Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Church in Crisis: What is wrong? Why? Can we fix it? How?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 09, 2013 | In Reviews

If you had to pick one central factor to explain both the collapse of Western civilization and the contemporary crisis of the Catholic Church, what would it be? For Martin R. Tripole, SJ, that factor is the shift in the modern world from the primacy of faith over reason to the primacy of reason over faith. In fact, this is the thesis of Fr. Tripole’s 2012 book from Ave Maria University’s Sapientia Press, Church in Crisis: The Enlightenment and Its Impact upon Today’s Church.

Now, you may ask: Isn’t this thesis suspect? Isn’t it true that faith itself must be subordinate to reason? With the great variety of religious beliefs on offer, can any Catholic possibly advocate mere credulity? And anyway, in what sense can things work the other way around? In what sense can reason be considered subordinate to faith?

I could recommend that you read Church in Crisis to see how the author answers these questions, but my recommendation would be unfair without first acquainting you more thoroughly with this important book. Fr. Tripole, who is professor emeritus of theology at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, and who has devoted much of his career to the study of Jesuit education and spirituality, has here written a major work of intellectual history, some six hundred pages long, both closely reasoned and well-documented. And while the labor invested in reading the book will be richly rewarded, surely not everyone who can benefit will want to read the whole thing.

History and Analysis

Church in Crisis traces the loss of the primacy of Faith through four major sections. Part One presents the “Data of Impending Crisis”, offering a thorough review of the various contemporary studies which have demonstrated the gulf between what the Church teaches and what Catholics actually believe and how they act. Many readers will recall seeing references to these studies—as well as to the problem as a whole—in our news and commentary over the years, but Fr. Tripole brings them all together to thoroughly portray the gravity of our present situation.

Part Two covers the preceding “History of Crisis in the Enlightenment”. While the focus is squarely on the intellectual history of relativism, the Enlightenment, liberalism, modernism and post-modernism, the author is not unmindful of more pragmatic causes, such as the excessive entanglement of the Church with the political order in Christendom, which bred its own less rarified reaction in Protestantism, the rise of secular states, and de-Christianized conceptions of human liberty. Back in my days as a practicing intellectual historian, I might not have written this story exactly the same way, but my conclusions would have been very nearly identical.

Part Three explores the relationship between “Enlightenment and Crisis in the Contemporary Church”. Here, since Fr. Tripole can take advantage of a shorter timespan to sink deep wells rather than merely flooding the plain of our knowledge, he does some of his best work. The four major chapters explore the following areas: (1) The intellectual, as in the modern collapse of Catholic education; (2) The social, that is, the rise of secularized concepts of social justice to replace the Christian emphasis on transformative love; (3) the political, by which I mean the confusions attendant upon our American concept of the separation of Church and State; and (4) the ecclesiastical—the disarray which followed the Second Vatican Council, and the clerical abuse crisis, including its hierarchical cover-up.

As is perhaps most obvious in the political chapter, Church in Crisis does have an American focus. But in most portions of the text, the application may be broadened to the entire West with almost no strain at all.


In Part Four, Fr. Tripole presents his “Solution to the Contemporary Crisis”. This solution has two major parts. First, it is necessary to reunite faith and reason. Fr. Tripole’s prescription is largely drawn from Pope John Paul II’s brilliant 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason). This is the problem with which we began, and I intend to return to it in greater depth in a future commentary. Suffice it to say, by way of answering our introductory questions, that Fr. Tripole is right when he asserts that the Christian faith must have primacy in the relationship between faith and reason, because only faith can open us to the full dimensions of reality. Or, as Pope John Paul II explained, only through faith can we overcome the barriers to knowledge that have been erected in the modern age.

This is a concept that stands the whole modern world on its head.

The second part of the solution is to restore the unity of the Church. The author insists that this must be done along the lines proposed at the Second Vatican Council. The Council saw that the unity of the Church has its source in the Eucharist, the body of Christ; it realized that the very mission of the Church requires unity (which means that those willing to disrupt that unity must perforce place little value on the Church’s mission); it recognized that the pre-eminent servant of unity in the Church is the successor of Peter, especially in the exercise of his Magisterium; and it follows from all this that fidelity in self-giving love is the key to the recovery of unity, as it is of all authentic reform and renewal.

This part of the conclusion actually answers a question that might be raised in the minds of some readers earlier in the book. In the course of his historical survey, Fr. Tripole treats the Council in terms of its immediate ecclesiastical repercussions. In other words, he explains how the shift in emphasis from a defensive “Counter Reformation” message against the world to a message of widespread engagement with the world tended to catch the Church unprepared. There were too many in roles both high and low who were inadequately formed to respond to what they unfortunately received (almost incredibly) as a kind of bombshell. The author captures the resulting upheaval very well, but the inattentive reader might temporarily wonder whether Fr. Tripole regards the conciliar texts themselves as fundamentally flawed. Fortunately, this doubt arises only from a failure to grasp the author’s method, and it is soon thoroughly dispelled.

Outstanding Method

And in fact the author’s method is actually part of the greatness of the book. He does not merely assert one thing or another at each point in his narrative (such as I so often do in writing a couple of thousand words or less). Instead, in proper scholarly fashion, he explores his subject through the perceptions, accounts, and analyses of well-chosen sociologists, historians, philosophers, theologians and commentators, from whom he draws a very revealing portrait of both the nature and genesis of the problems we face. And while Fr. Tripole is careful in each chapter to explain what should be retained and what must be rejected from various sources, the result is a dramatic increase in both evidence and understanding—without “special pleading”.

Church in Crisis is a remarkable achievement. The work as a whole is superbly crafted and organized, yet each section—and within the sections each individual chapter—is so thoroughly developed that it can stand alone as an analysis of its particular subject. Do you want the statistical evidence of the mess we are in? It is all there in one place. A history of the intellectual developments which created the problem? Turn to Part Two. An analysis of key contemporary confusions (like that between social justice and Christian love)? It is readily available and easy to find. Or perhaps you prefer to cut to the chase by reading only Fr. Tripole’s prescription for making things better. If so, the last two chapters stand very well on their own.

It is precisely this characteristic which makes the book extraordinarily valuable to a far wider audience than will read it from beginning to end, even if I did find that to be a distinct pleasure. It goes without saying that it should be in every significant Catholic library, both institutional and personal. But the book deserves a place in our slighter collections as well, simply because it can be used so easily in so many different ways. Within Church in Crisis, both data and wisdom abound—in each chapter, and even more in the whole.


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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  • Posted by: - Sep. 15, 2013 2:02 PM ET USA

    Thank you, Dr. Mirus, for this excellent commentary, and I will read Fr. Tripole's book. I would say that "the excessive entanglement of the Church with the political order in Christendom", is the A#1 distraction. The bishops appear to use our Lord as a lever to effect so many pieces of legislation. The quest for temporal justice can be a drug to those who see it as the be all and end all of good Christian living. It is like teaching the faith from the outside in.