Facing the Crisis: Some Reflections on the Current Crisis in the Church
Dear Friends, I thank you most sincerely for your very kind invitation to have me here to address you this evening. I am deeply impressed by your organization, and am particularly happy to see so many of my friends on your advisory board, and my dear friend Father Dudley Day, listed as your chaplain.
I have chosen for the title of my talk Facing the Crisis: Some reflections on the Current Crisis in the Church. It is important, I believe, to place a background against which my reflections will reflect. This has to be, of course, my conviction and I am sure yours, that the Catholic Church is very large with more than 1 billion 500 million of our fellow inhabitants of this planet, all across the globe, being our brothers and sisters in a common faith. We must also never forget that the Church is ever ancient and ever new, and has journeyed through more than two thousand years of human history, facing innumerable trials and difficulties, as well as triumphs and joys, carrying on her garments the dust of the journey, and sometimes on the feet of her members the mud of the trip. The Catholic Church, which is the bride of Jesus Christ, is holy and sinless, although she is composed entirely of sinful human beings, and all her members are required to pray that they be forgiven for their trespasses as they forgive others.
As she journeys through history and into our time and place, the Catholic Church carries deep within her the assurance of Jesus Christ that she will last until the end of time, and they he will be with her until He comes again in glory on the clouds of heaven. As His Mystical Body, she has God Himself, the Holy Spirit, as her informing soul, and as the one who protects and guides her despite the obstacles placed in her way, sometimes by her own disloyal and betraying children, as well as by those who, wittingly or unwittingly, at the source of the gates of hell's projected attempts to prevail against her. These thoughts might enable us to adopt an historical perspective as we consider the present problems and crises that the Church is encountering in this time and place, and will give us the necessary buoyancy to confront these crises which we should perhaps look at as the chastening rod of God, but not allow ourselves to be overcome with pessimism. It is said that the Chinese word for crisis is the same as the word for challenge or opportunity, and perhaps that understanding of the crises that we face will enable us always to be Easter people with Alleluia as our song.
That being said, we should however, realize that the Catholic Church in the United States, and to a large extent throughout the Western World, is facing a very formidable series of crises. Although the Catholic population of the United States is consistently growing, and now exceeds 67 million out of our total American population of 300 million, we have to remember that almost all of the growth has taken place by way of immigration, and almost none or less than none, by natural demographic increase. It should also be pointed out that the number of conversions to the Catholic faith in our country has fallen precipitously in the last forty years. As a matter of fact, it is an aphorism that probably can be statistically verified that the largest religious group in the United States is the Catholic Church, but the second largest is fallen-away Catholics, lapsed, non-practicing, those who have abandoned the Catholic faith. This leakage from the Catholic faith in the United States, which is undeniable, can be attributed to many factors, at least as far as can by observed. Thousands and thousands of Catholics have become Protestants and many thousands more have given up the practice of religion altogether. Except for the total number of Catholics in our country, every other category of Catholic statistics is in decline. There is and continues to be a very steep decline in vocations, a very steep decline in the number of priests, an extremely steep decline in the number of religious, especially women religious. There has been the closing of hundreds of Catholic schools throughout the United States. Many seminaries are closed or have such infinitesimally small enrollments that they ought to be closed. There are many Catholic colleges and universities, some of which are trying to maintain a Catholic identity, but many of which are Catholic in name only. There is a breakdown of authority in the Church, constant and open dissent by people who call themselves theologians; great doctrinal and moral confusion, and Catholics who while professing to belong to the Church are, perhaps, within her pale but outside of her orthodoxy. Catholics in many parts of the United States are confronted by banal, shallow, and irreverent liturgies that have no or only a most remote connection with the holy sacrifice of the Mass. In 1965, all the statistical studies showed that at least 85% or perhaps more of the Catholics in the United States attended mass each Sunday. The present statistical studies show that this has gone to 27% of the Catholics in the United States attending mass on Sundays. This is still in excess of certain countries in Europe such as Belgium and France, but there are some countries in Europe that have a higher Mass attendance than the United States, such as Poland and Italy. Unfortunately, Mass attendance in Ireland is descending rapidly to the tragic American level. Recent studies show, for example, that in the Archdioceses of Newark, in New Jersey, and Boston in Massachusetts, only 17% of those who say that are Catholic go to Mass at all. At the State university of Nebraska, located in Lincoln where I live, and where most of the Catholics who attend that university are not from the Lincoln Diocese, only 25% of the Catholic student body ever attend mass on Sunday, and after freshman year, more than half of the Catholics who attend that State university have lost their faith. In nearby Chicago, here, I believe that the census taken each October by the Archdiocese shows that only 22% of those who claim to be Catholic regularly attend Mass.
