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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP addresses the Campion College Capital Dinner at Parliament House in Sydney’s CBD last week. The archbishop underscored the impoverished nature of studies in the humanities in Australia’s largely technocratic tertiary education sector - and highlighted the vital importance of Campion’s vision of seeking wisdom and truth. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP  Photo: Giovanni Portelli

In a prestigious speech in the US, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP has set out his vision for a renewal of faith in troubled times

“For Christianity to do great things for humanity again, it must recover its voice,” Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP has told attendees at the 35th Erasmus Lecture in New York City.

“We must ‘speak the truth in love’ boldly and in words and deeds. We must reject the privatisation and bracketing that would make it irrelevant.

“We must see the current chastisement of the Church as an opportunity for purification and a promise of resurrection.”

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The annual Erasmus Lecture is a long-standing initiative of the US journal of religion and public life First Things, and has attracted luminaries in religious life, law, the arts and politics.

Archbishop Fisher is the 35th Erasmus honouree, joining Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, and journalists Midge Decter and George Weigel, among others.

“Since the first Pentecost the Church’s ordinary rhythm has been growth and decay, purification and renewal. It has never been all light or all darkness.”

In his lecture on 24 October, The West: Post-Christian or Pre-Christian?, Archbishop Fisher outlined his wide-ranging vision of the Christian task in the midst of a world growing hostile to faith.

The claims that Christianity is in terminal decline, and that we now live in a post-Christian world, are overstated, Archbishop Fisher said.

“The aggression of some ex-Christians, neo-pagans and faux Christians towards real Christianity pays tribute to its continuing spiritual power.

“During the Diocletian Persecution of 303AD, all legal rights of Christians were rescinded, their churches razed, their worship banned, their clerics imprisoned, their members purged from the establishment, and many enslaved or executed. Christianity was doomed.”

Yet only a decade later the Constantinian “peace of the Church” was announced; such a pattern is observable throughout the Church’s history … Since the first Pentecost the Church’s ordinary rhythm has been growth and decay, purification and renewal. It has never been all light or all darkness,” Archbishop Fisher said.

While Christians do not wish for “political conflicts, culture wars, discrimination and institutional diminishment”, they are opportunities to witness to the Gospel.

Archbishop Fisher delivers the Erasmus Lecture in New York on 24 October. Screenshot: First Things Youtube Channel
Archbishop Fisher delivers the Erasmus Lecture in New York on 24 October. Screenshot: First Things Youtube Channel

“Only this kind of Christianity can honestly say it loves God and humanity and will go wherever God and humanity are, without fear of being sullied or bruised,” he said.

“Only such a Christianity can reunite a divided Church and culture, provide a foundation for a genuinely tolerant, pluralist society, and bring God and humanity closer together.

“When we do these things, we are not post-Christian, or pre-Christian, or insipidly pseudo-Christian. Amidst all the complexity, we are authentically Christian.”

Archbishop Fisher’s lecture drew on the depth and breadth of Catholic tradition: from St Peter, through Thomas Aquinas and Shakespeare, to modern scholars like Charles Taylor and Alasdair Macintyre.

He diagnosed the ways in which Western societies presently show evidence of overlapping pre-Christian, post-Christian and Christian modes of life.

“Globally, the numbers of non-religious are in rapid decline, predicted to plummet to one in eight by 2060.”

“What is consistent across the West is the rise of a totalising secularism that casts aside all previous settlements between church and state and seeks to achieve a comprehensively post-Christian reality,” Archbishop Fisher said.

“But is the trend towards irreligion inevitable, irreversible and complete?”

He cited several points to the contrary: the evidence of history, anthropology and divine revelation that “human beings are religious animals” who seek higher sources of meaning in life; the large numbers of religious adherents worldwide; and high rates of practice and resilience among believers.

Globally, the numbers of non-religious are in rapid decline, predicted to plummet to one in eight by 2060.

“Without being smug about it, the fact is that agnosticism and atheism are in graver danger of extinction than Christianity,” Archbishop Fisher said.

Post-Christian societies striving for secular social justice, equality and empathy are “arguably a kind of Christian society … an extension of Christianity as much as a rejection of it,” or even a kind of parasite on Christianity.

But the resilience of Christian ideas and institutions – not least of all our charitable works, schools and universities – is a sign of hope, the Archbishop continued.

“If so much of Christian inspiration still survives, there is a base upon which a Christian revival might yet be built.”

“In some places young adults are more regular in their practice and more devout than their parents.”

Archbishop Fisher also observed that alongside post-Christian elements, contemporary life also resembles the pre-Christian world of the 3rd Century in many key respects.

The return of Christian persecution is one such factor, together with the return of personal “gods” resembling the old Roman pantheon in our elevation of food, sex, greed, death and war to the status of private principles for life.

“The overlap between post-Christian, Christian and pre-Christian factors should lead us to question the assumption that the current age is a decline from a “golden Age of Faith”.”

“The ancient cult of violence and death is rhymed in modernity, and so it is we know our private gods, prosperity gods, power gods, pleasure gods and passing gods in pre-Christian 2022 as in pre-Christian 222.

“Are we talking 222 or 2022?” he asked.

The overlap between post-Christian, Christian and pre-Christian factors should lead us to question the assumption that the current age is a decline from a “golden Age of Faith”.

Citing the sociologist and critic of secularisation theory, Rodney Stark, Archbishop Fisher noted that “participation rates were, if anything, lower in medieval times than today and that periods of high engagement have been the exception”.

“For much of history what may have appeared to be Christian individuals, families and societies may have been only partially converted and still holding on to aspects of their pre-Christian heritage,” he said.

“I think of my relatives in the Basque country with garlics hanging all around to ward off evil spirits, and the men delivering their wives to church each Sunday and waiting for them in a bar, supposedly because God listens to women more than men.

Archbishop Fisher delivers the Erasmus Lecture in New York on 24 October. Screenshot: First Things Youtube Channel
Archbishop Fisher delivers the Erasmus Lecture in New York on 24 October. Screenshot: First Things Youtube Channel

“In many places Christianity seems to run only skin deep.”

Archbishop Fisher devoted the conclusion of his lecture to charting a way forward in a world where post-Christian, Christian and pre-Christian identities overlap in communities and individual lives.

“In calling the Church to a new evangelisation the post-conciliar popes highlighted three discrete target groups: the Gentes or unconverted as in every age, but also the converted whose faith must be reinforced against the challenges of modernity, and the diverted, who by baptism, family, institution or culture should be Christian but are rather disconnected,” he said.

“But we must also have in mind that the bulk of Westerners are at once part-converted, part-unconverted and part-diverted.

“They will need evangelical approaches that address all three dimensions of their spiritual identities and experience, and the incoherence and eclecticism.

“For Christianity to do great things for humanity again, it must recover its voice.”

“None is 100 per cent pure,” even among the agents of evangelisation, Archbishop Fisher added.

“This means both evangelisers and evangelees will need help recovering from excessive secular or pagan influence like those saved from cults.”

Most of all, “for Christianity to do great things for humanity again, it must recover its voice”, he concluded.

“To survive times like these will require: a robust desecularisation and depaganisation of some institutions and hearts; a clear-sighted, intelligent and fervent faith … a willingness to dialogue and collaborate with people who are more post- or pre-Christian than Christian; patience, fidelity, and hope to persevere through dark times;

“Above all, the grace of the Holy Spirit to whom we pray Come.”

The Erasmus Lecture is named for the 15th Century Dutch philosopher and Catholic theologian who is considered one of the greatest scholars of his age.

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