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Shea: Utopianism leads to dystopia

The following story appeared in the February 10 Idaho Catholic Register.

Monsignor James Shea, president of the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, spoke to Idaho Catholic men about the challenges the Church faces in a post-Christian era and how, with the help of Church in heaven, we respond. The annual men’s conference is brought to the Diocese by Salt & Light Catholic Radio. (ICR photo/Michael Carbone)

A perfect Church won’t happen this side of heaven. Until then, the Saints will carry us

By Gene Fadness


Monsignor James Shea is an intellectual. He is, after all, the youngest man to become president of an American university or college in the modern era. He was the first to admit that the address he delivered to the Idaho Catholic Men’s Conference on Feb. 4 was not entertaining. After explaining the differing interpretations of the Second Vatican Council, Shea deadpanned, “Isn’t this boring? It’s so dry!”

It was not. There is a difference between entertaining and informative, even inspiring. His nearly hour-long discourse about the divisions in the Church and how we – and saints historically – have responded to those divisions in ages past had every man in the 800-man audience at St. Paul’s Church in Nampa – and, very likely, 200 or so men watching online – absolutely riveted. It mattered not whether the listener was a professional, a farmer, a cleric or a laborer. It was as Salt & Light Radio executive director Keith Pettyjohn described it a “tour de force.”

Pettyjohn would know. For more than a decade, he has been on the ground floor of planning the annual conference, brought to Idaho by Salt & Light Radio. Conference planners have brought in well-known names on the Catholic circuit including Father Don Calloway, Father Larry Richards, Patrick Coffin, Patrick Madrid and Father Mike Schmitz, among others. All have been well received, but few, if any, carried the impact and gravitas as the message brought by the university president from the University of Mary on the North Dakota plains. The Monsignor’s words resonated with so many because he addressed questions, even anxieties, that have been at the forefront of so many Catholic minds and hearts over the past decade or longer: Why so much division and scandal in the Church? Why so much anger and fighting? Will the Church survive?

The daylong conference included other impressive speakers including Major League baseball’s Mike Sweeney and Bishop Peter Christensen. Because of the import of Monsignor Shea’s message and space limitations, the Idaho Catholic Register will provide a more in-depth report of his remarks in this issue and report on the rest of the conference in our Feb. 24 edition.

The futility of utopia in a fallen world

Shea began his remarks with a comment about the key period of history in which we live. “There are some moments in human history when you can draw a bright line between everything that’s happened be-fore and everything that’s coming afterward, and we are living in such a time.” Church and society have moved from a culture based on Christendom “into a new apostolic age when Christendom is over,” he said. The culture of today is not unlike that of the apostles who were preaching to a secular or pagan world. Shea quoted Pope Francis who said, “We do not live in an age of change, but in a change of age.”

“We live in a moment when everything is shifting with seismic, dramatic and epic changes” Shea said. “If we don’t notice what’s happening, we will find devastation in our wake. But, if we do, as believers in every age have done, then we will carry the flame of faith forward for future generations. … It’s deeply important that we don’t waste this opportunity.”

With the decline of Christendom and the rise of secularism, there is a “profound temptation in our society and in the Church to anger and discouragement. This is a moment when there’s a lot of division, a lot of fighting, a lot of anxious energy and a lot of people losing hope.”

Those looking for a perfect Church would do well to recall Church history, he said, referring particularly to a whimsical tale, “Utopia,” written by St. Thomas More in 1516, a time of great scandal and division in the Church and just one year before Martin Luther penned his “95 Theses,” launching the Protestant Reformation.

St. Thomas More’s “Utopia” was “a work of socio-cultural satire,” Shea said. Even the title of the book was an inside joke, because utopia comes from a Greek word that means “no place.” In a fallen world, beset by sin, there is no such thing as a utopian or perfect society, Shea said. “We are fallen and wounded and in desperate need of salvation, because within us there is this race, this lurch toward sin. There is something wrong with us, and God wants to come and set that right. That is at the heart of the Gospel. The bad news comes before the Good News. Our fallenness makes the sweetness of our redemption all that much more clear.” There is no way we can create a perfect society, he said, because “the problem isn’t ‘out there,’ it is in every human heart. Each of us needs to be redeemed.”

