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Smaller Church, Bigger Faith 6: Our Responsibility

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 02, 2014

I intend here to complete my series on improving the Church’s membership. The improvement is to be desired both for the sake of the members and—in the particular context of this series—so that the Church is not so often her own worst enemy for the New Evangelization. In the preceding installments, I have identified three primary methods to be used to effect this improvement: The proper use of ecclesiastical authority; strong and pervasive preaching; and unrelenting creative efforts to reform key ancillary Catholic institutions, such as social service agencies, universities and theological faculties. It is time now for three closing reflections.

Size of the Church

The presumption with which I began this series was that a strengthening of the Church’s internal discipline, including a stronger emphasis on the need to accept the Church’s creeds, moral teachings and precepts, would very likely make the Church smaller, as people were forced to decide whether they wished to be in or out of a more seriously committed organization. Deeply committed Catholics have thought for years about the benefits of a Church which demanded greater cohesion even if that meant many would abandon the Church altogether. Shrinkage is a definite possibility.

But would this really be the result? On balance, I suspect not. What would happen, I think—and this is really the whole point of an effective New Evangelization—is that while many of the dissident and the lukewarm would leave the Church, many more would be inspired by a superior Catholic commitment and example to come in out of the cold. Consider as just one example the widely-reported reluctance of ecclesiastical leadership in Germany to emphasize the Church’s vision of sexuality and marriage. The fear is that this would drive many away from the Church, and also reduce the Church’s financial resources, because the majority of self-identified Catholics suffer a cultural blindness to this sphere of reality.

But actually the impact might be quite the opposite. A Church which spoke with a clear voice from the top right down to each priest and deacon in every parish might prove enormously attractive to many who are currently looking for happiness in all the wrong places, including many confused Catholics. Of course, the fear of diminished numbers and diminished revenues should never stand in the way of faithful Catholic ministry in any case; but it is also unwise to assume that such diminishment would be the result, even in the relatively short run.

Ease of Reform

I have tried to identify key facets of reform and renewal which are most important; others could certainly be identified, such as a more aggressively-enforced reform of quite a few religious orders which are conspicuous for their secularized dissidence. But it is one thing to identify problems, and quite another to assume that they are easy to solve. As a younger man, for example, I devoted enormous energy to calling, long and loud, for the courageous exercise of authority by popes and bishops to rid the Church of the many priests, religious and theologians who so clearly rejected or ignored the Church’s teaching authority. Such insistence is not wrong, but maturity also teaches that once discipline is loosened, it is very hard to tighten it again. After all, those who are responsible for the tightening are themselves influenced, to one degree or another, by prevailing attitudes, and the targets of their discipline are very likely to be impervious to correction.

This is why I emphasized in this series that there is no easy way to “throw a switch” to make popes or bishops or heads of religious orders exercise effective discipline. With respect to the problem of the universities, I have also noted how their very modes of governance often exclude the direct exercise of ecclesiastical authority. The problem becomes one of winning over members of a board of trustees, improving hiring practices, and so effecting change from inside the university structures. The same is true, though to a lesser extent, in religious orders. Bishops have almost no control over them, and short of outright suppression, even papal tools are limited.

Consider, for example, how hard it has been for the Vatican to act effectively in the renewal of American women religious, and especially in the reform of the notorious Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Even the reform of diocesan seminaries, where the lines of authority are far more clearly drawn, took the better part of a generation. The recent renewal of the case involving the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru also illustrates a major difficulty. Two years ago, the Vatican withdrew the use of the terms “pontifical” and “Catholic” from that university, yet the university in fact continued to use the same name.

The reality is that ecclesiastical authority was much easier to exercise effectively when both society as a whole and secular governments were prone to impose consequences for ignoring it. In the modern world that is simply not the case. The Society of Saint Pius X is another case in point. Church authority speaks; Church authority is dismissed, explained away, or ignored; most Catholics don’t know anything has happened, business continues as usual, and many continue to be misled. Some of my readers do not wish to hear that reform is difficult. Yes, more needs to be done and more can be done; otherwise I would not have written this series. But No, the necessary processes are neither easy to trigger nor easy to implement.

