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Mapping the Crisis: Ralph Martin’s blockbuster of a book

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 11, 2020 | In Reviews

I’ve just finished reading Ralph Martin’s latest book, A Church in Crisis: Pathways Forward. It is without question the strongest and most complete description to date of the deep corruption of faith and apostolic mission in the Church, which at times results in an evangelical silence so profound that we would expect even the stones to cry out (Lk 19:35-40). In many ways, this book is a sequel to a series of talks Martin gave forty years ago, which were published in 1982 in the book A Crisis of Truth. But this new project is larger and more thorough, and Martin himself has since become a credentialed theologian who plays a significant role in forming seminarians.

Vision Book Cover Prints

The book is a powerful witness to the destruction all around us, and if you need important data to document the need for Catholic renewal—or if you remain unconvinced of the depths of the problem—then it is essential reading. Moreover, Martin remains sound and balanced throughout; he is never tempted by the need for renewal to fall into ideological solutions or any sort of Traditionalist separation. For example, realizing that Pope Francis has both weaknesses and strengths as a man, he does not feel the need to reject everything just because he finds fault with some things.

If you are looking for a concrete solution for the contemporary Church, however, you will find that—like all the rest of us plying these troubled waters—Martin knows what should happen, but he does not really know how to make it happen. That’s not his fault, because nobody knows how to trigger a massive reform in the Church from top to bottom, and simplistic solutions are almost by definition seriously deficient in their understanding of the problems. We know various ways to make our own small contributions to renewal; and we know many things that need to change. But how to trigger the major ecclesiastical improvements that are so necessary is beyond us all.

Martin makes a great effort to chart “pathways forward”. This is the subject of the second half of the book. But he ends up even in this section spending as much space on detailing the depths of the problems as on the solutions to the problems. Moreover, the solutions are necessarily presented as spiritual needs, which readers should certainly take to heart (and probably already do), but which are not broadly realizable through any practical program. The analysis is not for the faint-hearted; the results are fairly gloomy. But this problem does not arise from any deficiency in Martin. All who commit themselves to apostolic work today are in the same boat. We all work daily against the same ecclesiastical lethargy, the same cultural infidelity and rebellion, the same practical obstacles to a deep and lasting success.

It is probably for this reason that the author does emphasize—among many important dispositions all of us must assiduously cultivate—the need to open ourselves more to the action and power of the Holy Spirit. Martin knows that ultimately it is only the Holy Spirit who can bring about the long-desired renewal, and that we can only guess at exactly how this will be accomplished. As I have often said, in this world the Christian is not called to victory but to fidelity. Fidelity is job one, and it always involves some level of suffering. Christ is the model for fidelity, and Christ saves only through the Cross.

Countercultural Suffering

The foundational practical recognition in Martin’s book is that Western culture has progressively lost its Christian orientation. Therefore all true Christians must live counter-culturally, and the Church herself must stop trying to pretend to be the champion of the culture. She must instead bear a serious counter-cultural witness. This goes to the heart of the matter, in that the Church reflects the prevailing sins of the culture from which her members and her ministers are drawn, yet she must be actively and purposefully counter-cultural with respect to the predominant cultural blindness, or she can do little good at all. One might summarize the predicament of the Church over the past two hundred years and more, in fact, as a long-standing partial refusal to admit that she is no longer a dominant cultural institution—a refusal to recognize that the only value that matters to her is the value of authentic apostolic witness.

But this thought raises an important question: Even if we grant (as I am willing to grant) that the Church is in greater need of renewal in our time than in some other times, is it not true that the Church always has this problem of reflecting the dominant sins of the culture in which she finds herself? Certainly this was true even in the high medieval period, when the Church was so influential in worldly affairs. Amid genuine achievements in those centuries, many of her sins were connected to this same influence in worldly affairs. Again, it is almost certainly the greatest problem of our time that so few Church leaders are willing to admit that the Church is now decidedly uninfluential in worldly affairs whenever she behaves as the Church should. Instead, ecclesiastical leaders and other prominent Catholics should all recognize this loss of influence, recognize what it means, and stop grasping after it, so that the Church can concentrate on preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ without any sycophantic worldly reservations.

Martin, of course, understands this completely. He has been involved in most renewal efforts over the last fifty years, including covenant communities, the charismatic movement, the explication of Scripture, higher studies in theology, constant teaching in one form or another, assisting the Vatican with elements of the New Evangelization under Pope Benedict XVI, print and audio and video publishing, running his own organized apostolate (Renewal Ministries), and (as I mentioned) the education and formation of seminarians (especially at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit). And this is not an exhaustive list.

