Friday, 18 October 2013

Pitching to a post-modern world: AB Porteous and Australia's millions of MIA Catholics

One of the great debates at the moment, prompted not least by Pope Francis' fresh take on the subject, is how best to avoid the utter annihilation of the faith in the West.

Pitching to a post-modern world

While some of the debate is the predictable liberal twaddle, some of the debate is, I think, extremely healthy and worth at least taking seriously.

I'm talking about questions such as, acknowledging that the pro-life cause is supremely important in its own right, does it convert people?  Can the renewed emphasis on the transcendentals, such as beauty in the liturgy help turn the tide?  Does the answer lie in institutional reform - creating parishes that genuinely foster the spiritual life, and ensuring bishops who put the interests of the faithful before the financial and reputational interests of the institution for example?  Or does the answer lie, as Pope Francis seems to be proposing, in emphasizing practical charity as a means of demonstrating God's mercy and forgiveness?

What all of these positive suggestions have in common, I think, is firstly an acknowledgment that there really is a problem, and secondly a recognition that the Vatican II paradigm is simply not cutting it in a post-modern world.

It is deeply disappointing then, to read a blog post by one of Australia's younger and newest bishops, Hobart's Archbishop Julian Porteous, advocating not something new, but rather wanting to treat the texts of Vatican II as if it were Scripture itself.  His post, entitled 'The Spirit and the Council', is yet another of those 'the Council was a great grace' jobs, and contains another kick at traditionalists.

A new Pentecost?

Astoundingly, after canonising the Council, the Archbishop concludes his piece by claiming to detect the signs of that 'new Pentecost' or 'New Springtime' arising from Vatican II in the increased fervour of assorted 'new ecclesial movements'.

Now certain people, including several popes, have been claiming to see the signs of the new Pentecost for some decades now. 

Frankly, those signs seem pretty elusive to me.

We all know the figures. 

Despite the recent upsurge in vocations, more priests are dying or leaving in Australia than are being ordained.  

The proportion of Catholics who attend Mass is down to 10.6% and the collapse in practice shows no signs of bottoming out.  

In fact, some recent research by Peter Wilkinson, published in The Swag, reminds us that in 1954, the Sunday Mass attendance rate was round 74%.  It has declined steadily ever since, to around 30% in 1978, to its current level of around 10.6%.  

And between 2006 and 2011 only one diocese - Parramatta - managed to hold back the tide against the continuing plummet in Sunday Mass attendance rates (its Mass attendance rate actually increased marginally, from 15.9% to 16.1%).  Everywhere else, though the numbers of Catholics mostly rose, the proportion attending Mass fell, with at least 13 of our 28 geographical dioceses now having Mass attendance rates below 10%.  

Or mass apostasy!

Just to drive home how dire the situation really is, let me draw your attention to another new figure provided in the August newsletter of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference's Pastoral Research Office.

The PRO have highlighted that the number of baptized Catholics who have defected from the faith, that is, cease to identify as Catholic in the Census, amounts to around 200,000 people over the last decade.  The defectors come from all age groups - but surely the most alarming calculation is that this translates into around 72,000 young people leaving the Church each year, a rate up from 60,000 a year in the previous decade.

My take on it is that if you add together past defectors, plus the number claiming to be Catholics but not ever actually turning up to Mass, and the real number of Catholics Missing In Action is now easily well over five million.

In fact if you do the sums, Australia's practising catholics now amount to only 2.7% of Australia's population.

The hard reality is that Catholic numbers - and most especially Mass going numbers - have held up to the extent that they have only because of the effects of immigration.  The problem is that the children of migrants seem to rapidly assimilate into 'no religion' status just like everyone else.

Some, of course, comfort themselves with the notion that our schools (and other institutions) continue to thrive, educating around a fifth of the nation's children.  But as Eureka Street pointed out this week, a Catholic education or background, even on the part of 'practising' Catholics, seems to be no indicator at all of how politicians (and others) approach the moral challenges of life, in the public square or out of it.

By their fruits...

Now none of this can possibly be news to Archbishop Porteous, for his new diocese is one of the strong contenders for the title of most parlous of the country.

The ranks of those refusing to identify their religion or claiming no religion whatsoever in Hobart Archdiocese (ie Tasmania) is a staggering 38.5%.  The proportion of catholics in the population of the diocese continues to fall (in 2011 it was down to 17.9%).