Two centuries after St. Thomas More wrote his book, the Enlightenment of the late 1700s and early 1800s, punctuated by the French Revolution 1789, became a struggle about the relationship between faith and reason, religion and science. However, many people mistakenly believe that those who were fighting against the Church and religion were doing so not out of a rejection of God. “They did not reject God,” Shea said. “What they rejected, what was ab-horrent to them, what they hated, what they wanted to get rid of, was not the idea of God, but the doc-trine of the fall,” he said. They believed that the idea that man was naturally prone to sin was demeaning to human dignity. “They believed that if we could overcome this bad idea, then we could rearrange the conditions of our society so that we could overcome all poverty, division, unenlightenment and ignorance, and we could achieve a society that has grown up. The bonds and shackles of the old age will be gone, replaced by a utopian vision.”

Because “the modern mind is always obsessed with utopia,” we now find ourselves in a secular society founded upon this same mindset, Shea said.

The Church responded to modernity in the First Vatican Council, but the Council was cut short by war at the rise of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime in Italy, a failed attempt to create the perfect society.

The Second Vatican Council convened in 1962 under Pope John XXIII, an optimistic, happy Pope who was convinced that the world, after witnessing the deaths of 100 million in two world wars and the “dark ideologies that came out of Western soil,” would finally wake up to the fact that we “cannot live without God, that human beings are certainly fallen.”

Ever hopeful, John XXIII convened Vatican II with his opening address. “Mother Church Rejoices.” For a brief period after World War II and in the early 1960s, people were returning to the Church and traditional morality. European nations were led by serious Christian statesmen.

But, it did not last, Shea said, due in part to the sexual revolution of the early 1960s and a view of faith that denied a need for salvation and promoted, instead, “a kind of moralistic, therapeutic Deism, that basically means, ‘You’re OK, I’m OK.’ ” A religion that does not need salvation leads to a practical atheism, he said.

Three competing visions of Church

The Second Vatican Council tried to determine ways to convey the faith in a world that had dramatically changed. After the Council, there arose three competing interpretations of the Council and three visions of the Church, Shea said.

The Second Vatican Council tried to determine ways to convey the faith in a world that had dramatically changed. After the Council, there arose three competing interpretations of the Council and three visions of the Church, Shea said.

The liberal progressives viewed the Council as a “radical reorientation of every Catholic belief and practice.” The progressives, he said, emphasized the spirit of the Council over the teaching of the Council. “As time has gone on, these ideas have become indistinguishable from the secular religion all around us.”

Another response was that of the traditionalists who said the Church needed not a renewal, but a restoration of the way the Church was in the days before modernity.

While their visions were different, the progressives and the traditionalists were very much alike in one important way, Shea said. “If you peel back these interpretations, both of these visions are fundamentally utopian.” The progressives believed, and still do, that “we can achieve a utopian future when, finally, the Church is caught up to the times enough and accommodated itself to the culture enough such as to establish a perfect society based on worldly categories of justice and peace.” Likewise, the traditionalists believe a utopia can be achieved “by returning to a golden age when things are set up as they ought to be set up, and people are praying the way they are supposed to with the proper reverence.”

The middle way, advocated by Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI was an “interpretation of continuity,” that did not dilute the core teachings of the Church but made “limited accommodation to modernity in the non-essentials for the sake of evangelization.”

