In the modern culture wars, I see two positions that I think show a failure to understand the issue. The first are the opponents of Catholic teaching who claim that the Church is on “the wrong side of history” and will either need to change or go extinct. The second is the Catholics who seem to fear that the first group is correct and, not wanting this to happen, shout for the Pope and the Bishops to do something “before we lose the culture war.” The problem with both positions is that they lose track of the timeframes. They see what is happening right now and assume that it will continue. But when we look at history, we find that threats against the Church are not handled in months and years, but often over centuries.
The first group has it wrong because the popularity of an issue has no bearing on the rightness of a position or the longevity of the position. The wrong side of history claim is basically an appeal to popularity fallacy. It ignores the fact that things like Fascism were once considered the wave of the future and those who refused to embrace it would ultimately be swept aside into irrelevance. I don’t invoke fascism for mere rhetorical effect. During the Great Depression, many saw it as the way to solve the economic crisis and predicted that democracy was an outmoded form of government doomed to die out. The mindset focuses on the immediate popularity and influence of a movement and assumes that these will continue indefinitely. It overlooks the fact that as people learn the downside of things, they can begin to dislike the cause. Once that happens, it can only be maintained by the use of force (People grew disillusioned by fascism, but by then it was in place and could maintain itself through violence).
The second group has it wrong because they assume that the immediate success of those attacking the Church is a sign of how the whole of society thinks. Their response is one of panic. They want the Pope and bishops to start excommunicating people, assuming that the existence of this attack means the magisterium is too soft. Sometimes it is assumed that in the "golden age" of the Church, the Pope gave a decree and the faithful jumped in line, putting an end to error or dissent. But in reality, this never happened.
Historically, we know that the Catholic Church has had to fight battles over the course of centuries. The Arians should have been defeated after the First Nicene Council in AD 325, but as St. Jerome pointed out (Dialogue with the Luciferians #19), that shortly afterwards “the Nicene Faith stood condemned by acclamation. The whole world groaned, and was astonished to find itself Arian." St. Augustine expressed his frustration at the fact that the heresy of Pelagianism was continuing to be obstinate in spite of the fact that the Pope had ruled against them more than once:
For already have two councils on this question been sent to the Apostolic see; and rescripts also have come from thence. The question has been brought to an issue; would that their error may sometime be brought to an issue too! Therefore do we advise that they may take heed, we teach that they may be instructed, we pray that they may be changed. (Sermon LXXXI)
[Augustine of Hippo, “Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament,” in Saint Augustine: Sermon on the Mount, Harmony of the Gospels, Homilies on the Gospels, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. R. G. MacMullen, vol. 6, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 504.]
(This is where the paraphrase “Rome has spoken, the cause is finished” came from).
The point is, the Pope does not simply make heresy vanish by a decree. It takes years, decades, even centuries of faithful Catholics defending the true Church teaching before the error is given up. For the Catholic to assume failure because the dissent does not immediately stop shows that they don’t understand what really happened in times past.
Contrary to what seems to believed today, the Culture War is not being lost—it is being fought. The devil deceives and those deceived proclaim their victory over the Church, while at the same time, the devil seeks to discourage those who remain faithful by undermining their trust in those God has given the authority to lead and teach. We need to avoid being deceived. We need to avoid despair. We need to remember that the battle against the demons and the people misled by them is not one to be fought in a day or a week. It is to be fought as long as we live until Christ comes again.