Is there any hope left for the renewal of the Church?
Throughout the West, it is not hard to see how far authentic Catholic renewal still has to go before it can have a significant cultural impact inside or outside the Church. Indeed, the Church very often continues to form a secular culture even among her own children, as she has done since I was a teenager (I was twelve in 1960). It takes no genius to figure this out; the situation is obvious nearly every time we survey the news.
Here are some typical examples:
- Staffing: Despite efforts beginning under Benedict XVI to begin a much-needed reform of the Church’s charitable outreach (including his 2006 encyclical Deus Caritas Est), the hiring practices of Catholic Relief Services remain at best indifferent to Catholic commitment. Anecdotal evidence continues to suggest that Catholic Relief Services is not atypical. Despite improvements, similar problems have long haunted the selection of both diocesan staff and teachers in Catholic schools.
- Priestly Formation: Despite a general improvement, some diocesan seminaries still remain unreformed with respect to sound doctrine and sexual morality, and this is even more true in a significant number of religious communities, perhaps most notably the Jesuits. Given the sex abuse scandal, which hit Ireland with particularly devastating force, it is astonishing that complaints remain legion about the homosexual mafia at the Irish national seminary at Maynooth.
- Political Irrelevance: Despite consistent hierarchical rejection of gay marriage, the Church in the West remains completely ineffectual in influencing both the beliefs and the behavior of the laity. In the political order in particular, lay Catholics feel free to utterly disregard Catholic teaching while claiming how important their faith is to their lives. Joe Biden’s officiating at a gay marriage is just one of many cases in point throughout the West. While this was criticized sharply by the President of the USCCB, ecclesiastical discipline continues to be non-existent. In reality, of course, a great many major Catholic universities in the West (and certainly in the USA) continue to actively form students to be good secularists, rather than to internalize a transformative appreciation for the teachings of Christ.
- Public Strategy: Similarly, too many bishops throughout the West frequently seek to emphasize the importance of the secular goals they are able to endorse safely (help for the poor, international unity, fighting climate change, and so on) while failing to fight even a rear-guard action on spiritual and intrinsic moral issues, preferring compromise to any sort of martyrdom. A case in point is the episcopal response to the weakening of the conscience protection laws of the State of Illinois. The Church in the West is far more prone to emphasize its record regarding the popular corporal works of mercy, while hiding the light of the spiritual works under the proverbial bushel basket.
- Papal Leadership: Pope Francis has admitted that he likes to stir things up doctrinally. He often appears to be more concerned about climate change than about the moral degradation which far more actively destroys individual lives, families and society as a whole. This is in marked contrast to the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. John Paul in particular was a lifeline to the laity until they could be given better bishops and priests. Unfortunately, Pope Francis’ preferences are consistently represented in some of the pontifical academies and in the editorial policies of the Vatican’s newspaper (the two most recent examples are found here and here).
Note that I easily compiled the examples used here from our news stories over the past 48 hours. But again, the same thing could be done by surveying the news in almost any week of the year, and certainly any month. In general, the stories in which the institutional Church appears weak, or even complicit in the moral and spiritual crisis of the modern West, far outnumber those in which the institutional Church shows significant strength. And most of the positive stories cover not decisive action but…speeches.
Where is hope?
It seems clear that Catholic renewal has slowed or even stalled in the West, and is unlikely to receive significant further encouragement during the current pontificate. It is not that Pope Francis’ emphasis on solidarity and mercy are not valuable. We need these to avoid falling into old attitudes of Catholic complacency or triumphalism. But as a constant drumbeat, it is too much like the popular mantras of the sixties for comfort. Pope Francis has a strong tendency to sacrifice clarity to inclusiveness. The result for the cause of renewal is that the uncommitted are encouraged, while the committed lose heart.
Unless…. Let us take a step back.
We must remember what happened between 1960 and about 1980, when bishops and priests throughout the West revealed themselves to be almost hopelessly secularized. Meanwhile, the papacy was doctrinally strong but administratively weak. The mantle of renewal extended by the Second Vatican Council was cast aside by the clergy. But surprisingly, it was taken up by the laity. Renewal is hard work from below, but the committed laity were reminiscent of Elisha, clearly receiving a double portion of the prophetic spirit. And while the majority of lay Catholics are still fairly badly formed, a deeply committed laity has launched a thousand engines of Catholic renewal. The laity, in fact, nearly corner the market today.
To take but one example, the bulk of Catholic publishing was controlled by heterodox clerics in 1970. But now the vast majority of Catholic media is controlled, or at least run, by the laity and characterized by Catholic fidelity. This is true of books, magazines, radio, television and the web. Catholic education is a harder nut to crack, but lay inroads are significant there, too, especially at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, but also in colleges. I believe this process is farthest along in the United States but a sound lay presence is quite prominent in many other countries as well. This will continue.
The point is that the crisis of faith experienced by bishops and priests, which made life so difficult for lay people who really care, actually led to an astonishing contribution to Catholic renewal precisely by the laity themselves. It is just possible that we will now witness something similar with bishops and priests. The vast majority of these were formed during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The College of Cardinals thought they were picking a reformer in Pope Francis, but it seems clear that many cardinals and a majority of the bishops are deeply concerned by the results. Hoping for a man who could undertake a serious reform of the central administration of the Church, they ended up, thus far, with no significant reform and a great deal of fresh chaos.
It is quite possible, and perhaps likely, that many bishops and priests will now realize, more than ever, that renewal is up to them—that they must fill the vacuum of leadership. A clerical movement which parallels the situation of the laity over the past two generations would have a dramatic positive impact on Catholic renewal. Sometimes we fully realize our responsibility only when our superiors fail us. The Holy Spirit has done this before, in our lifetimes. Let us pray that He does it again.
Such a movement would also be amenable to a rise in importance of the young and vibrant African Church. I will not speculate on that here, but we would be victims of Western myopia indeed if we were to forget Africa. The great point is simply this: What we have before us today is not the failure of renewal, but a shift in its center of gravity.
Next in series: Will Catholic bishops really lead an ongoing Catholic renewal?
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