Our Own Responsibility

Finally, it would seem that we can respond in one of three ways to this need to improve the Church’s membership and the corresponding difficulty of effecting that improvement. First, of course, we could join the ranks of those who oppose the very concept of such renewal, motivated either by their own agendas or pervasive lukewarmness. Second, we can vent our anger at the failure of those in authority to act properly, the failure of too many ordinary members of the Church to take her mission seriously, and the failure of Just About Everybody to live up to their vocations in Jesus Christ. I suspect this is the greater temptation for our audience. We are likely to oversimplify the problems and their solutions, to denounce and complain frequently, and even to express contempt for those guilty of what appear to be so many obvious failures.

There is nothing wrong with working steadily and charitably to create the conditions necessary for effective renewal, and to encourage those in the relevant positions to act properly (or even to pressure them, where we have influence). In fact, I would say this is required of every Catholic, each according to his position, opportunities and abilities. But the rankling discontent, the public venting, the condemnation, the complaining, the contempt: These are rather a consequence of attempting to remove the speck from our brother’s eye while we ignore the log in our own (Mt 7:3; Lk 6:41-42).

It is precisely as Catholics that we must all understand one thing: Our greatest contribution to the renewal of the Church and the improvement of her membership is the cultivation of our own holiness, that is, our own deeply personal and fully illuminated relationship with Jesus Christ in the heart of His Church. Ultimately it is holiness that inspires, holiness that attracts, because it is holiness which makes us transparent, so that others can see and be touched by Our Blessed Lord. Conversely, the greatest obstacle to the New Evangelization for which we are responsible is our failure to do this—indeed, “just like everybody else”. Any fool can see that a great deal needs to be done, and I freely grant that it is easy to feel spiritually superior in the midst of all the chaos. But such feelings are a death-trap. Can there be a more fitting point on which to close?

Previous in series: Smaller Church, Bigger Faith 5: Social Services and Universities

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: koinonia - May. 05, 2014 4:39 PM ET USA

    This shrinkage is going to be inevitable whether overtly demonstrably or effectively the case despite a facade. The gospels invoke a theme of inheritance. To the baptized heaven is an inheritance; the Faith and sacraments belong to the baptized. It's remarkable that this concept is lost to the laity and to astonishingly numerous clerics and prelates. The "cultivation of our holiness" is the work of the Church; we cooperate, hopefully generously. Something has got to give. Sooner or later

  • Posted by: Ray and Ann - May. 04, 2014 3:47 PM ET USA

    I concur, this is a great series, Jeff. Thank you! I have forwarded links to it to my family members. Hope they will also read it, but i would have liked to have read a more instructive and inspiring conclusion.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - May. 04, 2014 8:24 AM ET USA

    You make a solid argument and we must shoulder our crosses and strive for holiness. This would solve much of problems. But I still think the Church could apply measures to those that are drilling holes in the barque of Peter. The Bishops could pull the faculties of offending priests. Pope could reassign offensive or lax Bishops to a lonely mountain retreat for prayer. As to the organizations that undermine - The bully pulpit works if used. Prayer by all works if used.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - May. 02, 2014 11:39 PM ET USA

    Perhaps a strange example for what I consider a perennial problem, our aversion to "break out" first, and then, to confront. We DO NOT want to "step out of the crowd..." The herd mentality is strong. Who wants to be different, especially when it comes to confessing sin? And after confessing and reforming, who wants to make oneself obnoxious by calling others to do the same? Francis of Assisi is the example... but who will REALLY DO IT? Who will really abandon the comforts to serve God?

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - May. 02, 2014 7:15 PM ET USA

    You know Dr.Mirus, I was praying thhe other day and told God that I cannot bear all those open injuries in Church, and henceI would put all that in His hands and stop worrying (not that, in my position, I have ever been able to do anything more than worrying). You know what happened when I told Him this? The very saying of the speck you mentioned came to my mind immediately, and I took it as a sign from the Parakletos to focus where I had to focus since day one.

  • Posted by: - May. 02, 2014 4:38 PM ET USA

    Great series, Dr. Jeff, but--you knew there'd be one of those, right? You wrote that as a young man you were vigorous in your call for the prelature to take action on problems, but now you say your experience has shown you how difficult it is to take effective action. Yet are we talking about different problems today compared to the ones of your youth, or the same problems? And if it's the same problems, as I suspect, then just when is it time to fish or cut bait?