A recent poll in the New York Times found that a significant majority self professed Catholics claim that the Catholic Church is "out of touch" with the world (1). The complaint is hardly a new one as modern man demands that the Church be in touch with his needs, wants, and desires. He wants contraception, divorce, same-sex marriage. He wants to be his own standard of truth and his own yardstick. The Church, the complaint runs, should get out of the dark ages and get with the times.
The complaint is hardly new. The Church has been out of touch with the world before and she will be again. Ancient Rome, for instance, commonly practiced infanticide. The pater familias had the power of life and death over his family and he exercised it; hence infant girls in particular were being exposed in remarkable numbers. Opposing this infanticide, as well as divorce and adultery, the Church was "out of touch" with the world. Later too, the Church opposed slavery in a world that demanded it. The Church was out of touch; slavery was an economic "necessity." This did not stop Pope Paul III from forbidding it as he wrote,
We…noting that the Indians themselves indeed are true men…by our Apostolic Authority decree and declare by these present letters that the same Indians and all other peoples—even though they are outside the faith…should not be deprived of their liberty or their other possessions…and are not to be reduced to slavery, and that whatever happens to the contrary is to be considered null and void (2).
The Church in both cases was out of touch with the world, and thank God it was.
If the Church has been out of touch with the world, this is hardly surprising. God Himself, when he walked the Earth, was out of touch with the world. When the world demanded it let it stone the woman caught in adultery, He told the man without sin to cast the first stone. When He ate with tax collectors and sinners, healed the sick on the Sabbath, and forbade divorce, He was out of touch with the world. And so the world crucified Him, for it could not stand a God who was not in touch with the spirit of the world.
If the Church is out of touch with the spirit of the world, it is because it is in touch with the Spirit of God, Who also was "out of touch" with the world. For this reason, Fulton Sheen wrote,
Look for the Church that is hated by the world, as Christ was hated by the world. Look for the Church which is accused of being behind the times, as Our Lord was accused of being ignorant and never having learned... Look for the Church which is rejected by the world as Our Lord was rejected by men... and the suspicion will grow, that if the Church is unpopular with the spirit of the world, then it is unworldly, and if it is unworldly, it is other-worldly... and therefore is divine (3).
Elsewhere Fulton Sheen warned against the man would marry himself to the spirit of the age for, he said, "to marry the spirit of the age, is to be a widow in the next." The Church, though, is not married to the spirit of the age but to God and she will never be a widow. Nor will she simply "go with the flow." Chesterton wrote that "a dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it." Civilizations, cultures, and empires have risen and fallen; even Rome lasted a thousand years, but fell in the end; so too all the rest, one dead thing after another, in touch with the world, going with the flow, swept off in the stream. But through it, the Church remains, writing the epitaph of one civilization after another, out of touch with a passing world, because she is in touch with an eternal one.
If the Church is out of touch with the world, it is only because the world is out of touch with God; so much the worse for the world.
(1) http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/06/us/poll-shows-disconnect-between-us-catholics-and-church.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0(3) http://www.radioreplies.info/vol-1-preface.php