Action Alert!

Expecting Catholic Growth

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 30, 2010

In The shape of the Church to come, Phil Lawler suggests that the main difference between the explosion of Catholicism in Africa and its decline in Europe and North America is that “African Catholics expect the Church to grow, whereas European and American Catholics are just hoping to hold on to territories that were won for the faith long ago.” While I think Phil’s assertion is true, I also think it reveals far more than you might think at first glance. Insofar as European, American and “down under” Catholics are cringing in the dark and afraid to evangelize, the indictment may be taken on one level exactly at face value. But there is much more to be found at a second level, a deeper level.

On the one hand, Africa

When we urge a change in attitude, of course, we don’t mean we can just throw a mental switch and suddenly the Church will grow in numbers in the West just as it is growing in Africa. Indeed, even a casual observer can point to many other reasons why the Church might grow rapidly in Africa while declining in the West. At the most natural level, we can see that being a priest or a nun, or even just belonging to an active parish, carries a more obvious set of this-world benefits in Africa than it does in more affluent cultures. All the old arguments about the Church as a mechanism for social advancement apply here, and these should never be discounted in assessing why the Church grows rapidly in one place while stalling or declining in another. This is even more true in areas where the Church proves to be a better ally than the government, or even a defender of ordinary citizens against the government. People do not need to be venal to respond in this way; whenever our natural interests seem to coincide with our supernatural ones, we find it easier to be Catholic.

At a somewhat deeper emotional and spiritual level, the acceptance of the Church as a key component of a culture (for whatever variety of reasons) leads to an atmosphere of respect for those who represent the Church. It is hardly surprising that those who experience such acceptance and respect should exhibit a positive, can-do attitude while engaging in all sorts of outreach to the larger community. They have been conditioned to expect a more positive response to their efforts than those who habitually meet distrust or outright rejection. There is a significant contrast between Africa and the West in this regard, just as there has been between various other cultures in the past. Try cracking, for example, the insular self-sufficiency of Tibet or even the very different worldview of the East in general. Expectations of Catholic growth, and the attitudes these expectations help to form, must necessarily differ in each cultural situation

On the other hand, the West

Now let us consider the long cultural disintegration of the West, a disintegration both defined and effected by its progressive secularization over more than half a millennium. In a nutshell, that history runs as follows:

  1. Too much worldly success for the Church spoiled churchmen and blurred the distinctions between sacred and profane in the late medieval period, leading to ecclesiastical corruption.
  2. The Renaissance reintroduced the classical vision of man as the measure of all things, provoking a fascination with the exploration of man and the world.
  3. The Protestant Revolt shattered Catholic unity and deeply undermined traditional views of the social and political order.
  4. Religious Wars led people to wonder whether man can really know supernatural truth well enough to build life and culture on it.
  5. Discoveries of peoples and places in the New World and the East awakened Westerners to the fact that different cultures thrive in different ways, and with different beliefs.
  6. The resulting religious and cultural relativism caused many to turn to reason alone as a guide.
  7. Revolutionary experiments in rational utopia began.
  8. The rapid increase in scientific knowledge and the success of Western technology, along with various forms of evolutionism, bred unbridled confidence in human progress.
  9. All of this coupled with extraordinary material prosperity caused spiritual and moral values to atrophy while competing secular theories gained sway, leading in various forms to the triumph of Modernism.
  10. The horrors unleashed by reason and technology in the twentieth century caused large numbers of people to distrust reason as well as faith, and especially to fear the dangers of forcing systems of thought and action on others.
  11. Western culture is now shaped by the widespread presumption that neither faith nor reason can be trusted, leading to relativism and a dictatorship of personal desire.

It is necessary to see this process with eyes wide open. Every stage of it was characterized by searing cultural debates and, not infrequently, by bitter physical struggles. There have been major battles at each significant step in this history of secularization in the West, and—at least as far as the larger culture is concerned—Catholicism has lost every one of them. It is impossible to make light of the fact that, in the West, it has now been well over five hundred years since the Church made her last significant, overriding cultural advance. This is not a history that breeds optimism. It is not a history that leads any rational person to be confident that, if we just change our attitudes and put our backs into it, the Church will grow.

