citizens may cry out for vengeance so much that their kingdom is taken from them utterly.
I don’t wish to go too far in comparing the neo-pagans of Augustine’s time with the traditionalists of today, but it cannot be denied that Tradistan is popularly an eclectic museum of half-baked devotions and ideas that are mistakenly thought to have composed the foundation of a vigorous and stable religious society. The way back is not necessarily the way forward, and the Tradistani belief in the restorative power of St. Joseph Feast Day Celebrations (sponsored by the parish homeschool group), Creationism Seminars, and the mere celebration of the Latin Mass is evidence that there is a fundamental failure to build a culture based on reality.
St. Augustine was no crude triumphalist, except in the belief that the City of God would prevail eternally while the City of Man would finally crumble into futility. He had no particular illusions about the earthly glory of the Church, and was quick to point the blame at least in part at Christians:
What, then, have the Christians suffered in that calamitous period, which would not profit every one who duly and faithfully considered the following circumstances? First of all, they must humbly consider those very sins which have provoked God to fill the world with such terrible disasters; for although they be far from the excesses of wicked, immoral, and ungodly men, yet they do not judge themselves so clean removed from all faults as to be too good to suffer for these even temporal ills. For every man, however laudably he lives, yet yields in some points to the lust of the flesh. Though he do not fall into gross enormity of wickedness, and abandoned viciousness, and abominable profanity, yet he slips into some sins, either rarely or so much the more frequently as the sins seem of less account. (i.9)The contraceptive practices, for instance, of Western Catholics mimics the rest of the world, and our own population collapse is as inevitable as the world’s. It might be that traditionalist Catholics “win” the liturgical wars simply because we are the only ones bearing and rearing children, but it will surely be a Pyrrhic victory. “How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people,” Jeremiah laments. Christians are suffering the judgment that is coming upon the world because we sin just like the rest of them.
There are no winners in the finger-pointing game of Catholicism’s collapse. Humility, penance, and friendship are the only ways forward towards rebuilding. We could certainly do with a new Augustine to provide us with a fresh vision of the City of God for today’s Catholic, as well.