Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Did Christ die so we could become cultural Catholics?

As we go into the Easter Triduum, I thought I would leave you with some reflections on the future of the Church in Australia.

My own view is that we need a radical commitment to genuine renewal, not just more of the same, and this is a good time to consider just what we need to change individually and collectively.

Some of the reactions to Archbishop Coleridge's Brisbane appointment, as well as the discussion in various places over Sunday's Compass program, really draw out once again the competing narratives on the likely future trajectory of the Australian Church.  Let me attempt to distill for you what I think they are.

1.  All hail cultural Catholicism!

This is the school of thought that argues that Catholicism in this country is still strong, because large numbers of people continue to identify themselves as Catholics in the census and enrol their children in Catholic schools.  The Adelaide Archdiocesan website for example has a history of the diocese paper on it that concludes:

"In 2007 the Catholic Church is the largest religious denomination in South Australia, comprising some 21 per cent of the state’s population. The traditions inherited from the past provide a strong base for the church to preach its message and meet the needs of a very different society in the twenty-first century."

The problem of course is that most of these cultural catholics never actually darken the door of a Church; never actually know, support or comply with actual Church teachings.

Some in this camp have realised that if the coherency of cultural Catholicism is to be maintained, at least some minimal measures to promote a sense of catholic identity do need to be taken.  Thus they will encourage things like putting holy pictures back in the house, and the Angelus - but twice a week, not thrice daily...

Whether our leaders want to acknowledge it or not, this has, in my view, been the dominant paradigm in the Australian Church over the last few decades.

It is the paradigm that has allowed dissent to flourish, because taking it on would draw attention to the disunity amongst Catholics.  It is the paradigm that implicitly at least questions whether the institutional Church is really necessary, because really being a Catholic is about advancing social justice and helping the poor, and perhaps reading the Bible, you don't really need priests for that anyway do you?

Of course, inspiring people to become priests, put money on the collection plate and more all becomes problematic so long as this paradigm rules.

Worse, as bishops in both the US and Australia are suddenly finding, that you can't allow confusion and dissent to flourish then suddenly expect your flock to follow you when it comes to political crunchtime.  And you can't expect politicians to care a great deal about what you have to say if you can't command the support of your flock.

Continued acceptance of cultural Catholicism is, in my view, ultimately a recipe for the death of the Church in this country.

2.  The reading the signs of the times school of liberals

While some in the mainstream seem focused on the development and maintenance of outward unity, others view what is happening as a providential 'signs of the times'.

The ultra-Liberal version of this narrative sees the decline in priestly vocations as a good thing, because it will facilitate a new age of lay leadership in the Church, just as the collapse of religious life forced the lay takeover of schools, hospitals and other social services. 

The fact that the destruction of this traditional role of religious has resulted in the loss of a genuine catholic identity and sense of mission in most of these institutions is quickly glossed over - but on this problem see the interesting discussion over at the ABC religion and ethics website.

3. The reading the 'signs of the times' school of conservatives

The conservative version of this second storyline has best perhaps been articulated for Australia by George Weigel.  Weigel points to a number of actions to advance the cause of orthodoxy on the part of Cardinal Pell, and on that basis declares him the saviour of the Australian Church. 

The problem for this storyline is the lack of any real evidence that the Australian Church has actually been saved!

Some would also add to the Cardinal's role things like the positive effects of the Sydney WYD (which does seem to have had some impact at least at the margin in terms of the current revival being experienced in many dioceses in terms of vocations), initiatives such as Theology on the Tap in reviving youth interest in the Church, and assorted 'New Evangelization' initiatives.  They point to the strong migrant communities.  And perhaps are hoping for some effect from the new Missal translation.

The problem for those still hoping for the 'New Springtime' is that it all seems too little too late. 

Yes there are a some positive signs, in the form of the odd ordination here and there in dioceses they have been absent from for decades. 

But the numbers aren't nearly enough, and the momentum doesn't seem to be building fast enough to counter the ageing demographic of our existing base of priests.

And rumour is that the latest Mass attendance figures suggest that only 10% of Catholics went to Mass regularly in the 2011 survey.  And given the known rapidly ageing demographic of Mass goers...

4. The Remnant School

This school of thought accepts that the mainstream Australian Church is basically dead. Its solution is to set up protective enclaves, bastions which will safeguard the faith of themselves and their children through the coming darkness.

There are assorted versions of this paradigm of Pentecostal, conservative (think US Ave Maria community), migrant community and other colours. 

But of course I'm most familiar with the traditionalists in this camp: so numbers at Extraordinary Form Masses don't grow much? Who cares, we have a beautiful Mass to say/go to, so we're alright!

It is not that I'm opposed to building up walls and protecting ourselves: that is after all what St Benedict did with his monasteries through the dark ages.  Yet though the inner enclave of the enclosure was always protected against unwanted intrusion, the monastery gates were always wide open to anyone genuinely seeking; indeed the monasteries were magnets for pilgrimages, and towns quickly grew up around them.

5.  Radical renewal: a genuine new mission push!

This school includes both 'conservatives' of the Fr Barron type, who point to the type of mass movements that arose in part eras of decline in the Church, and as well as at least some traditionalists (including, at least in principle, myself!).

This is the group who looks for us all to accept the call to be saints, and step up to push for fundamental, radical change within the Church in order to generate the Mass movements necessary if Catholicism is necessary to survive in this country.