Damaging Results

This is what I meant when I suggested that Phil’s analysis is quite true, but only if we understand it at two levels. The West has not been lost because Christians failed to realize the power of positive thinking. Serious Western Catholics have, in spite of their best efforts, been conditioned for generations to expect a progressive decline in the importance of Faith to the larger culture. For the most part, this is not a choice that they have made; rather, it is reality they have been forced to confront against their will. But if their long conditioning has now at last led Western Catholics either to fear to evangelize or to alter the Gospel so that it might achieve greater success, then they definitely do need bucking up, for these reactions to our long-term experience are absolutely deadly. In fact, it is clearly these two responses that any legitimate emphasis on the need for confidence in Catholic growth is meant to condemn.

The first incorrect response is an ordinary, straightforward fear of evangelizing, a fear of continuing the struggle to extend the Faith to others, to increase the Church’s membership, and to broaden and deepen the influence of Catholicism in society as a whole—the simple fear of rocking the boat. Everybody can see at once that such fear is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we refuse to take steps to advance the Faith because we fear they will be met with a resistance we will be unable to overcome, then we have by our very fear ensured the result. Because we have given up, the Faith will not expand its influence; the Church will not grow.

Now on the first and more basic level, the main point about this attitude is that it is a strategic disaster; it is absolutely doomed to failure. It can be argued that even the Holy See, through a significant portion of the 19th century, took up a primarily defensive posture (the “prisoner in the Vatican” motif), and though the Church was still growing rapidly in the United States during this same period, it was not long before the cultural onslaught against faith and Church was so strong in all the West that many Catholics (including bishops, priests and lay persons, including parents of many Catholic families) hoped primarily not to lose any further ground. In this context, I invite everyone again to consider Phil Lawler’s strategic caution:

But that defensive approach won’t—can’t—succeed. In the field of evangelization, as in the individual’s spiritual life, you can’t idle in neutral. If you’re not moving forward, you’ll surely move backward. And once the societal momentum shifts, once the trend toward secularization really takes hold, that principle becomes even more evident. If you’re in a stream with a fast-moving current, you can’t just tread water and hope to stay in the same place; you have to swim against the stream, just to hold your ground.

A False Offensive

This is nothing less than what sound Catholic parents have universally found in successfully raising Catholics in a secular culture, and what the best Catholic priests and bishops have found in building vibrant parishes and dioceses in the same atmosphere: You must go on the offensive to succeed. But it is necessary to go on the right sort of offensive, and this brings us to the central drama of the Church over the past 50 years—the pitched battle over how to implement the comprehensive renewal called for by the Second Vatican Council.

The primary obstacle to renewing the Church in the West since at least the mid-twentieth century has not been “head in the sand” fear but rather the false conviction that the Church could grow only if she changed the Faith—that is, changed the Gospel itself—to suit the aspirations and tastes of the culture in which she found herself. Thus at least two generations of Catholic intellectuals, primarily in universities and seminaries, and through them exercising enormous influence on both bishops and priests, actually sought to secularize the Faith and restructure the Church so that it would be less of a supernatural scandal to the contemporary world. There was, in fact, such a broad and consistent offensive along these lines that its sheer magnitude took the breath away. This was not at all an effort simply to maintain the status quo.

In this offensive, one might say that long centuries of Catholic diminishment in the West produced a fear that expressed itself not through a crippling desire to go unnoticed but through the active venality of the informer and the stooge—those who do their best to undermine what we might call the resistance. The informer and the stooge don’t hide. In the Catholic world, they make an effort to curry favor and even achieve power and growth by taking the Church in a direction which precisely mirrors what the prevailing secularists say the world needs. The result, as those who were not at all afraid of failure predicted from the first, was that the Church actually shrank more rapidly, for the simple reason that there was progressively less and less reason to adhere to a Catholicism that was not substantially different from the surrounding world.

