Well, it’s definitely pretty bad. Turn on the news, and any halfway decent citizen will quickly run out of adjectives to describe what goes on in research labs, classrooms, courtrooms and battlefields alike. And even in the shelter of our homes, several generations are growing up plugged in, tuned out, increasingly deaf and cold to the calls of the human heart. Evil surrounds us; we’re drowning in it. Horrors abound, and no one is even outraged—we’ve even gotten to the point where the worst actions are lauded as progress or enlightenment. No doubt about it: the world is getting worse. The end must be near, because, God help us, we’ve never sunk this low.
Or have we?
This probably points to some sort of personality disorder, but I actually cheer up when I realize that things have been bad before. This bad, or worse. My grasp of history is feeble at best, so you scholars can correct me. But I seem to recall that the world used to look like this:
People used to pierce the ankles of unwanted babies and leave them on a hillside to die. This wasn’t just some backward peasant behavior or something done with shame in secret—royal families did it, too, with ceremony.
Gladiatorial games: men fighting to the death purely for the entertainment of others—the gorier, the better. This was an utterly acceptable pastime among the most cultivated classes for at least a few hundred years.
Crucifixion was a common punishment. And the guillotine used to be very busy, and it was considered mere justice to chop off hands or throw people in debtor’s prison.
Slavery flourished on every continent, and was tolerated or embraced by intellectuals and humanitarians alike. Ditto for the most blatant racism of every kind.
Child labor was commonplace. Illiteracy was commonplace. Treating women as property was commonplace.
There were such evil popes. Hoo hoo! If you want to see the Church in a shambles, don’t look at your bulletin—look in a history book. Whining about Benedict? Dissatisfied with John Paul II? Perhaps you’d rather have Alexander VI or Urban VI as your papa.
Whole civilizations, which considered themselves urbane and progressive, lived knee-deep in the blood of the poor, the insane, the helpless. I know what you’re thinking: it’s just like today! We allow millions of abortions, millions of women treated like so much meat, millions of children abused and neglected. I know. I’m just saying, there’s nothing new under the sun. Things have been this bad before. Original sin didn’t take several millennia to really get going.
Think this century is the worst ever? Think about this: people didn’t used to know about the Trinity, or the Immaculate Conception. The Eucharist used to be reserved for special occasions—likewise confession. Some people were born before the Incarnation! Talk about unlucky!
Overall, mankind may very well be breaking even in its achievement of evil, if you take the long view. I think that evil comes and goes like a tide, cutting new channels here, eroding the land there, but drying up in other spots, and maybe sometimes even receding radically, to leave fertile land in its wake.
I don’t think that the world is getting better. But is it worse than it ever was? I don’t think that’s true, either.
Kristen Johnson recently shared this quote from St. Francis de Sales:
Do not fear what may happen to you tomorrow. The same Father who cares for you today, will care for you tomorrow and every other day. Either he will shield you from suffering or he will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace, then, and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginings.
Sometimes, we can be so overwhelmed by the abundant evil of our times that our lives seem unbearable. And that’s the truth: evil is unbearable. But we’re not asked to bear it—not all of it, anyway. We’re never asked to face all the evil in the world, or even all the evil in our own lives, all on our own. That’s something to think about during Lent, as we contemplate the poor, suffering Christ as He carries His cross: He did it. We can’t.
So step back, marvel at how lucky you are to be living in this century, and let God worry about the long view.