Is the Church going to disappear?

Recent debates over the rise of aggressive secularism in the West and the waning of religious faith in modernized countries has led to a reexamination of the role of the Catholic Church in the modern world, especially given the complexity of today’s “progressive,” and oftentimes athiestic, cultural milieu.   The following two excerpts look at this very question from an “insider’s perspective,” analyzing the Church’s role a decade into the third millenium.  Is the Church really on her way out?  Has religion lost its place in society?  Is secularism now the greatest threat to the Church, or does the Church have something substantial to say to the modern world? 

My bishop, the Most Rev. Thomas J. Tobin, provides an excellent synopsis on why the Church is not on her way out.  Even 1600 years ago, the Church was thought to fall to ruins, to disappear from the very life of society, but managed to exist and grow substantially.  Bishop Tobin writes, “A famous theologian wrote this assessment about the Church: ‘People look upon the Church and say, ‘She is about to die. Soon her very name will disappear. There will be no more Christians; they have had their day.’  Now it’s instructive to note that this rather dour prediction came not from the scribes of the National Catholic Reporter or the New York Times. This description of a dying Church was referenced by St. Augustine, 1600 years ago – a rather compelling reminder, I think, that the Church in every age has known its struggles and failures.”  Clearly, the idea of a “suffering Church” in the midst of a secular society is not new to Christianity.  Bishop Tobin reminds us that good things happen every day in the Church – souls are brought to Christ daily, and many are continuing to hear and believe the Word of God even in distant lands.  It is Lord, after all, who chooses the Church as His spouse, never to part from her. 

The second excerpt is taken from an interesting debate at the Royal Geographical Society in London, in which Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, OP, argues that secularism is a greater threat to Christianity than Islam.  The text of Fr. Radcliffe’s speech raises some interesting questions about secularism and secularity in general.  Fr. Radcliffe is the former Master of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) and currently resides and teaches at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford, where I studied this summer. 

The Sky is Falling!  Really?

Most Reverend Thomas J. Tobin, D.D., Bishop of Providence

For reasons that will become obvious, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the parable of the farmer walking down a rural road who came across a tiny sparrow, lying along side the road on his back, with his little feet up in the air.

“What are you doing?” said the farmer to the sparrow. “I heard that the sky is falling and I want to do my best to hold it up,” responded the little bird. “That’s ridiculous,” declared the farmer. “First of all, the sky isn’t falling . . . And secondly, even if it is, your tiny feet won’t help very much.” “Well,” said the sparrow with determination, “One does what one can.”

I feel a bit like the sparrow these days, bombarded as I am with the daily reports about the decline and fall of the Catholic Church. “The sky is falling,” reports seem to confirm.

“Catholic weddings drop 71 percent in R.I.” announces one local headline, with the story not bothering at all to document a similar decline in weddings in other denominations and across the nation.

A letter from an individual in New York, sent to all the bishops of the United States, proclaims that “No intelligent Catholic can deny that there is a serious crisis in faith and morals in the Church. The lack of faith being shown here is frightening.” To document his argument, the letter writer points to the planned gathering of religious leaders in Assisi in October, “where false gods will be invoked,” and the fact that some priests fail to genuflect during the consecration at the Mass.

A letter from a friend in Pittsburgh laments the development of a Church that is peopled by, “a large contingent of secretive, sometimes power-hungry, reactionary cardinals and bishops; and a lower clergy increasingly enamored with its own exalted position who with many in the hierarchy are regressing to a former triumphal, controlling, irrelevant, pietistic, fundamentalist state.”

Another letter writer, this time local, understandably upset over reports of sexual abuse in the Church, insists: “The deluge is waiting to happen. Act, for the love of God. Act, because it is the right thing to do. Act, because you know that you should and you must.”

Jamie Manson, a writer for the “National Catholic Reporter,” a publication that makes its living reporting on, and sometimes actively promoting, the demise of the institutional Church, criticizes the recent appearance of Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York on 60 Minutes. Referring to the Archbishop as a “Shrill Scold,” the author suggests that he should stop laughing so much and “visit more often the world of women called to holy orders, gay couples in loving, committed relationships, laicized men who were forced to choose between love and ministry, and impoverished pregnant women.” [His laughter] “echoes off the walls of a rapidly emptying church,” she wails, sounding a bit like a shrill scold herself.

Now, I don’t think I’m at all naïve about these things. I stay in close contact with the news – international, national, local and ecclesial; I interact regularly with the secular media; I meet frequently with consultative groups in the Diocese who share freely their experiences and expertise; At the office I hear everyday from all sorts of folks who love me or hate me, folks with good and bad news; In the fall I hosted a series of listening sessions with laity from around the Diocese; and I visit with people in our parishes all the time for liturgical and pastoral events. In other words, I think I know what’s going on.

Does the Church have huge challenges and problems? Of course! Have the leaders of the Church, including priests and bishops, too frequently failed to keep their commitments and serve the people well? You bet! And should the Church seek more effective ways of communicating, educating and responding to contemporary issues and the ever-changing needs of our time? Absolutely!

But, is the sky falling and the Catholic Church about to fold? I don’t think so. The vision of the Church I see is far different than that of the letter-writers and authors cited above.

I see a Church in which the vast majority of priests are good and sincere men who work very hard, conscientiously and generously, to serve the Lord Jesus and His people.

I see a Church in which most of our parishes are strong and vibrant; parishes that are filled every Sunday with good and faithful people who assemble to hear the Word of God, to receive the Holy Eucharist, and to thank God for the many gifts and blessings they’ve received.

I see a Church in which thousands of individuals, women and men, young and old, assist the Church either as paid professionals or volunteers in diverse fields such as Catholic education, religious education, youth ministry, Catholic Scouting, parish leadership and liturgical ministries.