I need not point out to a wonderful group such as yours, that some of the leading proponents of such horrors as abortion, including partial birth abortion, are Catholic senators or senators who claim to be Catholic, and their names are quite familiar to you and I am certain that they are also very dedicated to such monstrous practices such as human cloning for therapeutic purposes, and embryonic human cell research. The picture, when one steps back and looks at it from some distance, can be quite bleak, and in many ways a source of anxiety and perhaps, desperate despondency. On the other hand, it can also be an opportunity to re-determine and reinvigorate our own faith, so that we can answer the question in the affirmative, that Jesus left unanswered in Sacred Scripture. "When the Son of Man comes again, will he find any faith on earth?"
Unless there is a strong realization among practicing Catholics that there is a crisis, and that this crisis deserves our resolute determination to confront it and overcome it, we will not get very far, except to descend further into the bleakness of this sad kind of winter. Unless the patient realizes he is sick, he will not expose his wounds to the necessary healing medicine that would provide a cure for his problems.
There are, of course, many causes for these ecclesiastical crises in which we are involved. There are many causes outside of the Church. We live, for example, in a culture that is dominated by materialism and hedonism, invisibly and imperceptibly the values of those things creep in the lives and attitudes of all, including Catholics. Even the healthiest fish cannot swim along in polluted waters. In our country, especially, a serious misunderstanding of freedom has turned freedom into license, and we live in a pan-sexual and irresponsible age, in which pleasure, comfort, and material possessions appear to be the goals of human existence. Lacking solid catechetical teaching, it is very easy for people, especially young people to be lured into that kind of attitude and condition their entire life-style by such an attitude.
As Archbishop Fulton Sheen used to say, "Most poisons are quite sweet to the lips. It is only when they are ingested that they destroy one."
However, we would certainly be blind to reality if we did not also realize that there are many causes of the current crises within the church herself, and the children of the Church who are in large measure betraying her, being one of the principal causes. First of all, the creed is absolutely the basis of what we are and what we do. When heretical and erroneous teachings are allowed to run rampant, it is a very short time before total disaster engulfs the entire ecclesiastical enterprise in any one area. We should remember that there was a time when North Africa was almost entirely Christian, almost entirely Catholic. Today, one can journey across North Africa from Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, and Egypt and find very little, if any, Catholic presence in most locations on that shore of the Mediterranean Sea. We should not think this cannot happen here. Although we are promised that the Church will endure until the end of time, we have no promise that it will be enduring in North America.