People are invariably adversely affected by false piety—a mere religious patina—whenever they encounter it, whether it is the austere piety of the self-righteous, the exaggerated piety of those attracted to religious devotion as a pleasure, the self-serving piety of power brokers in a Catholic universe, or even the unctuous piety of those who wish to retain a sort of religious proprietorship while selling the Catholic store to the national chain. In fact, every false piety produces its own false offensive, with the largest fraud in our time—but hardly the only one—being that of the Modernists, who mostly ruled the Church in the West from 1950 until relatively recently, and who still rule most Catholic universities. In any case, such pieties are always superficial; they mask a deeper spiritual failure. They cause the withering of genuine devotion in others, and they always cause the Church to shrink, not only through a rapid decline in numbers, but often through the infighting necessary to dislodge those engaging in false offensives from positions of power and influence.

The Lesson to be Learned

The lesson in all this is that we must be very careful about engaging in the right sort of offensive. For this reason, we must also be very careful about what we mean when we express confidence in Catholic “growth” or call for that confidence in others (as leaders of false offensives also do). What we learn when we go deeper is that we cannot count growth exclusively in terms of the numbers of people who respond directly to our efforts at evangelization or apostolic work. Nor can we assume that Catholics who appear to be unsuccessful in producing such numbers—or indeed, whole cultures that seem to be unsuccessful—are therefore proven to lack a necessary confidence or expectation that growth will occur.

Always keeping Phil Lawler’s strategic observation in mind—that growth, indeed success of any kind, is impossible without going on the offensive—we must nonetheless remember that growth and success mean something in the economy of salvation which is very different from what they mean in purely natural terms.

In point of fact, Christians are called to preach the Gospel whether in season or out of season (2 Tim 4:2). If we’re thinking about counting heads (or, worse, counting buildings), then we need to take warning that Catholic expectations of success aren’t supposed to have anything to do with counting. This is not a numbers game. Our confidence is not in ourselves or in our own efforts but in Christ, His will, His plan, and His Providence. This is the critical point. Granted, if expectations of failure cause us either to hide from the task or (far worse) to change the Gospel into something we believe will be more readily received, then it is necessary to stop and seek a deeper faith in success. But we must be supremely confident of success not as something naturally measurable and traceable to our own actions, but as something measurable and traceable by God alone in the larger economy of salvation.

Our Lord teaches that we are on no account to hide our light under a bushel basket (Mt 5:15, Mk 4:21, Lk 11:33) or bury our talent in the ground (cf. Mt 25). But he also teaches that while we may sow, others may in fact reap (Jn 4:37)—but we must sow regardless. The expectation of failure is indeed self-defeating, but we must have the right sort of expectation for success. The right expectation is not natural but supernatural, not a confidence in our power but in Christ’s. We are not to be confident that we can make the Church grow here and now, in our own way and our own time.We are simply to be unreservedly certain that, if only we are not useless servants, Our Lord will give the increase in His way and His time. True Christians will always have more heart to lose than pagans have to win. This doesn’t come from counting heads or any sort of positive thinking. It comes from Faith.

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: wojo425627 - May. 07, 2010 1:35 PM ET USA

    I want to recommend the book Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine by Archbishop Sheehan. It ia available at online bookstores, and published by Baronius Press. It is a first rate book. Totally orthodox and just a really good text. I recommend this book along with the catechism.

  • Posted by: king45 - May. 04, 2010 5:23 AM ET USA

    Great/even beautiful article expressing our hope

  • Posted by: - May. 02, 2010 9:27 AM ET USA

    Good article. I have found that in the US teachings of the Church are not taught. We water and dumb down the truth. All the Africans I have meet know the true faith. We can't grow with false teachings.

  • Posted by: - May. 02, 2010 8:23 AM ET USA

    Very insightful commentary. I might add: the act of changing the faith to accomodate the world involves changing the faith within ourselves first. But this means a weakening of faith, as surely no one with a strong faith would attenuate it to please the world. But this tactic is not a means to advance the faith, but a way of negating it. It is the anti-offensive. "He that is not with me is against me . . ." Matt 12:30.