Only 7.1% of those nominal Catholics bother to turn up to Mass regularly.

And a full half of its ever declining number of priests are retired.

Tasmania has, of course, long been one of the most liberal, pro-Vatican II dioceses in the country - Archbishop Guildford Young boasted of having anticipated in the Council in the Rahner inspired reforms he made to the Mass there, and his successors have continued down the path he set.

So to me at least, these figures attest to the utter failure of the 'updating' paradigm that Archbishop Porteous advocates for, and points to the need for a rather more fundamental rethink of how the Church should pitch itself to a post-modern world.

Instead, in his post, Archbishop Porteous claims a 'providential' status for the Second Vatican Council.  He says:

"In the debate surrounding the interpretation of the Council, we need to consider the presence of the Holy Spirit both in the Council and in the Church. It is an act of faith to declare that the Holy Spirit guided the Council Fathers...In this regard it is not the “spirit of the Council” that is important but rather what the Spirit is saying to the Churches via the Council." 

But do we have to believe that?

The decision to call a Council is a prudential decision, one of governance, not doctrine.  It is not protected by the charism of infallibility.  And it was a pastoral council, or a 'council of faith' as Lumen Fidei puts it: one primarily about pastoral practice.

The standard doctrine, as stated in Vatican II itself, is that the Holy Spirit protects Councils (in union with the Pope) from outright doctrinal error when it comes to infallible declarations.  Most theologians (outside the SSPX) would go a step further and argue that it also prevents outright error (as opposed to poorly argued and stated propositions and failures of prudential judgment) in its non-infallible texts correctly understood.

But as far as I read the churches teaching on this matter, we don't actually have to believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the texts or guided the individual decisions.  Rather that is a matter for discernment.

The challenges of a post-modern world

Archbishop Porteous canvasses Pope Benedict XVI's explanation of why Vatican II has not been a success, namely the desire of some to interpret the 'spirit of the Council' quite aside from what it actually says.

However he neglects to mention Pope Benedict's other line of attack on Vatican II, namely that it was all about addressing the challenges posed by 'modernity', directed at the world as it existed before 1968, and doesn't in fact address the challenges of a post-modern world.

Instead, Archbishop Porteous argues that the texts have timeless status, its prescriptions valid forever.  Indeed, he seems to want to place the texts of the Council on the same level as divinely inspired Scripture:

"It is true that the surface understanding of things can often blind us to the deeper action of God’s Grace. For example, we can be so preoccupied with dissecting the human meaning of a text of Scripture that we fail to hear the voice of God speaking to us today through the text. The text may have been written in a particular time in history, yet as a work of the Spirit it has power and efficacy in every age.

The Fathers of the Vatican Council addressed the challenges as they saw them in the 1960s. The texts are rich and have had a deep impression on the Church. However, it is possible that below the surface of the texts lies the greater work of the Spirit. It may be that the Spirit in inspiring the Fathers was about a more profound work. This work may only come to be seen many years after the texts were written. Even now we may just be beginning to glimpse what the Spirit has given to the Church through the Council."

Really?  If the texts of a Council truly have the same timeless status as Scripture, then why aren't we giving equal time to those of Trent or other Councils?

Personally I find rereading the documents of Vatican II shows just how much a product of their time they really are: they repeatedly show how hopelessly, naively optimistic the Council Fathers were on so many fronts; and how flimsy and flawed the 'new theology', how inadequate the anthropology and philosophy on which so much of its thinking was based.

'Updating' and the tradition

Perhaps the biggest problem of all with Archbishop Porteous' piece, in my view, is his interpretation of the value of 'aggorniamento' or updating.

He does, it is true, reject the idea that the Church should adapt to the times:

"At the present moment there is a fresh awareness of the purpose of the Council in having continuity with the past. In the wake of the Council many of the most vocal were declaring that a new day had dawned for the Church. This view tended to be readily accepted by many. Many Catholics thought that the Church was adjusting to the times. Changes were being made to enable the Church to be more relevant. The narrative of the day proposed that the Church was catching up with the modern world and would adapt itself to modern thinking. Those who pursued this path have not shown evident good fruit."

And yes, he does argue that we need to "engage with our times" while being in the world but not of it.

