Reading “How the West Really Lost God” as a Catholic

It seems to me, three years after the publication of Mary Eberstadt's How the West Really Lost God, that this book has not gotten the attention it deserves. Because it drove me to read Humanae Vitae, the encyclical which God used to plunge me into the deep truths of the Catholic faith, it is fitting to complete the circle by reviewing it again, this time as a Catholic.

Mary Eberstadt takes all the secularization theories head on: religion as comfort lost with the rise of education and posterity, the eclipse of Christianity by science and rationalism, the enlightenment, the wars, material progress, urbanization, and the industrial revolution. She exposes them for what they are, inadequate partial truths of the reality we are facing in the West—the decline of the Christian religion, and the diminishing of the family. The wise Catholic thinker that she is, she does not throw these secularization theories completely out the window. She justly shows where they are useful, and where they contribute to our understanding of our predicament, but in toto they are deficient, and cannot fully account for our real-life observations—families are disintegrating before our very eyes.

But How the West Really Lost God is not just a regurgitation of the secularization theories with some analysis thrown in. Eberstadt is an insightful social analyst who is offering a substantial development to our modern woes. Namely, that the decline of the family is not only a consequence of the decline of religion, although it is that; it is also the cause of the decline of religion. Using the metaphor of a DNA-like double helix she shows how faith and family are tethered such that a rise in one gives rise to the other, and a decline in one creates a decline in the other.

Families across the West are less religious today because they are less familial. The path to this erosion was paved by all the culprits our culture views as liberating: abortion on demand, the Pill, no-fault divorce, cohabitation, births outside of marriage, and so on. It is not that religion declined and so people shed traditional mores which in turn disordered marriage and family. Rather they feed off each other, and Eberstadt seems to make the case that the final cause may well be the defamilialization of the family.

Defamilialization didn't arise ex nihilo in 1960 with the proliferation of the Pill. Eberstadt shows through the historical record that it can be traced back to the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers de-sacramentalized marriage and called for a transfer of jurisdiction from the Church to the civil magistrate. Granted, the reformers may never have dreamed that one day the “civil magistrate” would be someone like Justice Anthony Kennedy, but they rejected the Church's teaching that it was a sacrament. John Calvin goes so far as to equate marriage with barbering and farming. He writes in the Institutes of the Christian Religion:

“All men admit that it was instituted by God but no man had ever seen it administered as a sacrament until the time of Gregory. And what sober man would ever have thought it such? Marriage is a good and holy ordinance of God; and farming, building, cobbling, and barbering are lawful ordinances of God, and yet are not sacraments. For it is required that a sacrament be not only a work of God but an outward ceremony appointed by God to confirm a promise. Even children will discern that there is no such thing in matrimony.”

Through de-sacramentalization, the door was opened in the Protestant world for divorce, and although it was unintended, it led over time to weakening the ties between the family members, and between the family and church. This decline steepened after the Lambeth Conference of 1930, where in Resolution 15 Anglicans made an exception giving married couples under certain circumstances permission to use artificial contraception. Even though there are Protestant micro-denominations here and there which still hold to the Biblical mandate on the indissolubility of marriage and who encourage their congregations to be fruitful and multiply, overall, the vast majority of the Protestant world allows for divorce and use of artificial contraception.

Many conservative Protestant brethren work tirelessly to strengthen marriage and family in our culture—their effort is to be commended—yet there remains an internal inconsistency. One can see this by the rise of “Progressive Christianity.” Progressive Christianity is the logical daughter of those reforms which began with Luther and Calvin; because no matter where one group tries to hold the line, the question still remains and will be asked by someone: “By what authority?” And so Progressive Christians now ask their conservative Protestant counterparts “by what authority can you tell me that women can't be priests?” “By what authority can you tell me that two people of the same sex can't marry if they love each other?” Because once marriage becomes no more sacred than farming or barbering, once the civil magistrate has jurisdiction over it, then it is no longer what the Church, since the time of the Apostles has been saying it is: An indissoluble sacrament given by God to man for the begetting of children. Without this institution understood in this way, there is no family, there is only atomized persons making contracts living together until one of them decides they no longer like it.

One of the primary goods of Mary Eberstadt's book, How the West Really Lost God, should be to open a dialogue between Catholics and Protestants on the sacramentality of marriage. At what point will Protestants see the need to look at their theology and reconsider the sacramentality of marriage? I don't know the answer to that question. A recent change by the publishers of the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible on Genesis 3:16, Crossway the publishing company retranslated this verse to be in line with their belief that women are subordinate to men.

They changed this:

“I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

To this:

“...[Y]our desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”

The Protestants have their own internal wars going on. But in light of this move—changing translation to suit their theology—I do not foresee the required humility needed to reconsider the sacramentality of marriage.

I've annotated many books in my life, but not one made me want to argue back as much as this one. It is the internal struggle I went through while reading this book which brought me to the point of wanting to hear what the Roman Catholic Church had to say—about everything. Get yourself a copy of How the West Really Lost God, God used it to bring me to the Catholic faith. May he use it to open your eyes.

Luma Simms