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Diocesan and Parish Renewal: Better Now?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 27, 2012

I’ve been saying for some time that the Catholic Church is slowly regaining its strength following the serious illness which weakened her, especially in the West, between around 1965 and 1985. And that’s certainly been my experience in the United States. I’ve been privileged to live for the past thirty-five years in one of America’s healthier dioceses, Arlington. But as I’ve travelled around the country since around 1990, I’ve encountered less and less liturgical silliness and doctrinal laxity. I’ve also seen fewer horror stories in the Catholic press, and far more stories of bishops trying actively to correct spiritual and doctrinal problems in their dioceses, especially over the past fifteen years.

I’d be very interested in hearing from others on this question of improvement. But first let me acknowledge the complexity of assessing the health of the Church at any given time. This complexity presents itself because when we assess ecclesiastical health, we are generally preoccupied with only one aspect of it—namely, the aspect where the weakness of the Church’s members bother us most. And what bothers us most is typically closely related to our own strengths and weaknesses as Catholics in our own right.

A Catholic and a Comprehensive View

For the sake of this discussion, in which we will all play the dangerous role of critics in assessing the Church’s health, an intelligible analysis demands participants who demonstrate their Catholic commitment by frequenting the sacraments more often than the Church absolutely requires, who have extensive experience with a particular parish or diocese (i.e., have not dropped out into organizations which do not obey the local ordinary), and who have a keen desire both to grow in an orthodox understanding of the Faith and to increase in charity toward God and man. But even given this minimum, we all have different priorities. Some of us may be psychologically and emotionally oriented more to worship, to teaching, or to good works; we will accordingly tend to judge our parishes respectively more by their liturgy, or by the quality of the homilies and catechetical programs, or by the commitment to those in need. The ideal parish, of course, excels in all areas. Regardless of our own special interests and attachments, we should probably try to take all areas into account.

Then there is the historical reality that the Church, as manifested in each local diocese and parish, is always (in her members) far less than perfect. It may be, for example, that things seemed very stable and on track, say, in 1950, and yet most laymen lived the Catholic life “prescriptively”, focusing on the minimum they had to do to “make it to purgatory”, and leaving holiness to priests and nuns. That’s a common allegation with, I believe, a significant percentage of truth. If it were not true, it would be difficult to account for the sudden swing that took place just a few years later, in which so much of Catholic life seemed to fall apart because “the rules changed”.

In exactly the same way, it may be that in 1970, people were more often confronted with a personal choice about making a deep commitment to living their faith. After all, so many of the standard fixtures seemed to have disappeared. More had to be internalized. Acknowledging problems in both periods, different personalities may be forgiven if they tend to prefer the one to the other, having been brought to greater spiritual maturity at one time or another, or thinking the Church better off in the long run because of what we might call the earlier imperfect stability or the later more challenging confusion. Were people (or some people) more deeply engaged in 1970 or 1980 even if their orthodoxy and liturgical propriety suffered? Or was it all a loss? Such considerations will affect our judgment of potential improvements since that time.

And what were the trajectories in the 1940s and 1950s versus the 1970s and 1980s? Was the old order essentially dead in, say, 1955—just a shell buttressed by a well-disciplined post-military culture? Did the new order contain a germ of interior renewal in, say, 1980—an effort at personal engagement that promised in time to ground itself more solidly, despite substantial losses, as upheaval gave way to deeper understanding? What was the result in the 1990s and 2000s? Would things have been better or worse if Catholics had not suffered a cultural crisis in between? These questions too can be answered in different ways by different personalities, and they merit reflection as we assess the past twenty years.

The Church Universal, the World, and the Local Church

Notice too that in all I have said so far, I have not yet touched on different kinds of problems in different areas of the world. The crisis of the Church in the West was a long time in the making, as both the intensity of personal faith and the role of Christianity in informing our social institutions declined under progressive secularization over a period of several hundred years. But that crisis escalated dramatically when, as soon as the stresses of depression and war subsided, Western culture went public with the values that had long since animated it behind the scenes, abandoning the old shell of “respectability” for a new “honesty” about what people really believed and felt. The very speed with which these same forces ripped through the Catholic Church tells us something important, I think, about the long preceding period.

But the crisis of the Church in the West was not the crisis of the Church in the Mideast, or China, or Africa or even in Latin America. By every statistical measure, for example, the Church in the West has suffered massive decline over the past fifty years. By the same measure, the Church in the global south (for example) has boomed. Clearly these two portions of the Church have not been facing the same problems, nor have they been conditioned by the same attitudes. For one thing, the global south has not been carefully taught over a succession of centuries that religion is purely a private affair. Christian life there may be more intermingled with old ways drawn from non-Christian cultures, but it is arguably more vibrant and comprehensive, and therefore more attractive, even so. At any rate, its problems are different.

All of this suggests that the ways in which the Church suffers broadly in each time and place are very much determined by the predominant misconceptions and sins of the larger surrounding cultures in which the Church seeks to make her mark. For example, we may look back to the Church of the High Middle Ages and see a triumphant Christendom, but if we look closely we will also see that the worldliness occasioned by an episcopate in the hands of the same noble families who ruled vast territories created a Church which cried out for reform, and led straight to the abominations of a Cardinal Richelieu or a Cardinal Wolsey, servants not just of worldly vanity but of the secular power itself. Granted that the personal stakes are lower, but it seems the American bishops are doing a better job of resisting threats to religious liberty in our own time than did the English bishops in the time of Henry VIII.