And yet, and yet: With the rest of us, Ralph Martin can also say, and say again, that though he has accomplished so much more than most of us, he has not accomplished anything close to what he had hoped.

Flipping the coin

It is just here that we could wish someone would write a different sort of book, a book that takes a close look at the past fifty years to identify the explosion of faithful new apostolic initiatives—not only those in which Ralph has been consistently and effectively involved, but the many other organizations, often under lay leadership, which serve the Church well by contributing constantly to authentic Catholic renewal. An equally long book could cover many initiatives that, while by no means dominant even within the Church, are slowly transforming the Catholic spiritual landscape: new movements and new societies of apostolic life; new solidly Catholic publishers in print, websites, audio and video; new campus initiatives (such as FOCUS); new resource providers to parishes (such as The Augustine Institute); new Catholic schools and colleges; some older religious orders which have made fresh progress in renewal; the list goes on, and it is already formidable, even though all this is still in its infancy (which is, happily, nearly always a spur to greater zeal).

Even Ralph Martin’s brilliant book might have been “even brillianter” had he devoted the “Pathways Forward” section to all the forms in which the New Evangelization is already bearing fruit, though God knows it is not nearly dominant even within the Church as yet. But an equally detailed demonstration of the many possibilities for apostolic engagement for those who do not know where to begin might have hit a higher concluding note. My point here is that, despite all our problems, it is also possible—and it is possible in every age—to set against the backdrop of the Church’s human corruption all the initiatives of the faithful to renew her once again as the great medium of Divine grace she truly is.

As far as exceedingly minor differences go, I found Martin to be surprisingly hard on the unusual theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who imaged salvation in terms of a Divine drama, because of his serious exploration of the possibility of universal salvation—a question which has posed difficulties to theologians down through the centuries, with many of the greatest seeing considerable warrant for more than one opinion. It is one thing to believe that von Balthasar’s reflections have contributed to our contemporary confidence that nobody will be sent to hell (which is a very dangerous confidence); it is another to paint von Balthasar black in nearly every respect. He was named a cardinal by Pope St. John Paul II for his great contributions to theology, and Pope Benedict regards von Balthasar as a formative influence on his own work. And of course von Balthasar is a perennial favorite of one of the great engines of renewal in our time, Ignatius Press.

In any case, despite how easily the popular culture seizes on this or that theological reflection to justify its spiritual lethargy—and recognizing that other sound Catholic theologians also side with Martin against von Balthasar’s hope that God will, in the end, succeed in saving everyone—it remains true that God vastly prefers perfect contrition (out of love) to imperfect contrition (out of fear), and so we need to be very careful in the way we emphasize Hell. Finally it is a bit unfair, it seems to me, to criticize von Balthasar for his confidence in and service to the mystic Adrienne von Speyr, while quoting with approval apparent prophecies by figures in the charismatic movement (not that I object to his choices there).

But that’s it. That’s all I could find to establish my objectivity in spite of Martin’s kind decision, in the course of his analysis, to quote favorably something I had written. It is not much to complain about in the course of over 500 pages. If I were to go back through an equal quantity of my own writings on CatholicCulture.org over the past twenty years, I would find far more to criticize and clarify!

I hope the upshot is clear. As a Church and as Catholics, we all have a long way to go; we all ought to be distressed at the fix we find ourselves in; and if we are not suitably motivated by that distress, we need a fire lit under us. Ralph Martin’s brilliant and comprehensive masterwork, A Church in Crisis, will ignite that fire.


Ralph Martin, A Church in Crisis: Pathways Forward. Emmaus Road: 2020. 514pp. Hardcover $27.95; eBook $18.95.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: wsw33410 - Nov. 14, 2020 7:34 AM ET USA

    Let us look at the secular world: as Antonio Gramsci devised the "March Through Institutions" (presently successfully implemented in the West), this needs to be reversed and recovered, influenced by our Catholic culture - Culture of Love, starting from the step one: basic Catholic education - we need to initiate the Catholic "March Through Institutions", taking them over, cleansing them and promoting True Faith, Tradition, Magisterium - how can we remove an obstacle .. many bad hierarchy man?

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Nov. 12, 2020 12:12 AM ET USA

    I am a believer that wrong ideas, such as the steady-state model of the evolution of the universe, die out when their proponents die off. I hope that this is the case with many of the practitioners of religion and theology for the last few decades. But right religion is not communicated through osmosis, nor by deficient education. Right religion, like right science or right any other discipline, is handed on by right catechesis in right Catholic schools and CCD programs. This is where to start.