This is the school that argues that we can't afford half-baked, tokenistic reforms but need a comprehensive effort launched on many fronts at once.

It is the school that argues that we need to create a Catholicism in this country whose practice is genuinely in continuity with the broader tradition and patrimony of the Church and entirely orthodox in content.  But also one that engages in active discernment of developments within the Church and the world as it is now, seeking to incorporate and respond to the positive developments and insights of recent decades, even while rejecting and resisting those that do not past the tests of consistency with truth.

And on this topic there was an interesting post on Rorate Caeli recently (surprisingly in view of the content) from an SSPX priest who pointed to the failure of the TLM liturgy in itself to evangelise, and called for a new push to ditch those offputting traditionalist trappings (you know, the Amish look in dress, the weird conspiracy theories, and the sour, unwelcoming faces in some places) and genuinely try to get out from the ghetto and engage and convert those around us.  Let's just say that the responses to the Rorate post certainly sorted out the remnant faction from those who actually want to engage in re-evangelization!

And of course, actually doing this, actually stepping up to the plate is no simple thing to do.  But Easter and the time up to Pentecost is the perfect time to pray for the necessary grace and guidance.

And on that note, I'll be taking a short posting break for Easter.

But please do keep commenting and tell me if you think I'm being too hard on some, or have otherwise got it wrong.

 In the meantime I'll leave you with some eye candy pictures relating to the Gospel of each day for the season to enjoy...

May you have a holy and happy Easter.


GOR said...

Just as in Ireland, Kate, there appears to be much to be depressed about in the Church in Australia and you have documented well the status there. I don’t have any particular insights or expertise into what is to be done to turn things around – there, or in the Universal Church.

Yes, the Holy Father has called for a New Evangelization and I suspect assorted bishops’ conferences, diocesan chanceries and parishes are working on ‘programs’ and ‘initiatives’ to bring this about. I further suspect that many of these will come to naught.

It reminds me of so many programs and initiatives we had in the business world. Much time and effort were put into them, meetings held, presentations given, mission statements devised, etc. etc. But was any real change effected or results garnered? Rarely.

My approach to these was to say simply: “Just do your job!”

Which brings me to St. Therese of Lisieux. Perhaps what each of us needs is more of her “Little Way”. It doesn’t require a lot of study, learning or theological depth. Just do the ordinary, everyday things of life to the best of your ability out of love of God. Offer up the little trials and tribulations (and the big ones!) to God. Resignation to the will of God is something which we have lost sight of in this world of instant gratification and ‘cures for everything’.

For someone who seldom ventured outside the convent walls, St. Therese reached many people and became the Patroness of the Missions. She would never attribute any success to herself. It would always be God working through her. Not a bad example to follow!

Kate said...

Hmm, I've worked in organisations where change programs really did work! But in some where they failed.

The key things that I think made a difference were quality of leadership and commitment to keep pushing through no matter what, ability to build effective alliances of like minds, and working hard to sell the message and convince that the benefits of the change were worth the pain of change.

I'm sure St Therese's little way can be of benefit to many people. But it seems to me that it presupposes a supportive environment - after all, she lived in a monastery with Office, Mass, devotions and practices already established around her. And it could translate into broader society because they existed there too.

The problem facing the bishops I think is that all the assumed knowledge and infrastructure necessary for this approach are no longer there.

As for how to go about restorng it, I've previously made some suggestions, which you can read here:

I think the key steps require a focus on rebuilding catholic catholic identity and requiring genuine signs of commitment from catholics (bring back Friday abstinence, etc); improve the liturgy by exposing more people to the TLM and chant; a big push on more confession time and concrete measures to promote vocations; getting tougher on dissent; a more serious commitment to lay engagement.

GOR said...

Yes there’s something to the ‘environment’ regarding St. Therese, but there’s also something which people on the outside don’t always realize: religious community life is no ‘walk in the park’. Frequently the images people have of religious communities come from clips or movies showing a serene environment, great liturgy, prayer, meditation, etc. And the impression evoked is that all is ‘sweetness and light’. It can be anything but, and a real trial!

In a religious community you can still have dissension, rivalry, enmity and just the day-to-day trials of living in close proximity to some very different – and even difficult - people. You don’t check your nature at the monastery door or at Solemn Profession. Yes, all are in vows, all are called to perfection, holiness and to the observance of the Rule. But “being called to…” doesn’t equate to “being successful at…” The saying that “you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family” applies to religious life in spades! Been there, done that…

One way in which St. Therese was successful, and saintly, was in how she dealt lovingly with her most difficult religious sisters just as she did with the most agreeable. That sounds simple, but in practice it can take a lot of work – or even a saint…

But what I think I’m getting at is something the Holy Father has emphasized repeatedly: conversion – and perforce evangelization - starts with each of us individually. If each of us lives out our Faith - with God’s grace - to the best of our ability, good results will ensue. Not just for our own salvation, but for the salvation of others.

So while programs and initiatives may have their place, actions will always speak louder than words. And I would suggest that today we are drowning in words but severely lacking in example. No doubt the Apostles and early Christians were very successful at evangelization. But - pace the Apostles who did write - it was not the words of those ordinary early Christians that were most often noted, but their actions. “See how those Christians love one another” were the words Tertullian put in the mouths of the pagans of his time.

We may not be able to change the world, but we can change ourselves, with God’s help. And, ultimately, changing the world is in God’s hands.