So there are complexities. And yet it is still true that the Church, as experienced by most of those who read these words, has suffered a tremendous identity crisis over the past fifty years, especially in the first half of this period, primarily through the rapid inroads of secularism and Modernism. Moreover, as I said, there has been a tremendous statistical loss. All of this has been experienced at the level of the local diocese and the local parish, perhaps most often through the Catholic “strength index” of local bishops and local priests. And in some areas, local parishes have simply disappeared, or at least the daily presence of a priest to say Mass. This too must be part of the comparison.

I would say that it is still too early to look at the universities or at certain prominent religious orders, both of which seem as yet untouched by any sort of authentic Catholic renewal growing out of the chaos of the second half of the twentieth century. But what about dioceses and parishes? Once again, in my experience, following the rapid dissolution of the generation between around 1965 and 1985 or 1990, things have gotten steadily better up to the present day. Even despite the exposure of the sex abuse scandal (which peaked during the era of dissolution), the improvement has become particularly visible over the past ten years. What is your experience? Let me know what trends you’ve noticed.

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Show 10 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: koinonia - Aug. 02, 2012 7:42 PM ET USA

    Those who remember the 70s know a reorientation is certainly taking place. A parochial school-educated girl admonished my son last year that Adam and Eve never existed. His reply: "Then where did we get Original Sin?" did not resonate with her despite its remarkable logic. Things do not look as hopeless as in 1979. But there is much to do. Arlington Catholics should thank God every day that theirs is a better situation than many of their Catholic brethren. It's all about charity for souls.

  • Posted by: msorensen71798 - Jul. 30, 2012 3:29 AM ET USA

    My diocese is slowing seeing improvement. Those who were borderline heretical or a bit too creative with the rubrics or who preached only rainbows and puppy dogs while making allowances for co-habitating couples, etc. have been retiring. Our new priests are excellent! Sadly, our bishop doesn't back them up. He seems to prefer zero conflict, no matter the cost. We look forward to his retirement, as the younger bishops are clearly an improvement. I think we have Bl. JPII to thank for this trend.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jul. 29, 2012 5:00 PM ET USA

    Without in any way questioning the overall experience of stopliturgicalabuse, if all we have to go on is the two examples cited, the indication would be that things have improved tremendously. To go from a priest who preached heresy to one (whose worst characteristic) is rubrical sloppiness is, after all, a huge gain.

  • Posted by: stopliturgicalabuse - Jul. 28, 2012 11:40 PM ET USA

    My former priest, a seminarian from the late '60's, preached openly that women should be ordained priests, and our new priest, ordained only 4 years ago after completing 30 years in the Navy, was warned that it's against long-standing tradition, but still washed the feet of women and children on Holy Thursday because he wanted to be "inclusive". So, from my perspective, it doesn't seem to be improving, at least at the local level. Nevertheless, I pray for my priest, and all priests, every day.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jul. 28, 2012 1:06 PM ET USA

    I am presently out in the Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio attending the "Defending the Faith" Conference which has occured regularly for the last 20 yrs. The most amazing talk thus far (for me) was Dr R Martin who elucidated Benedict's position on the "new Evangelism. If I interpret correctly, it would seem that Benedict is empowering the laity, often I believe, around the obstuctionist policies of any priest or bishop, taking the position that Rome expects laity "to go out..."

  • Posted by: jeremiahjj - Jul. 28, 2012 9:06 AM ET USA

    Just as Tip O'Neil said all politics is local, so goes the church. If things aren't going well at the parish level, things won't go well at the diocesan or national level. My parish is split down the middle with half the members wanting to go back to a prior era of permissiveness led by laity and a lax priest. The other half supports a loving priest who insists on orthodoxy. The latter group prays for a resolution; the former group says never the twain shall meet. It is not a happy situation.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Jul. 28, 2012 8:59 AM ET USA

    Same trends. Thinking any prescribed criteria, if followed, will fix all social or spiritual ills is never a healthy way to approach problems or their solutions. I agree we are too early in assessing the situation with many of the Catholic Universities in the US. These places of esteemed Education can clearly improve especially in much of their public display of "being Catholic". But as you say, there are "complexities". A very good piece and much to consider. Thank you!

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jul. 28, 2012 8:36 AM ET USA

    "More had to be internalized...." I would take that even further. Ultimately, ALL, needs to be internalized. We will ALL stand before the Judgment Seat, and that individually. No "parish priest," no Bishop, no mother or father. The only "Church" we will have at that point is indeed the "Church" that we have managed to integrate into our hearts.. Ave.. JP

  • Posted by: Savonarola - Jul. 27, 2012 10:09 PM ET USA

    While we have to be people of hope, Jeff, your view that the Church in the US is regaining strength is, unfortunately, off the mark. The abuse-and-coverup scandal continues to take a toll; the bishops' credibility and weak leadership are at a point where the emanations from the USCCB are not even read. As Archbishop Chaput has put it, we are kidding ourselves as to the numbers. And we know that in November millions of underinformed Catholics will vote for the most pro-abortion president ever.

  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Jul. 27, 2012 2:46 PM ET USA

    You are right, the 13th century was great but there were already signs of the rise of secularism as evidenced by the battle between Phillip the Fair and Boniface VIII that the Church ultimately lost. I have often argued that we have been losing every major battle of the culture war since the 13th century but have seen it escalate only within the last few hundred years. Good things are on the horizon though, especially should the SSPX come to an agreement. Tradition is returning slowly.

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