Spiritual Bankruptcy, by Venerable Fulton Sheen, 5 January 1936

1952 photograph of Venerable Fulton John Sheen produced as promotional material for the television show 'Life is Worth Living'As announced last Sunday the purpose of this course is to suggest that social reconstruction is conditioned upon spiritual regeneration, that our ills today are not fundamentally economic and political, but moral and religious. Hence if the world is ever to recover its lost social peace, it must once more find God.

This lesson – so important for our times – will be presented in the light of the parable of the Prodigal Son. Our Lord, you will recall, began the parable thus: “A certain man had two sons: And the younger of them said to his father: Father, give me the portion of substance that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his substance. And not many days after, the younger son, gathering all together, went abroad into a far country: and there wasted his substance, living riotously.”

The interpretation we shall give of this parable is not moral but historical. The younger son in the parable is Western Civilization. After many long centuries in union with the Father’s house. Western Civilization finally asked the Spiritual Father for its share of inheritance – not inheritance in the form of gold and silver, but rather spiritual capital in the form of eternal truths necessary for salvation. Carried away by the new-found independence from the Father’s House, Western Civilization began to spend the spiritual capital which the Father’s House had given to it. The history of the last four centuries is very briefly the history of that wasted capital – the patrimony of Christ committed to His Church. It was not all spent at once, nor was it all spent in the same place, nor with the same friends. Century by century the substance became smaller and smaller, and now as we look back in history, we can tell when each part of the capital was spent. In the sixteenth century. Western civilization spent its belief in the necessity of authority. In the seventeenth century, it spent its belief in Sacred Scripture as the revealed word of God. In the eighteenth century, it spent its belief in the Divinity of Christ, the necessity of grace, and the whole supernatural structure. In the nineteenth century, it spent its belief in the existence of God as the Lord and Master, and the Supreme Judge of the living and the dead. And in our own day, it has spent its last penny – a belief in the necessity of religion and the obligation to a Personal God. Truly, indeed, it has wasted its spiritual capital living riotously.

The story of the last three hundred years is the story of a spiritual declension and the squandering of the substance of Divine Truth. Christ, who is God, has been reduced to a mere man. Man, who is made to the image and likeness of God, has been reduced to a mere animal. And an animal, which is a living thing, has been reduced to a mere atom. And this is called “Progress'”! Is it any wonder that thought- ful men are beginning to write and speak of the Decline of the West? Spengler, Massis, and a host of others, in making a retrospect of our Western World, are right in saying that it is on the decline. Many of them are wrong only in their explanation. It is not machinery, nor finance, nor naval armaments, nor the amassing of gold, nor rigorous iron laws of determinism, which have effected this decline. The two decisive factors in the breakdown of Western Civilization have been the two causes just mentioned – mass-defection from Christ and mass-defection from God.

Continuing the parable of the prodigal, Our Lord tells us that “There came a mighty famine in that country; and he began to be in want”. There is always a famine in a far-off land which means being away from the Father’s House. Before the spirit is quite quenched and the soul wholly carnalized, there remains a craving for higher things; but when the spirit is quenched, and the soul is imbruted, there is a famine of even that false bread which is not bread, and a thirst for those stolen waters which only makes the thirst more keen. The hunger is now of such a kind that it can no longer taste the food of virtue. It is that queer after-taste of all the world’s feasts – a distaste for what we have, and an abhorrence of that which we have not. At one stroke Our Lord set it before us, compressing into a single sentence the history of all erring souls, the fate of all sinful nations and all sinful men – “And he went and cleaved to one of the citizens of that country. And he sent him into his farm to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks the swine did eat; and no man gave unto him.” “He would fain have filled his belly” – for it is no longer a question of satisfying his appetite, but only of satisfying the lower part of himself. Only God can satisfy the real hunger, for no one can feed the heart but God. The poor prodigal was now sitting beside the ashes of a palace which his own hands had burned. He was feeding on husks and he was still in want. It is a passage from ten thousand biographies.

Now to resume the interpretation of the prodigal son in the light of spiritual experience in the modern world. Leaving the father’s house, Western Civilization gradually squandered its spiritual heritage, living well with the modern world, becoming popular with it by sacrificing some of the best of its spiritual possessions for the sake of a momentary applause. Having wasted its substance riotously, a famine now arises in the land. A famine not for bread of the body alone, but a famine for the bread of the spirit. Today, there is a famine for divine certainty and guidance among those who spent the capital of their belief in Sacred Scripture; there is a famine for a helping hand more kindly than the human among those who spent belief in His Divinity; there is a famine for perfect life, truth, and love, among those who spent belief in the Trinity. Everywhere there is a famine for faith among those who doubt, a famine for God among those who substituted illusions for majestic faiths, and a famine for love amongst those who war. Everywhere there is a feeling of emptiness like that which follows a fever or an unhappy love affair.

“And he went and cleaved to one of the citizens of that country”. Like the prodigal who, in the days of famine, cleaved to a citizen of the foreign country, so too does the religion of Western Civilization in the days of its spiritual famine attach itself to temporalities which are foreign to the service of God; it links itself up with things which are strange to religion, alien to the Kingdom of Heaven. Having lost divinity, modern religion now ties itself up to a thousand worldly interests which are not of the essence of religion, such as politics, social reform, economics, drug control, and opposition to the liquor traffic. It becomes in the language of a distinguished Professor of Yale, identified with national cultures, and hence devoid of all common reference to the Cross. I am not sayingthat religion should not be interested in the things of Caesar, nor that it should be indifferent to politics, nor that it should turn a cold shoulder to the opium problem; but I do say that these are not the primary concern of religion nor that to which religion owes first allegiance, any more than it can be said that the prodigal owed greater allegiance to the citizen of a foreign country than to his own father. Religion is indeed in a foreign land when it is more interested in mental hygiene than in the forgiveness of sin; in politics more than prayer; in the book of Darwin rather than the book of Isaias; in the theory of relativity rather than in the Absolute; in crime prevention rather than morals; and in sex more than God.

