Bishop Conley’s bid to foster apostolic Catholicism
After originally posting this on March 25th under the title “From ‘Christendom mode’ to Apostolic Catholicism” I changed the title on March 29th because I did not think the original title called sufficient attention to Bishop Conley’s initiative.
The Catholic Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska has over the past generation earned a reputation for uncompromising fidelity, first under Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz and now under Bishop James Conley. Therefore, when I heard that Bishop Conley had sent a particular book to every priest in his diocese, I naturally wanted to find out about it. The book is From Christendom to Apostolic Mission, with the subtitle of “Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age”, published by the University of Mary Press and attributed to the University of Mary as a whole. The closest we get to an author’s particular name is that the preface was written by the President of the University of Mary, Msgr. James Shea.
As the title suggests, the book is based on an important distinction between a “Christendom” mode for Catholic mission and an “Apostolic” mode. In the Christendom mode, all the institutions of society are substantially shaped by Catholicism, which is the principal guiding narrative of the culture. This has many advantages, but of course among the disadvantages is the tendency for people to be unthinkingly attuned to this cultural view of life without a corresponding interior commitment to Christ or to growth in holiness through the ministry of the Church. The Church herself too easily becomes entrenched in the worldly comforts of her institutional success.
The Apostolic mode for mission, by contrast, needs to come to the fore again when a culture and most people in it are attuned to a different set of leading ideas—in our time a pervasive secularism and trust in human progress. Social institutions do not reflect Christianity and most people do not think in Christian terms, nor even understand what that might mean. The book points out that we are nearing the end of a long transition from the viability of a Christendom mode of mission to the need for an Apostolic mode of mission for the Church, and consequently we have to reconsider and retool our efforts to reflect this Apostolic mode.
Christendom and Apostolic Modes
This distinction between the Christendom and Apostolic modes is certainly helpful, at least within reason and up to a point. It would not be so helpful if we were once again moving in the opposite direction, and Christendom were being re-created, because of course we would not want to pretend that one can ever be safely non-apostolic. Christian Faith suffers severe risks whenever it is taken for granted socially or socially rewarded. Nonetheless, it is worth serious reflection on the opposite swing—on the transition from the assumption that all institutions and everybody’s thought processes take Catholicism for granted to the realization that, because this is no longer even remotely the case, we need to become more attuned to an “apostolic” mode of life and a more “apostolic” Christian mission.
At CatholicCulture.org, we’ve been saying much the same thing for the past twenty-five years, by constantly calling attention to the problems posed by the “dominant culture”—which is precisely that the prevailing patterns of thought and action in our time are not Christian, and so almost nobody any longer conceptualizes anything in Christian terms. The book itself makes this point with increasing strength throughout, but the point is already clear: Serious Catholics do not have the same worldview, the same fundamental values, or even the same typical thought-processes as their secularized neighbors. If they did, they wouldn’t really be Christians.
Bishop Conley apparently thought it wise to call these insights to the attention of his priests, but we must also presume that nearly all of his priests have already been attuned to them. Indeed, it is a kind of anti-miracle that all priests throughout the Western world have not been attuned to this seismic cultural shift and what it means for the life of the Church, since it has been our most obvious Catholic problem since the 1960s, with a long pre-history of development in academic circles under the influence of Modernism. In fact, the shift we are discussing here has been going on for roughly five hundred years. But we know that a great deal of what passes for Catholic thought and formation is still locked into a diabolical inversion of the Christendom mode, an inversion which enables churchmen to remain “relevant” (as they were in Christendom) through constant accommodation with the dominant culture.
This is what many of us have been screaming about for the past fifty years and more. Most serious Catholics have long since insisted that Church leaders must stop pretending they are socio-politically and culturally valued (I have called this the temptation of bishops to be “players”) and instead become far more apostolic and evangelical in the effort to convert others to true Christianity. But what we have seen among too many bishops, and most severely both in many oldline religious orders and in Catholic academia, is a constant accommodation of the Church to today’s growing paganism so that Catholic “leaders” can retain an illusion of influence (or at least friendship) with the dominant culture.
We have a single glaring icon of this problem in the United States today: The episcopal and even papal handling of the “Catholic” President of the United States. Another iconic example is the “Catholic” Synodal Path in Germany. In large measure—though certainly not completely—a third iconic example is the current pontificate: Pope Francis repeatedly emphasizes moral issues that are popular in the dominant culture, such as racism, immigration, ecology and even “rigidity”, so that it is always a pleasant surprise when he specifically defends Catholic principles that lie outside what we might call the prevailing cultural narrative, that is, the zeitgeist.
