A commenter on last weekend's Pastoral Letter from the Australian bishops on evangelization has pointed to a key group I didn't mention as in need of evangelization, namely those who come to Mass, but are dissenters. He has also highlighted concerns about the tone of the 'Been Away' letter, which urges lapsed Catholics to return to the Church.
Both seem to me to be questions of tactics rather than anything else. I suspect the bishops have actually done some research on what approaches might work.
And I think there is a plausible rationale for their approach.
Failure to practice Catholic morality
It is perhaps worth starting by recalling a line or two from the Catechism of the Council of Trent for some rather tougher talk than one will find in the current Catechism of the Catholic Church.
"The Church Militant," it says, "is composed of two classes of persons, the good and the bad...." The bad, it goes on to explain, are those who profess the faith but don't live it.
Think here of those who come to Mass but contracept. They know what they are doing is wrong. But they do it anyway - and they remain part of the Church:
"...however wicked and evil they may be, it is certain that they still belong to the Church. Of this the faithful are frequently to be reminded..."
The catechism also states though, that "..three classes of persons are excluded from the Church's pale: infidels, heretics and schismatics, and excommunicated persons....Heretics and schismatics are excluded from the Church, because they have separated from her and belong to her only as deserters belong to the army from which they have deserted."
There are some who outright reject what the Church teaches. Are dissenters therefore excluded from the Church? Not necessarily, for as the Catechism also points out:
"For a person is not to be called a heretic as soon as he shall have offended in matters of faith; but he is a heretic who, having disregarded the authority of the Church maintains impious opinions with pertinacity."
In other words, the erroneous nature of their views needs to be firmly and clearly brought to their attention. That has clearly happened in some cases (such as priests who chose to leave the priesthood rather than conform). But it is pretty clear that many people in the pews continue to be misled by either a failure on the part of their priests to teach, or by the propagation of outright error.
Have the bishops ignored the need for reform within the Church?
If you go to the website for this initiative, Evangelise Australia, you will actually find a section on the need to start by evangelising ourselves and those in the Church. It talks about the need to model the virtues ourselves. It provides resources on prayer and particularly the rosary. So I think the bishops are acknowledging the issue.
It will partly addressed, I think, by papal teaching, on which I suspect we might be about to get a good dose!
In the end though, as we are all only too well aware, whether or not the underlying issues are being tackled largely comes down to the individual bishop, their own views, and their vigour in tackling the problems.
On this we must pray. We must support the positive actions the bishops we can take wherever possible, and avoid reading the worst case scenario into everything.
And we must do what we can that is within in our competence. Don't like the prospect of pantsuited nuns running a Bible study group? Then set one up yourself and get hold of some good orthodox materials to use! Volunteer to lead the Reconnect seminars in your parish!
There are however, I think, serious attempts being made to address the problem on a more systematic basis, but it will take time.
How can erroneous views be countered?
Dr Tracey Rowland's book Ratzinger's Faith has an interesting discussion of the Pope's views on ecclesiology. Essentially she says that he has been very critical of the 'People of God' language emphasized in the documents of Vatican II, in part because it positively lends itself to a sort of congregationalism.
I've dubbed this heresy neo-congregationalism, because the original version of congregationalism was of course the Protestant Reformation. And I do think it is pretty clear that it deserves to be called a heresy. Rowland captures the main elements of it very well. It
"... emphasizes the democratization of the Church's offices and structures, the abolition of celibacy for the clergy, the ordination of women, and the promotion of liberal attitudes towards the meaning and purpose of human sexuality.' (p86).
The Pope's alternative approach
Rowland points out that the Pope's Communio school of theology chooses instead to emphasize the view of the Church as 'communio', building on the notion of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ set out in Pius XII's Mystici Corporis.
Now I'm not personally that enamoured of the communio model, but I do see that its stress on the diversity and complementarity of roles in the Church could potentially be quite effective in countering neo-congregationalism. It argues that everyone is specifically called by God to a particular role, through their particular gifts, in building up the Church in a way consistent with their own particular state of life. But it firmly rejects any sociological view which sees the Church as a network of power structures, or as a kind of multinational corporation with the Pope as CEO and laity as shareholders.
What is the best tactic to get them in?
A traditionalist might stress the need to convert people or bring the lapsed back into the Church for their personal salvation, and only incidentally point to the good they might then do in advancing the mission of the Church.
But it is equally valid I think - and perhaps more appealing - to stress, at least at first, the idea of what one can contribute to the Church's mission by coming back and of the need for unity. This is where I think the bishops are coming from in the 'Been Away' letter, where it says things like:
"Why not join us again? We need each other. We need your help in carrying on the mission of Jesus. Only with you, can we be all that Jesus calls us to be as his Church. You have a God-given gift which you alone can bring to the Church. We need that gift."
Of course this needs to be followed up with instruction on the need for the sacrament of penance and much more.
The first step, though, is to get peple back in the door, and once there, to help them understand that they can play a valuable role through the practice of the Church's morality, and without needing to play at being pseudo-priests as extraordinary ministers etc.
I think we should give the bishop's letter the benefit of the doubt.