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Success and Failure in the Church

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 23, 2012

Whenever the problem of parish closings comes up (see, for example, Phil Lawler’s critique in The patron saint of parish closings) I have two very strong reactions. First, I agree wholeheartedly that (under many if not most) circumstances it is a negative judgment on Catholic commitment and leadership when a parish closes. One would at least like to see creative and energetic parish revitalization efforts, in which the most attractive and evangelical priests in the diocese seek to channel the energies of those who oppose a potential closing into a dynamic and salvific community mission.

But I always have a second reaction as well. I very seriously wonder whether there are not larger forces at work for which the current generation of Catholics cannot be blamed. If memory serves, I first addressed this at slightly greater length about two years ago in Expecting Catholic Growth. The subject really requires a full-length book, and it is very likely that both reactions are warranted. The truth, I suspect, does not fall between but sits firmly upon two stools. But as the first reaction has just been argued, let me suggest here some reasons for the second:

  • The Long-Term Trend: Just as certainly as Christianity was on the rise in the West from its founding until the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries, so also has it been on the wane for the past five hundred years. Despite the best efforts of many generations of highly committed Catholics, including innumerable great saints, this decline has proven inexorable.
  • The Division of Christianity: One important reason for this decline is unquestionably the division of Christianity by the Protestant Revolt. This has made it difficult to take Christianity seriously as a source of certainty. Ecumenism has thus far accomplished little to solve the problem.
  • Material Success: In the centuries following the Protestant Revolt, the West experienced greater cultural diversity, explosive growth in prosperity and therefore increasing democracy. It has become increasingly difficult to convince Westerners of either the legitimacy or the need for strong and consistent spiritual authority and values.
  • Cultural Superiority: When Christian influence was on the rise, it was clear that the Church herself was the chief custodian of culture, preserving the best of classical civilization, and able to teach the nations not only about Christ and theology but about agriculture, philosophy, literature, science, and even politics. Having succeeded, she now appeals for purely spiritual reasons, or not at all.
  • The Paralysis of the Church: The Church herself has scarcely known how to deal with these enormous shifts. First, she fought brilliant actions such as her Counter Reformation and her missions to every corner of the earth. Then, seeing herself nonetheless all but fully dispossessed, she turned inward, as symbolized by the “prisoner in the Vatican” response. Finally, she perceived the need for a fresh evangelical engagement with the West, but this has been perverted in countless ways by Catholics already too damaged by a hostile culture.

Many other points of analysis could be introduced, but two things seem clear: First, the full scope of what we are up against is largely beyond the ability of today’s serious Catholics to control; second, the Church herself, during all the permutations she has tried over the past five hundred years, has yet to find an effective response. And yet Saints Patrick and Boniface could convert entire nations (even if only in an initially rudimentary way) in a single generation. That this should be so in one place and time and not in another is simply not explicable only in terms of the amount of zeal on offer. There are many circumstances at work, some identifiable and some not. And all is part of the mystery of Divine Providence.

We might both argue and hope that in our own time we are at the beginning of a sea change. Outside the West, the growth of Christianity (including Catholicism) is quite astonishing, even in the formerly intractable East. Within the West, surely the decline of a cohesive and positive culture cannot go on very much longer without human misery increasing to a point which will bring a new openness to the message of Christ. What made the West great was its specifically Christian impetus. The West’s ongoing prosperity and cultural success always depended largely on her own forgotten Christian patrimony. In a word, most people thought and acted in largely Christian ways for a long time, and many important institutions endured, even after personal faith had died. But the patrimony is now all but used up. Widespread pagan confusion and despair are once again on the horizon.

Moreover, there are many reasons to hope that the Church is slowly succeeding in finding an effective formula for engagement with the declining West. If the Church continues to heal and strengthen as the West continues to decline and sicken, then we may be on the verge of a long period of renewed Christian growth. But it is a very different thing to evangelize those who know nothing of the Faith—those who are lost in belief systems that are obviously less consistent, less helpful, and less hopeful. It is far harder to persuade a dominant culture which remembers of Christianity only the myth that it was abandoned for good reason. This may well require a sad interval of deeper forgetfulness, against the day when once again the Faith can be perceived as fresh and new.

Meanwhile there remains much about “success” and “failure” that we do not understand, including what the words really mean in the economy of salvation. And that is why not one of us is called to be successful in any measurable way. Rather, we are called, first, to be faithful and, second, to accept God’s mercy when we are not. This is enough to ensure that we will pray and work hard to make things better, and it is certainly possible that we will receive the grace of witnessing the positive results of our fidelity. But whether this happens or not, success itself is out of our hands.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: paul20105493 - Mar. 26, 2012 2:17 PM ET USA

    Excellent article. The criticalness of your point "...Catholics already too damaged by a hostile culture" cannot be overstated (myself included). But another view: We tend to perceive and pursue prosperity as a good thing, and you rightly praise the Church's historical efforts to that end. But if prosperity leads us away from God and poverty leads us too Him, we need to re-evaluate the value of individual and cultural prosperity. I think your last paragraph is pointing in that direction.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 24, 2012 12:12 PM ET USA

    "...Christ founded His Church...which...should carry on the work of the salvation of mankind under one Head, with a living teaching authority, administering the sacraments which are the sources of heavenly grace...for its mission was to lead all men to salvation...Hence not only must the Church still exist today and continue always to exist, but it must ever be exactly the same as it was in the days of the Apostles."-Pius XI. Simply put, success is contingent upon the sanctification of souls.

  • Posted by: gop - Mar. 23, 2012 8:36 PM ET USA

    Pope Benedict said the same thing in 'Salt of the Earth'. We do what we can and leave the rest in God's hands. God will fix all our mess at the time and in the manner He wants.

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