A changing institutional strategy
But back to the book: From Christendom to Apostolic Mission recognizes something that is extraordinarily important. A shift to apostolic mission will initially lead to a numerically and institutionally smaller Church, but it will be a more uniformly committed Church. Numbers are dropping in many places anyway, of course, by sheer attrition, despite the best efforts of too many who try to increase their flotation level by throwing the Church into whatever causes square nicely with secular demands. In a Christendom mission situation, it is possible to try to deepen in people the broader cultural commitments within which they are used to operating. But in an Apostolic mission situation, it is absolutely necessary to develop and maintain a Catholic vision precisely in opposition to the dominant cultural attitudes.
This means two things:
- From the ground up we need to inspire counter-cultural forms of family life, education, work, recreation, and outreach (as, I suspect, all of our readers know).
- But the first point also means that some older forms of priestly, parish and diocesan work—those that typically depend on broad social integration and larger numbers—are likely to become unsustainable.
One of the most important insights in this book—and very likely the first of two main practical reasons Bishop Conley wants all his priests to read it—is that item 2 above is just fine. Effective apostolic mission is not based on immediate numbers or immediate financial returns; these are always secondary to inspiring those who are committed to (or attracted by) Christ to live ever more completely a different kind of life—a life not of Catholic institutional success but of Catholic incorporation into Christ. Consider how remarkable—and how vital—it is for a bishop to inspire this sort of outlook in his priests rather than the bureaucratic outlook of covering every base and meeting every quota! This University of Mary book insists that mere “institutional maintenance” must give way to apostolic initiative.
A second important practical reason for a bishop to recommend the book is the implications it has for priestly well-being. Changes experienced by those at work in the harvest may well include a greater sense of spiritual fulfillment, but this will likely be at the expensive some very familiar (and perhaps too comfortable) routines. Apostolic fervor must be maintained in “burn-out” situations. This significant shift in priestly perspective has implications for all of priestly life, and therefore for modes of priestly formation and mutual support among priests. Priests must be situated so that they can sustain genuine apostolic commitment. And for this, some ongoing community aspect of priestly life might be needed.
Another interesting point is that what the author refers to as a sort of apostolic “messiness” must be allowed and even welcomed. Things will no longer be funneled along well-worn, procedure-based, bureaucratic lines. There will be new possibilities and new excitement, and so there will be conflicts among different personality types and among zealously Catholic people with different priorities. There will also be at times “extremist” errors that must be checked, but the author rightly considers this to be better than reducing everything to bland common-denominator programs that neither attract the deeply committed nor provide life-changing formation.
Toward the end of the book, the author (or authors) rightly emphasize that the divide between the Church and the modern world exists because the default attitudes of our world today are rooted in a very different way of “seeing” things compared with the Catholic vision. In today’s world, everything is seen on a material level, a series of discrete elements subject to material manipulation to get whatever we want. Manipulation of “nature” is in high demand, but genuine personal fulfillment remains elusive. People do not even understand what a person is.
The book includes an excellent section on the difference between, on the one hand, repeatedly explaining and insisting on Church teaching in the vacuum of the modern understanding of reality, and, on the other hand, teaching and inspiring a fully sacramental vision of life, and of the relationship between God and man—within which Catholic “faith and morals” fits like a hand in the glove of the universe, or like a person embraced by God. The book effectively outlines the basic aspects of a Catholic sacramental vision, and the contrasting aspects of the dominant modern vision of reality, in a way that enables the reader to appreciate the immense conceptual gulf.
This is not a Catholic “how to” handbook. We can look around and see many rising patterns of effective apostolic work—perhaps still most remarkably among the laity—over the past thirty years and more. Some new organizations and new movements have proven amazingly productive spiritually. But this book neither catalogues them nor proposes “winning methodologies”. Rather, it is devoted to distinguishing the kind of approach to the problem which cannot work outside the “Christendom” mode of mission from the kind of apostolic approach necessary now.
For now we must all shift into an authentically Apostolic Mode. Bishops (and all Catholics) who recognize this do not focus on preserving an impossible status quo. Instead, whether with visible results or in suffering, they do great things through, with, and in Christ.
University of Mary, From Christendom to Apostolic Mission: Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age. University of Mary, 2020. Paper $12.95
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