But I really find this paragraph problematic:

"In this regard a correct understanding of the nature of Tradition is important. Those who have rejected the Council outright have claimed that the Council had not been faithful to Catholic Tradition. However, Tradition should not be seen as a collection of beliefs and practices fixed once and for all. To freeze the Tradition by making it begin, or end, at a certain fixed moment means making it a dead tradition. Tradition is a living reality because the Holy Spirit is an active agent leading the Church into all truth."

Here is the issue: actually the Tradition surely is fixed in a certain sense.  Revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle, and the Church's job is to pass on the deposit of faith, not to change it.

The Church doesn't suddenly develop new beliefs: rather new doctrinal formulations simply crystallize what has always and everywhere been believed, as the Church gradually 'fully grasps' the significance of Revelation (CCCC 9).  We can find new ways of explaining the faith appropriate to a particular time and place, but that doesn't amount to changing what we believe!

And the  Apostolic Tradition, as the Compendium of the Catechism points out, actually is transmitted through practices such as 'institutions, worship' and so forth.  Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI said in Summorum Pontificum:

"As from time immemorial, so too in the future, it is necessary to maintain the principle that “each particular Church must be in accord with the universal Church not only regarding the doctrine of the faith and sacramental signs, but also as to the usages universally received from apostolic and unbroken tradition.  These are to be observed not only so that errors may be avoided, but also that the faith may be handed on in its integrity, since the Church’s rule of prayer (lex orandi) corresponds to her rule of faith (lex credendi).”

Certainly some things can change.  Yet it is not simply a case of 'retreating to the past' and 'clinging desperately to what existed before', as the Archbishop seems to be suggesting, when we treasure the patrimony that has been passed down the centuries.  As Pope Benedict explained in his letter to the bishops on Summorum Pontifucm:

"What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.  It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place."

Time to move along

There is, in my view, absolutely nothing to be gained by continually rehashing the debate over Vatican II, whether to sing its praises or to agonise over its destructive impact.

We can't of course altogether ignore history, but fifty years on we need to take a hard look at where we are now, and what can be done to confront the issues of the world today, not the world as it looked in the early 1960s.

I'll have more to say on that anon.


Fr Mick Mac Andrew West Wyalong NSW said...

Please explain what an MIA Catholic is? I searched the article hoping for a definition but couldn't locate one.

Kate Edwards said...

Missing in action - I'll amend t make clearer!

Fr Mick Mac Andrew West Wyalong NSW said...

Thanks Kate, I'm always a bit slower at the end of the week.

A Canberra Observer said...

MIA wasn't lost on the military buffs :-)

However your point about the enthusiastic announcement of tne New Pentecost and New Springtime reminds me of a scenes from Erik the Viking, when the Atlantians blithely continue to assert that Atlantis is not sinking but process and sing as the water rises inexorably. Never mind about reality ...
Having visited quite a few churches in various parts of Australia over recent weeks, your thesis is evident for those with eyes to see - the Mass attending Catholic population is in most places overwhelmingly grey with smatterings of young families (presumably 2-5% of the Catholic school population) and smaller smatterings of 40-60 year olds. the demography indicates that this population is set to asymptote to extinction in a few years. Literally it may be the dead burying the dead.
Perhaps bishops can be a little forgiven in that I presume what they see when they visit parishes is Confirmations where all of the normally unchurched families receiving the sacrament and their probably unchurched relatives and friends are all in attendance thereby giving a completely unique and false impression of a what the normal Sunday congregation looks like in both numbers and type.

Jean Celine said...

With regards to the diocese of Tasmania, mass attendance is less than 7% of the Catholic population, no matter what the official figures claim. On current trends we are heading for a total mass attendance of @ 2, 500 in @ 10 years. It is very hard to imagine this remaining an autonomous diocese beyond the new Bishop's tenure.

Kate Edwards said...

Jean - You are correct. The claimed rates of attendance reflect those who still say they are catholic in the census. So to get the real number, you have to look at that large group who are in fact baptised catholics, but answer 'no religion' or refuse to answer the question at all in the census. No way to know exactly how many are in that group, though I've no doubt Bob Dixon and friends at the PRO could and probably have made a good estimate.

But it since the number of 'none' Tasmanians is way above the national average, we can be sure the number is not small.