A great amount of dissent and turmoil has come about because of a very serious misunderstanding of the Second Vatican Council. The documents of the Second Vatican Council are excellent. All of the documents deserve careful study and careful consideration in all their implications and all their nuances. The intentions of the Popes of the Council, Blessed John XXIII and Pope Paul VI are also quite clear in their writings and speeches and in all the things they saw as derivative from the Council. The Council in itself we consider a great act of the Holy Spirit. However, what happened was (and I speak from first-hand experience because I was in Rome at the conclusion of the Council) that a great number of personages and causes gathered around the Council as a kind of para-Council, which gave, because of their domination of the media, an incredibly wrong impression which persist even to this day, about what the Council was and what it was intended to achieve. For example, one hears very little about the continuity of historic tradition which is inherent in the very actions of the Council and in its documents, that it always understood itself as in organic unity with the previous Councils of the Church, including both the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council which is explicitly affirmed and intended to incorporate in its outlook. This para-Council of advisors, experts and non-Catholic observers bestowed on the media incredibly distorted and even totally inaccurate impressions of the Council, giving to many Catholics even today, expectations for changes that were unrealistic and completely unintended. There was, in a certain sense the rigidities of the past and perhaps some faulty catechetics about issues in the past that made it possible for Catholics to be severely mistaken in what the Council intended and what would be within the capacities of the church to accomplish. The turbulent times of the 1960's especially in North America and Western Europe with problems of racial justice, war and peace, and similar matters got mixed up in the minds and hearts of many people and some Catholics were completely led astray, that Pope John's opening the windows to let fresh air into the church was an act they didn't see, which Pope John actually did see, the need for screens on the windows to keep foreign bodies from entering into the Church. Thus, we heard a few years later, Pope Paul VI saying that the very smoke from the fires of hell had crept into and under the window sashes and doors of the Church.
There was also a mistaken notion, even among some people who should have known better, that by removing or changing accidental matters, sometimes considered accretions in ecclesiastical life, it would not affect the substance of that life. I think there was misunderstanding of the Thomistic view of accidents and substances. Sometimes pulling out accidents which inhere in substances disturbs the substances themselves. Among the mistaken notions and distortions that derive from the Council was that of liturgical chaos. We also had a completely mistaken idea of the relationships of non-Catholics, individually and in groups, to the Catholic Church. The decree on ecumenism and the declaration on non-Christian religious, Unitatis Redintegratio and Nostra Aetate became the launching points of what later became, according to our present Holy Father, the dictatorship of relativism; namely, that there is no religious truth, or that religious truth is good for this person, but not necessarily true or good for that person, or while emphasizing that there are oftentimes, positive and truthful elements in other churches and other religious, and other denominations, and other religious experiences, and trying to be positive about that, may have misled a lot of people into thinking that religious truth is simply not contained in its fullness, in all its integrity and beauty only in the Catholic faith, but might also be contained similarly in others.
In Nebraska, where I come from, at this time of the year, harvest time, there are a lot of rodents who try to intrude themselves in, feasting on the corn, soybeans, and other products of the fields. This requires the farmers to put out appropriate amounts of rat poison to prevent this from happening. The rat poison that is put out is always 95% healthy, good, wholesome, nourishing food. It is only the 5% in the poison that does the killing. I think that this has been overlooked in the ecumenical and inter-religious dialogues sometimes, that inserted into things which might have elements of truth, are also very serious elements of error that place in jeopardy one's eternal salvation.
On hundred and fifty years ago, Cardinal John Henry Newman confronted the same situation in large extent that we are presently facing. He said, "Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and taste, not an objective fact, not miraculous, and it the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy. Devotion is not founded on faith. Men may go to Protestant church or to Catholic, may get good from both, or belong to neither and may fraternize together in spiritual thought and feelings without having any views at all of doctrine in common or seeing any need of them."
It does not take much inquiry or insight to see how this kind of liberalism in religion affects many people of our time. Newman said this liberalism "is the view that the Governor of the world does not intend that we should gain the truth, that we are not more acceptable to God by believing this rather than believing that, that no one is answerable for his opinions, that it is enough that we simply hold what we profess, and that we should follow what seems to us to be true without any fear lest it should not be true, and that we may safely trust to ourselves in matters of faith, and need no other guide."
Newman then says that "the Catholic faith opposes this idea of liberalism in religious. It asserts very emphatically that there is a truth, then, that there is one truth, that religious error is of itself an immoral nature, that its maintainers, unless involuntarily such, are guilty in maintaining it, that the mind is below truth and not above it, and is bound, not to descant upon it, but to venerate it, that truth and falsehood are set before us for the trial of our hearts, that our choice is an awful giving forth of lots on which salvation or its rejection is inscribed, and that before all things it is necessary to hold the Catholic faith, and that he who would be saved must think thus and not otherwise."