I see a Church that has dedicated lay organizations – such as the Knights of Columbus, the Daughters of Isabella, the Saint Vincent de Paul Societies and many others – which invest lots of time, talent and money to do great, but often unseen things, in service to our Church and community.

I see a Church that’s not at all afraid to wade into the turbulent waters of intense public debate and bring the truth of the Gospel to issues such as health-care reform, immigration, abortion and same-sex marriage.

I see a Church that provides outstanding social services – supporting nursing homes and food pantries, helping refugees get settled in their new homes, teaching immigrants to speak English, providing heating assistance for families, and opening shelters for homeless folks during dark, cold winter nights.

I see a Church that’s determined in its defense of human life, with brave and hardy individuals praying in front of abortion clinics on frigid January mornings, generously providing for the needs of single moms, and testifying on behalf of holy matrimony in the halls of the State House.

I see a Church in which scores of remarkable young people spend their vacation time travelling to Jamaica and other Central American countries ministering to impoverished, handicapped children who will never have the material blessings that they themselves have.

You see, in the Catholic Church there are so many good people; so many good things that happen everyday. This is just a snapshot of the Church I see, and no doubt I’ve missed other parts of the beautiful mosaic. To those I haven’t mentioned, I apologize, but thank you too, for your dedication and truly good work.

A famous theologian wrote this assessment about the Church: “People look upon the Church and say, ‘She is about to die. Soon her very name will disappear. There will be no more Christians; they have had their day.’”

Now it’s instructive to note that this rather dour prediction came not from the scribes of the “National Catholic Reporter” or the “New York Times.” This description of a dying Church was referenced by St. Augustine, 1600 years ago – a rather compelling reminder, I think, that the Church in every age has known its struggles and failures.

Does the Catholic Church of today have challenges, problems and failures? You bet. But I love this Church, I’m enormously proud of this Church, and despite my own limitations, imperfections and sins I’m going to work very hard to support its mission and ministry for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Why? Well simply because “one does what one can.”

This article appeared in the March 31, 2011 edition of the Rhode Island Catholic diocesan newspaper

Secularism is a Greater Threat to Christianity than Islam

Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, O.P.

The last time that I proposed a motion for debate, I was fifteen years old. Afterwards my house mast said ‘Radcliffe. In the future stick to tiddlywinks’.

The word ‘secularism’ is used in a weak and a strong sense. The weak sense is the exclusion of religion from the public sphere, what the French call laicité. This cannot be what we are debating today. First of all, the Spectator would never be interested in anything weak. Secondly, both this and the previous government have actively encouraged the participation of faith communities in the public sphere. Christianity is not threatened by exclusion from the public sphere.

Secularism in the strong and strict sense maintains that the only valid truths are scientific, and are open to empirical verification or falsification. This is how the Council for Secular Humanism defines it: “Nature (the world of everyday physical experience) is all there is, and that reliable knowledge is best obtained when we query nature using the scientific method.”

This is a threat to Christianity and indeed to all civilisation, because it makes a totalitarian claim for one branch of knowledge. It is a scientific fundamentalism. Science can answer scientific questions. But questions about the meaning of human existence, about who we are and what is our happiness, can only be grappled with by poetry, literature, philosophy and religion. In Anna Karenina, Levin tried to be a secularist in this sense. At the end of the novel he realises that it is leads nowhere. He says: ‘Without knowing what I am, and why I am here, it is impossible to live. Yet I cannot know that and therefore I can’t live.1’ Then he discovered faith.

Christians have nothing against the secular. Indeed the concept of the secular is Christian in origin, developed in the thirteenth century by Dominicans such as St Albert the Great and St Thomas Aquinas. Albert in empirically testing scientific hypotheses. He was told that ostriches ate iron, and so he carried around a lump of iron, so as to offer it to an ostrich if he met one, which he never did! But they understood that there are many forms of truth, and your need the right discipline to answer the right questions.

So Secularism makes totalitarian claims, and we saw in the last century what happens when totalitarianism rules. Stalin toasted writers in 1932 saying ‘I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the soul.2’ The engineers of the soul! Secularism, if it is followed rigorously shrivels reason. Christianity is not threatened by science as such – they are never incompatible – but by scientific fundamentalism. Just as science is threatened by religious fundamentalism.

Because science cannot begin to cope with the fundamental questions of human existence, then it opens the way for banality, and the vacuous attempts to fill the void with Big Brother, celebrity culture and an absurd obsession with other people’s sexual peccadilloes. It destroys rational and intelligent debate and reduces it to trashing your opponents. It leads to the greatest threat to Christianity, the trivialisation of culture.

Fortunately, there are even fewer genuine secularists around than there are genuine Christians. When I was a chaplain at Imperial College I met lots of people who claimed to be secularists but they did all sorts of things which were inconsistent with their faith. They kissed each other for non-scientific purposes. They fell in love, muttered sweet nothings in the each others’ ears. And when they had babies, it was not just so that their genes could be transmitted.

Secularists are not much of a threat. I doubt whether Richard Dawkins will mount a terrorist attack on Blackfriars. We are much more threatened by fundamentalist Muslims or indeed Christians.  Fundamentalism is the danger. But although there are fundamentalist Christians and Muslims, neither Islam nor Christianity are necessarily so, and have not been so. Whereas Secularism is necessarily reductionist and fundamentalist and so threatening to all civilisation and so Christianity.

1 Trans by Louise and Aylmer Maude; introduction W. Gareth Jones Oxford 1988 p.782

2 Rachel Polonsky ‘Aquedcuts for the imagination’ TLS April 8 2011