Putting aside all politics for one moment, the most irritating and (unfortunately) enduring part of President Obama’s rhetoric will be the phrase “Wrong Side of History.” Repeatedly, and to great effect, Obama invoked this phrase. History is somehow predetermined to unfold in an increasingly progressive, global, and egalitarian direction. Obama is not alone in believing in the irresistible forces of history. Marx famously believed that capitalism was just a phase of human history which would make way for communism. In many ways, many Americans believe in the “right side of history” — that all societies are progressing towards liberal democracy and capitalism.
So-called progressives have adopted Obama’s phrase to support all sorts of causes. The “wrong side of history” is an easy way to dismiss opponents. It places them in the unenviable position of fighting against inevitability. If a result is inevitable, you are a fool for fighting against it. And after it’s done, you will be remembered with pity at best and disdain at worst. Plus the “wrong side of history” provides a moral veneer to otherwise amoral (or immoral) causes.
I write about the “wrong side of history” because it is a seductive argument, especially for the Church. You look at falling rates of religiosity, especially in young people. You look at Catholic churches and schools closing, parishes consolidating, and priests being shared by multiple parishes. You look at polls regarding how many nominal Catholics don’t believe in the moral teachings of the Church. You see falling birth rates and lower rates of marriage. It’s hard not to consider these facts and think that the Church is being swept away by secularized society. It can be easy to conclude that faithful Catholics are on the “wrong side of history.”
I want to challenge this type of thinking. It’s easy to forget the Church’s history. The common misconception is that once Constantine came along, everything was fine for the Church until the Reformation, and even after that things weren’t so bad. But in truth, the Church faced serious cultural and political threats to its existence over its entire history.
Throughout its history, the Church faced numerous heresies, schisms, and controversies. Arianism, Gnosticism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, Pelagianism, the Great Schism, Catharism, to name but a few. Political foes and violent opposition punctuate the Church’s history. Pagan and Arian barbarians invaded lands and sacked cities. Pope St. Leo the Great stared down Attila the Hun as Rome fell. Vikings wreaked havoc throughout Europe, destroying monasteries and farms. Islam conquered Spain and threatened to conquer France, only to be beaten back by Charles Martel. The Siege of Vienna and the Battle of Lepanto. The French Revolution. Kulturkampf. Freemasonry. Communism. Any of these struggles would have led a contemporary observer to question whether the Church was on the “wrong side of history.”
Despite these challenges, the Church has survived. When we consider the relative peace and prosperity of American Catholicism in the 20th Century, it can lull us into a sense of complacency. And it can make it seem that the recent numbers are a sign of inevitable decline. But like Christians before us, it is up to us to fight to preserve our faith and tradition.
There is no “wrong side of history” as described by progressives. History is what we make it. It will take time and it will take effort. It may require pain, sacrifice, and persecution. But we can make the future whatever we want it to be. In fact, the “wrong side of history” is occupied by those who stand against Jesus Christ and His Church.