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The Catholic Faith: Are we looking for challenge or change?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 15, 2019

I admit it: I am getting so jaded that I initially misread one of yesterday’s Catholic World News headlines: CDF, Asian bishops to discuss challenges to Catholic doctrine. I thought it said “CDF, Asian bishops to discuss CHANGES to Catholic doctrine”. Perhaps this suggests a certain accuracy in the recent Gallup report that confidence in the “honest and ethical standards” of clergy is down among American Catholics, plummeting from 61% in 2008 to 31% today.

Perhaps also it will surprise nobody to learn from the latest poll that while identification as “Catholic” in America has remained remarkably stable over the past seventy-five years, the percentage of Catholics who reported attending Mass within the previous week has plummeted from 75% to 39% over roughly the same period (with a drop of 6 percent just in the last ten years).

There are, of course, strong forces of secularization at work here, but clearly the growing crisis of confidence in the wake of both clerical abuse and the lack of accountability among bishops has played a significant role. Perhaps the item of greatest particular interest is this: The percentage of Catholics who had positive views of the honesty and ethical standards of the clergy oscillated between 51% and 61% from 2004 through 2014 (the first full year for Pope Francis). But it plummeted from 57% to 44% the next year, rose slightly between 2015 and 2017, and then dropped like the proverbial stone to 31% last year.

We might take solace in the statistic that confidence in “the Church” did not change much among Catholics between 2002 and the present, nor did the percentage of Catholics who view religion as “very important”. These, for Catholics, are more theological questions. After all, it is easy enough for a Catholic to distrust the clergy without suggesting that “the Church” is a failure or that religion should not be “organized” or “institutional”. Moreover, religion can still be “very important” to those who distrust priests and bishops. Why else would they care about the clergy one way or the other?

The sadness on this point is that confidence in the Church and the importance of religion, while little changed over the past fifteen years or so, is found in only 50% of Catholics to begin with. Everyone understands, I hope, that all of the relevant numbers improve based on frequency of Mass attendance. But really: No wonder it is so easy to misread a headline.

Sadly, when we stop to think about these numbers, we realize that things are even worse. There are a great many active Catholics for whom the Church is institutionally important partly as a means of furthering their own agendas. From parish ministries which openly repudiate the natural law to those that avoid controversy by emphasizing the contemporary secular social gospel, we see a dramatically reduced percentage of even active Catholics who understand the Church as the preeminent means of conversion into ever-greater union with God. This is true even allowing for the reality that each member of the Church is Providentially at a different stage of spiritual development—and that all of us are more spiritually developed in some ways than in others.

Grasping Catholic reality

The Church is both the supernatural and natural home not of sinners but of repentant sinners. Orthodoxy in Catholic doctrine is extraordinarily helpful, but knowledge is not the litmus test of spiritual growth. That test is, rather, the growing correspondence of one’s human love with Divine love. To achieve this union of love, we benefit from understanding the nature of the Church, the means she provides for our sanctification, and the difference between good and evil. At the very least we cannot be indifferent to or in rebellion against this nature and those means and that difference.

Knowing is an intellectual act which does not ensure submission, whereas submitting, even without great knowledge, is an act of will which unites us to Christ the head through His Mystical Body. But you will find no persons in all the world who love something without seeking to know it more and more fully, no matter how diminished their capacity. That is why authentic Catholic renewal must always be rooted in proper instruction. Catholics lose the gifts they have received if they do not yearn to know as God knows, will as God wills, and love as God loves. It is true that faith, hope and love are theological virtues imparted by baptism, but they are also supernatural powers given to us to be nourished and exercised in accordance with our opportunities.

Growing in these powers is, in the last analysis, what it means to be effectively Catholic—a faithful member of the Body of Christ. It is just this that makes statistics for the large pool of nominal Catholics so tawdry. Clearly, such statistics do not reveal a trend that can be countered by the influence of the larger culture on the Church. After all, the naïve determination of so many to adjust to the dominant culture is one of the chief causes of the problem. Rather, the Church, beginning with her clergy at the highest levels, must reclaim her identity as the Body which bears the marks of the Crucified Son, faithful to the Father no matter the cost, and determined to give the power of the Spirit to all who are willing—in contrast to the platitudes of their own worldly culture—to know and love God.

Authentic Catholic renewal, including the fraternal correction that must accompany it, is not a task for our engagement with the world. It is not political. It is not a mere tool to convince Caesar of this or that. It is really a manifestation of the inner life of the Church herself. This is why it is self-defeating to seek to make the Church larger and more influential by hiding the light of Christ under a bushel basket (Mt 5:15, Mk 4:21, Lk 11:33). In contrast, this is how Our Lord Himself described Catholic renewal:

I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division; for henceforth in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. [Lk 12:49-53]


We know what Our Lord’s baptism was, but where today is that purging fire, blazing by the power of the Holy Spirit in the Body of Christ? “I came to cast fire upon the earth!” In so many places and at so many levels, is not that fire all but extinguished by Catholic complacency? Has the Church perhaps become so much a part of Western culture that, ceasing to inform that culture, her members have become so anxious about their cultural place that they think the whole Church must be held captive by human wisdom and worldly respectability? Is this what it means to cast fire upon the earth?

No. And so I return to the misreading with which I began. Do we wish to challenge the Truth so that we might change it? Or do we wish to be challenged by the Truth so that we might be changed? There is only one correct answer. But it demands real, active Catholic renewal at every level, beginning with ourselves. Our primary mission as Catholics today must be the renewal of our Church. And the key to authentic renewal is simply this: We are called to stoke the fire cast by Christ, not to put it out.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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