What then should be the method by which we face the rises in the Church at this time? There must be, I think, a supreme effort to recapture our Catholic faith in all its orthodox splendor, and to take a stand for Christ as in the olden days. The Church has ever been counter-cultural. She has always and ever been that which stands against the age because she is the custodian of the Deposit of Faith, inherently and intrinsically conservative, as Pope Paul VI observed, because she to maintain the integrity of that faith without distortion or mutilation down through the centuries. It is important that we see the truths of our Catholic faith as liberating realities, and not as some kind of constraint, and that true freedom is linked with truth, and that truth trumps freedom and that unless one is in possession of the truth, one is not actually free. The words of Jesus are always appropriate to every age, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."
It is also important in this regard to reinvigorate in ourselves and in all with whom we have any connection, the spirit of obedience. Saint Paul, in his epistle to the Romans speaks about the obedience of faith which we must give to God Who reveals Himself in Christ Jesus. Jesus Himself redeemed us by obedience; not just that He died, but that He was obedient unto death. Obedience means submitting our will to the will of God. The medieval Doctors of the Church always encouraged those who listened to their teaching and preaching to sentire cum ecclesia, that is, to think with and be with the Church.
And so, the question arises, "Where is this church?" It is certainly not situated in Andrew Greeley or Richard McBrien, or Sister Chittester, or in the myriads of other personages and voices whose faces and words appear to dominate the media when it come to Catholic expression. No, Saint Ambrose, long ago, told us where we would find the Church, where she is always situated. He said in Latin, Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia, et ubi ecclesia vita eterna. Where Peter is, there is the church and where the Church is, there is everlasting life. It is especially through apostolic succession, and most particularly in the apostolic succession of the See of Rome, that we are able to reach back through history, and touch, not only the bodies and souls of the apostles, but the One Who sent the apostles forth, that is the Divine Founder of our Catholic religion of the Catholic Church, the Divine Source of all faith, as well as the Object of that faith, Jesus Christ. The great martyrs who preceded us in our Catholic faith were willing to see Jesus as the Person to die for, and we certainly, to be worthy of their memory, must see Him as the Divine Person to live for.
The clash of culture represented by the Muslim demography and onslaught in our time, which reflects the Islamic expansionism of times past, cannot be successfully confronted by an easy-going pluralistic tolerance. It can only be confronted by a reinvigorated Christianity, a reinvigorated Catholic faith. The dynamism, the Tielhardism, the Communism, the Marxism, the Socialism, and countless other isms of the last centuries will never be successfully confronted either, apart from a reinvigorated and grace-filled Catholic faith. This duty to profess again, not just with mouth and words, but with heart and soul, the Catholic faith, the profession of faith, is incumbent, not simply upon priests, religious, and bishops, preoccupied as they are and assailed as they are by abominable scandals in their number and confusion in their thoughts, but also by a laity that takes again very seriously what Chesterton observed. "There are an infinity of angles at which one can fall, but only one at which one can stand." Once the Catholic faith is flaming alive in the hearts of a dedicated laity, they will be able to carry out the function that the Second Vatican Council places upon them, to bring Christ and the truth of his faith and the truth of the faith He founded into the market place, into the work place, into the home and family, into the realm of politics, business, industry, commerce, the professions, arts and culture.
In summary, a laity that will be the salt, the leaven and the light that will penetrate our world. Initially, there were only twelve apostles, largely shabby fishermen from Galilee, who were able, with the grace of God and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to bring the light of Christ to 2000 and more years of human history. Why should we think we are any less capable, provided that we are people of prayer, dedication and devotion, of doing something similar in our time and place. Let it be our prayer that God will give us here and now, the ability to dare to be different, and to stand for Christ whatever the cost, and to convince our world that our Catholic faith is so beautiful that all people would wish it to be true, and then to inform our world in the most certain terms that it is true. Thank you very much.
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