The following excerpt is from a 2001 conversation with Dr. Alice von Hildebrand. The focus of the conversation was The Crisis in the Church: Scenarios for a Solution. Dr. von Hildebrand, professor of philosophy emeritus of Hunter College (City University of New York), had just completed The Soul of a Lion, a biography of her husband, Dietrich.
TLM: Did your husband think that the decline in a sense of the supernatural began around that time, and if so, how did he explain it?
Dr. Alice von Hildebrand: No, he believed that after Pius X’s condemnation of the heresy of Modernism, its proponents merely went underground. He would say that they then took a much more subtle and practical approach. They spread doubt simply by raising questions about the great supernatural interventions throughout salvation history, such as the Virgin Birth and Our Lady’s perpetual virginity, as well as the Resurrection, and the Holy Eucharist. They knew that once faith – the foundation – totters, the liturgy and the moral teachings of the Church would follow suit. My husband entitled one of his books The Devastated Vineyard. After Vatican II, a tornado seemed to have hit the Church.
Modernism itself was the fruit of the calamity of the Renaissance and the Protestant Revolt, and it took a long historical process to unfold. If you were to ask a typical Catholic in the Middle Ages to name a hero or heroine, he would answer with the name of a saint. The Renaissance began to change that. Instead of a saint, people would think of geniuses as persons to emulate, and with the oncoming of the industrial age, they would answer with the name of a great scientist. Today, they would answer with a sports figure or cinema personality. In other words, the loss of the sense of the supernatural has brought an inversion of the hierarchy of values.
Even the pagan Plato was open to a sense of the supernatural. He spoke of the weakness, frailty and cowardice often evidenced in human nature. He was asked by a critic to explain why he had such a low opinion of humanity. He replied that he was not denigrating man, only comparing him to God.
With the loss of a sense of the supernatural, there is a loss of the sense of a need for sacrifice today. The closer one comes to God, the greater should be one’s sense of sinfulness. The further one gets from God, as today, the more we hear the philosophy of the new age: “I’m OK, You’re OK.” This loss of the inclination to sacrifice has led to the obscuring of the Church’s redemptive mission. Where the Cross is downplayed, our need for redemption is given hardly a thought.
The aversion to sacrifice and redemption has assisted the secularization of the Church from within. We have been hearing for many years from priests and bishops about the need for the Church to adapt herself to the world. Great popes like St. Pius X said just the opposite: the world must adapt itself to the Church.