These utopian views of the Church are the source of our anger and discouragement, Shea said. “Why? Because utopia always and everywhere leads to dystopia, because it is founded upon the inaccuracy that human beings are not fallen,” he said. “Utopia betrays and dis-appoints you,” he said. “We will become discouraged when we see there is corruption in the Church, even at high levels, when there is scandal and abuse, infidelity of all kinds, and bad teaching.” Our right response should be grief and sorrow for the Church we love, he said. However, it should not be a response of despair or anger. “We should, instead, unite ourselves with the saints who have gone before, who fought against difficult circumstances in ages past.”

The original Apostles were likewise disillusioned and even scattered at the death of Christ on the Cross, not yet fully realizing that the “death of God on the cross is not the end of faith, but its strange beginning.”

“What did Jesus come to do? He took upon himself flesh in the mystery of the Incarnation to fulfill God’s rescue plan to address a fallen world and the wounds in humanity and to restore our dignity as children of God.” He quoted St. Paul who wrote that Jesus who did not know sin became sin. By his Incarnation and at the Cross, “Jesus is taking into Himself all disease, all wickedness and infidelity, every disaster of human life and every betrayal. Every dark and deadly thing He takes into His body, and He becomes sick with the contagion of it, and He dies. But because He is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, death is unable to hold Him, and, to the great surprise of the devil, He bursts forth from the tomb,” Shea said.

Saints: Antibodies to contagion

Likewise, the Church is the mystical Body of Christ, which like Christ, takes into her body “every disease, every heresy, every infidelity, every wickedness, every terrible idea that is happening in the culture of the time,” he said. “The Church becomes sick as a result, but because of the divine life Christ placed into the Church as the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church … the Church overcomes those errors and wickedness and generates in her bloodstream the immunity which she then offers to herself and to all her members and to a world in desperate need. And this happens again and again.” The immunity, the antibodies, that the Church brings forth as a result of this great epic struggle – that happens at all times and in every age – are the saints. The saints are those who take part in the battle, who fight valiantly without feeling sorry for themselves, without grousing around and without robbing others of their joy and hope.”

Shea then took the men through a quick history of the Church, and how it was rescued by saints, some of the greatest ones called forth during the darkest of times. He began by citing how the Council of Jerusalem responded to the Judaizers in the New Testament and then to the early Church Fathers – Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Origen – who defended the Church against dozens of sects. At one point in early Church history, a majority of bishops adopted the Arian heresy that denied the full divinity of Christ, but God called saints like Athanasius, an apologist for the Trinitarian view.

In the Middle Ages, the Church responded to the glorification of war, articulating St. Augustine’s Just War Theory. Economic prosperity led to the corruption of bishops in dioceses and abbots in monasteries. In response, God raised up St. Francis of Assisi, St. Dominic and St. Catherine of Siena, “whose lives triggered a mass movement that reminded the Church of the beauty of poverty and the decisive, simple character of discipleship.” When universities, founded by the Church, were threatened by materialism and secular-ism, scholars like St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure and Blessed John Scotus came to the rescue.

The Renaissance and increasing national power in Europe led to the Protestant Reformation and “wounds we are still dealing with today in our own families from this wicked and sinful division in the heart of Christianity.” The answer was the Council of Trent, which led to long needed reform and the rise of religious orders like the Jesuits and the Ursulines, and saints such as St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Philip Neri and St. Teresa of Avila. Answering a rising tide of nationalism were saints like St. John Bosco and St. John Vianney.

“This has happened in every single age of the church,” Shea said. “There is great struggle but, at the same time, great charity in the hearts and minds of the saints. The Church becomes sick, then overcomes the error, generates the immunity in its bloodstream and then is able to dispense that immunity in beautiful ways,” he said.

Great error all around, but saints are all around, too

“We find ourselves in a time when there is great error all round us, tremendously bad ideas about the nature of human beings, about marriage and human sexuality, about what freedom means,” Shea said.