This sad and tragic dissipation of spiritual capital by the Western World does not necessarily mean the Decline of the West. There is still a possibility of recovery as there was for the Prodigal. What saved the Prodigal was the fact that he never became a citizen of the foreign country. He was always a stranger there. There would have been no hope for him, however, if he had not felt himself an alien, or if he had made himself a citizen in that land of husks. And so too with Western Civilization. Were it untroubled by heavenly homesickness, were there no divine nostalgia, no remembrance of a Father’s House, there would be no hope. But such is not the case. There is a feeling of being a stranger in this land which has forgotten the Divine; there is a feeling of uneasiness, a discontent with the husks it is given, and a yearning for the food which nourishes unto life everlasting.

Up until the World War one could not pick up a book, or a magazine, or listen to a speech, without hearing something about “Progress”. Everywhere there was hope, prosperity – a certain onward, upward march to the tune of evolution, to the Golden Age of material prosperity and earthly happiness.

Then came the World War which turned the world into a slaughterhouse. The so-called civilized man, who was supposed to be a descendant of the ape, now acted like one. The great Babels of earthly happiness built without the great Cornerstone, came tumbling down on our heads. Visions of grandeur began to fade. And then came the Depression. The machine which was to make us all rich and happy made many poor and miserable. It produced more than the men which it displaced could buy. The world had hoped for peace, and it got wars and rumors of wars; it was promised prosperity, and got starvation in the midst of plenty; it had hoped to make the world safe for democracy, and got a democracy which was hardly safe for the world; it was promised a world free from authority and got tyrannical dictatorship. The result is that today instead of Progress, Evolution, Prosperity, and World Peace, we have decay, unrest, uncertainty, doubt, and above all else a feeling of not knowing where we are going. Man now crouches in fear from the very terrors he himself has created. He has set fire to his own house and now it tumbles involving him in its ruins. And that whole school of false prophets who once talked Progress are now resigned to a philosophy which is hardly distin- guishable from despair. The map was thrown aside and the world has lost its way.

But there is no reason for despair. However much Western Civilization has been disillusioned, it still feels itself in a foreign land. There is still some remembrance of the Father’s House. Suffice it to say here that some are coming back again to God, not through the preservation of their baptismal grace, but by a trial of the world. They are dissatisfied in this foreign land of husks. They have leaned on the staff of the economic and secular and found it pierced their hands. Like the Prodigal, they are witnessing against the world, even though they are children of it. It is a great mercy that those having lost the free gift of God can regain it by His compulsory remedies; and who after having heard all the ramblings of sceptics and tasted the fleeting pleasures of an hour, now are made to cry out with Peter at Capharnaum, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”

It may take a long time for Western Civilization to realize that the good it is seeking is the good that it left. Many heart-aches and long sad experiences were necessary before the Prodigal realized that the father’s house which he left was the only place he could find freedom, peace, and contentment. In like manner the world will not quickly realize that the Church which it believed was so restraining to liberty is really the only force that can make us free, and that that which was so much behind the times is the only institution which has survived the times.

However long the time it takes to learn the lesson, there is always the consoling picture of the father of the prodigal who daily would mount a hill and look down all the roads to the foreign land hoping almost against hope that he would catch a glimpse of his son. So too the spiritual Father of all Christendom is daily mounting one of the seven hills of Rome from which one can look down all the roads that lead to Rome; daily his eyes search the horizons of the foreign land for Western Civilization that is already dying of famine for the things of the Spirit of God.

The Church has not been tried for three hundred years; it has not even been considered; it has only been ignored. The world knows less about her than about the man in the moon. It has never studied her claims, never searched out her secrets; and it dispenses itself from doing so for the same reason the first hearers of Christ dispensed themselves from hearing His message: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Ignorance can be accumulated just as well as wisdom, and during the last 300 years the world has accumulated a tremendous amount of ignorance concerning her. Through long centuries she has been outlawed and ignored, but she has never failed any more than Christ failed when His fellow citizens cast Him out of His home town of Nazareth. Her days of being ignored are over. She is now returning from exile. The exile has been good for her. It has permitted the world to distinguish her from her imitators; it has been a lesson to her not ever to become worldly again: it has allowed the blood to run back again to her heart to energize her for the reconversion of the world. Even if there are some who hate, they must be ex- cused for they do not really hate the Church, but only what they mistakenly believe to be the Church. The vision of the Church will come to them as one awakened in the watches of the night; they will see the dead walking and the blaze of that living death will make them forget everything else but the glory of the Risen Christ.

Let us not be misled into believing that a new religion, such as a pot-pourri of Eastern and Western religion, will arise to satisfy the cry of the world. The human heart that has had one great love can never really have another. We have but one heart and if we give it away, we give away our deepest capacity for love. What is true of the individual is true of society. Society has used up a life’s capacity for love in the great adventure of Christianity. Its bones are too old to accustom themselves to new postures of worship. We have given our heart away once to the Divinity of the Church – we cannot give it away again.

That is why the world will end as Christianity began – with a great and mighty battle between the world and the Church, between Baal and Christ, between the forces who crucify and the Power which is crucified.