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The Church’s catalogue of ills, according to S. H. Webb

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 20, 2014

I was amused rather than annoyed by Stephen H. Webb’s featured post over at First Things, entitled Why is the Catholic Church so Defensive? In this short piece, Webb is prompted, by his recent viewing of the Secrets of the Vatican documentary on PBS, to indulge in a personal lament over the failings of the Church.

He knows, of course, that this documentary is “a gelatinous mixture of truths, half-truths, and no truths”. So it is an odd way to trigger criticism. Still, Webb is a convert to Catholicism (2007), so he has legitimate standing for making pointed observations from the inside. Most of us have done the same. In any case, Secrets of the Vatican left Webb feeling “like nobody will ever know why Pope Benedict resigned his office, why the Vatican Bank is such a mess, why canon law is evidently hard to enforce, and why the Church hierarchy can’t be more open and transparent about its inner workings.”

Most reasonable Catholics, I think, experience little mystification about two of these four. Pope Benedict stated very clearly why he resigned, and the worldwide media’s determination to ferret out the “real reason” should neither surprise nor trouble anyone. And as for the Vatican Bank, the matter is clear enough: Banking is an afterthought for the Catholic Church, a convenience, hardly on its radar. That’s not an excuse for messing things up. But it is explanation enough for getting caught short.

But perhaps 50% isn’t so very terrible, and every deeply-committed Catholic layman in the world wonders with some frequency why canon law is “evidently” so hard to enforce, and why bishops and curial officials are so devastatingly fond of administrative mind games. Heck, even writers for CatholicCulture.org have wondered, as Webb puts it overall, why “the Church does not do a better job of listening to its critics, no matter how unfair they are.”

Or perhaps what we have wondered more is why the Church so often fails to learn basic public relations lessons that her critics already know. One thing that we need to remember is that organizations and governments which pride themselves on “openness” are typically simply masters of spin. Churchmen prove again and again that they are very bad at spin (as they should be), so I suppose they prefer secrecy. Whatever the case, the actual ability to “listen” does not seem to be the problem.

In reality, we have seen immense efforts at listening to critics since the pontificate of Pope John XXIII, as evidenced by the Second Vatican Council, Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis. The result, often enough, is that the critics praise the Church when they think she is about to change her nature, and complain all the more loudly when she doesn’t get beyond listening. Consider all the efforts at accommodation, the apologies for this and that, the establishment of mixed study groups and commissions, ever-growing ecumenical awareness, a wider net of discussion, and even the inclusion of outsiders in some of her deliberations. Is lack of listening really a contemporary problem?

I Can’t HEAR You!

Still, these are not the things that Webb really ends up complaining about in greater detail. And while we cannot invalidate Webb’s own experience, it is useful to look at these other things, and see what questions might be raised:

  1. “Catholic priests, theologians, and apologists too often have a triumphal tone that grates on Protestant and secular ears alike.” Really? Even in the new millennium? Why is it when Muslims, Protestants, Mormons or Secularists appear certain of their ideas about reality, nobody ever describes them as being “triumphal”? There is a difference, it seems to me, between confidence about Christian Revelation and the Catholic authority principle, on the one hand, and triumphalism on the other. Nowadays, surely, triumphalism is mostly in the eye of the beholder.
  2. “The Church is so defensive on internal matters that it is not surprising that it often seems unable to listen to more serious charges from the outside. The result is a program like “Secrets of the Vatican”—lurid stories aimed at people who believe, rightly or wrongly, that the Church is too self-important to admit its weaknesses and mistakes.” Surely there is some truth to the charge that the Church is often too defensive about internal matters. But is there any truth to the assumption that, if she changed her stripes, programs like “Secrets of the Vatican” and other lurid stories would go away? Our Lord, at least, thought the opposition was unavoidable.
  3. “There is very little effort to get the laity involved in the mission of the Church beyond fundraising.” If this is Webb’s experience, then it is Webb’s experience. But it is not mine. The Church has taken tremendous theoretical and practical steps to bring the laity into its own since the 1960s. Every parish I have encountered takes this very seriously. For their own part, the laity have pushed themselves into the forefront as contributors to the Church’s mission, without being rejected or slapped down, including the theologian Stephen Webb himself. We should not confuse what is currently a very religiously weak and secularized Western culture with a lack of interest in energizing the laity, or the lack of opportunity among those who are energized.
  4. “Catholic theology itself is an insider’s game with little fiefdoms and big lords. The Catechism is treated as an end in itself—as a serious theological work that answers all questions…. The creeds are used to shut down important theological debates. Too many theological topics are assumed to be closed that are still open to anyone who has examined them.” As for little fiefdoms and big lords, Webb is describing academia, not theology. But beyond this, the characterization is incredible. Those untrained in theology might try too often to settle difficult points by citing the Catechism, but I have never encountered or read a theologian who had this tendency, nor, in my lifetime, a theologian who was afraid to bring up or listen to new perspectives on old questions (assuming always that what is being done is Catholic theology, which takes as its data Divine Revelation as contained in the deposit of Faith). Here I cannot help wondering if there is not something personal going on. Webb is fascinated by Mormonism and the “theology” of figures like Joseph Smith. It may be that many Catholic colleagues have decided they have to draw the line somewhere.

Webb closes his lament by supposing that the Church needs, “during this sad time, precisely what God has given it, and that would be Pope Francis.” I have no doubt that this is true. It is even true for some of the reasons Webb has articulated. And of course it makes a deliciously clever ending.

Now it is certainly possible that Stephen Webb’s personal catalogue of the ills of the Church is as good as anyone’s. If he had taken his title topic (defensiveness) and developed that one idea, he might have written an excellent piece. But precisely by resorting to a catalogue, Webb has simply given us one more example of the perils of blogging—the perils of one man’s peculiar experience writ way too large. As a string of universal claims, this is way over the top. Were I to watch Secrets of the Vatican (a temptation which, if indulged, might well disqualify me from speaking on this subject at all), I hope I would come away convinced that the Church, with all her problems, deserves a more serious and sympathetic treatment than this.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: John J Plick - Mar. 22, 2014 7:42 PM ET USA

    Polarization was not my goal. The point I was trying to make is that you can "go through the motions" and be "inside the Church" and still fail to appropriate the necessary graces to save yourself. From my own private view "personal encounter" to a greater or lesser extent is necessary. "Salvation," as is truly taught, IS NOT "in the feeling....," but someone with no feeling at all is usually dead.

  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Mar. 21, 2014 2:34 PM ET USA

    Vatican II explicitly teaches that there is no distinction between the Church as a hierarchical institution and the Church as a saving mystical reality and the People of God. A certain group of religious sisters in my local area sees themselves as being at odds with "the institutional church" and they have even had within their congregation an official "relationship with the institutional church committee." In fact the relationship of many of them with Catholicism is sadly tenuous.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Mar. 21, 2014 9:46 AM ET USA

    I too have resisted the temptation to find and watch the PBS thing; I simply don't trust ANYTHING said on American television and never watch it for that reason. I said "American television" but I should say all television. For me it is an unavoidably manipulative medium that I like less even than I like movies, and I don't like them at all. Maybe I'm too old but I don't like being intellectually thrashed around; books still give me time to argue with them, but cinema and its extension TV don't.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Mar. 21, 2014 8:27 AM ET USA

    I think that the pivotal problem in this discussion is that somehow "the Institution" has become the final end and not personal salvation. The Institution merely facilitates personal salvation, and does not in the final rendering constitute it. What the Church is and what the Church is not will not be reasonable if one spends eternity in Hell.

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