Shea was once asked if the Church would survive its present divisions. “If we are really men of faith with fierce allegiance to the invisible world, we see that that question is patently ridiculous because the Church will surely survive. The vast majority of the Church is already in heaven, perfectly happy, completely fulfilled and perfected beyond the dreams of any earthly utopia. We are the smallest and least impressive part of the Church, yet we’re the ones who are here and they are all in heaven cheering for us. If they could speak to us they would say, ‘What’s wrong with you? Quit moping around! Knock it off! You think things were great for us? You think we lived in some golden age? No, it was terrible, our time was difficult, but God was faithful and so we were faithful and, in the end, and in ways we didn’t expect, and to our massive surprise, He brought about the victory, and we realized when we got here there was nothing to worry about at any point in time. We just needed to do our daily duty and to live the life that He put us here to live and witness to the truth of the joy that was within us because we had been saved and the whole world wanted what we had.”

Shea cautioned the men to guard their minds against the errors of utopianism in their families, businesses, relationships and in the Church.

“These relationships are not meant to be utopian in a fallen world. Instead, our parishes and families and businesses and relationships are meant to be great arenas of failure in which we can bring lives, broken by sin, and allow God to bring about amazing,

surprising renewal by His grace.” He quoted Father Jacques Philippe who said, “Modern man is condemned to success, because without God, we have nowhere to take our failure.”

“We have available to us, everyone from the Blessed Virgin Mary at the heights of heaven, with all the Apostles around her still governing the Church all the way down to the poorest leper in Africa who rings the bells at Mass … We have the mind of Thomas Aquinas to think with because he is ours. We have the arm of St. Michael the Archangel to fight with because he is ours. We have the burning love of St. Therese of Lisieux and Joan of Arc and Catherine of Siena to love with be-cause they are ours. We have the great power of the saints with which we can live this great life we have been given.”

The battle is winnable because of the saints who preceded us, Shea said. He quoted G.K. Chesterton, who said, “A true soldier fights not because he hates what’s in front of him, but he loves what is behind him.”

Monsignor Shea concluded with a poignant story about his youngest brother, Matthew, who died in a farming accident. “When he died at almost 5, I missed him so much.” That summer, Shea went to a camp to discern his vocation and one night at Adoration when he was feeling “so dark and so sad, missing my brother so much, all of a sudden I looked at Jesus in the monstrance.” The realization came to him that even though Matthew would not come here, “I would have to go back to him. I don’t know how long that will be, but I do know this: If he’s with the Lord, and I’m with the Lord in the Eucharist, that is the closest I can be with him until I see him again.”

“People who have loved us who have gone to the other side have not forgotten us. They sees us, they know what it’s like and they are there to support us.”

Top row, left, Father Justin Brady of St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Nampa lead the men in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament during the Idaho Catholic Men’s Conference.

Top row, right, the men hear from Mike Sweeney, who played for and now works for the Kansas City Royals. (His remarks will be summarized in the Feb. 24 Idaho Catholic Register.)

Midde row, left, several priests also participated in the conference and heard confessions. Pictured from left, are Father Francisco ‘Pako’ Godinez of Corpus Christi Parish in Fruit-land, Father Boniface Osuafor of St. Paul’s Parish in Nampa, and Father Tom Foley, chaplain at Mountain Home Air Force Base.

Middle row, center, a young man, raises his hands in praise at the conclusion of Bishop Peter Christensen’s homily. Bottom row, men enjoy fellowship at the conference brought to the Diocese by Salt & Light Catholic Radio.

Bottom row, right, Jake Ineck, leads music at the Mass that began the conference.

Much of the message brought by Monsignor James Shea to the Idaho Catholic Men’s Conference, was taken from his book, “From Christendom to Apostolic Mission.”

Monsignor Shea, president of the University of

Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, wrote the book primarily to his students and staff. “Our first printing was something like 300,” he said.

As word of the book spread, orders for the book came pouring in, some from dioceses who were requesting thousands of copies. The paperback, published by University of Mary Press, is available at Reilly’s Church Supply in Boise or wherever Catholic books are sold.

Monsignor Shea’s message at the Idaho Catholic Men’s Conference as well as messages from other speakers will soon be available at


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