“This ‘New Pentecost’ is a little different from the last one.” I can’t recall exactly where that quip comes from, but it fits well with some of the thoughts that occurred to me after I read Niall Gooch’s article in these pages, on empty churches.
The solution he proposes is, at bottom, the only reasonable one: Evangelize. It goes without saying — or should — but the problem is the Good News to announce, and how to do it today.
I’ve spent a good few years settled in my conviction that we can proclaim the Good News only if we are willing to be more intelligent than others: only if we are willing to exercise and express our understanding of things. Cultural problems require cultural solutions, so we need to recover our ability and willingness to propose — in other words — a cultural synthesis integrating past and present, instead of opposing today’s knowledge to that of yesterday or taking up the defense of the latter.
I belong to a generation old enough to have seen the churches emptying of people close to me.
This started in the Sixties, when we used to go to Mass together. I have remained almost the only one. I suppose it was a question of faith – only, do not take this word as if written in upper case. It was primarily the trust I put in those who educated me, convincing me they must have had good reasons for their teaching.
So I set out to look for those reasons.
That search necessarily required — requires — efforts to understand the reasons for which others left (and leave) the Church. Many would blame her excessive “Constantinian” involvement in the world (in the ’60s, that meant closeness to the “capitalist” system). I don’t think so. If any single thing is to blame, it is the Church’s failure in her teaching capability: her capacity to understand and account for the contemporary world.
The teaching difficulties of the Church come from a double front, let’s say internal to Western culture and external to it. Apparently people left the Church not for another religion, but for no religion: for Secularism. So even in the Church, secularization is an accepted explanation for the emptying of the churches.
This is a very grave mistake.
If we look back at the meaning of “religion” (from the Latin religio, etymologically the “binding together” of reality, hence the slightly sauvage “constant reading” of it), then having “no religion” is a conceptual impossibility. The Church proposed herself as “Catholic” owing to the universality of the reading of reality she offered. Secularism – so-called – opposes its own universality to the one held by the Church, and thus affirms itself as the true religion, tolerating all cults as beliefs, as in the Roman pantheon.
From the outside looking in, it is not difficult to understand why anyone would be unwilling to tolerate their reading of reality being so tolerated.
Long in the making, the super-imposition of the new imperial religion on Christianity continues almost undisturbed, not least because it happens unperceived, hidden by words. One of them is “religion” ill-defined. “Faith” is another.
John Paul II and his Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger, were right to focus on Fides et ratio with the encyclical of 1998, but they went only halfway, at most, and the question remains unclear.
Even Catholics fell in for the Lutheran sola fides. As if such a thing were ever given; or rather vice versa, as if a sola ratio were even possible.
Here is the trap into which people started falling ever more easily and readily, the trap that emptied the churches: the idea that there is any knowledge utterly independent of faith – or to avoid equivocations, of the Anglo-Saxon word, “trust” – the meaning of which is also contained in the Latin fides; while the Greek pistis – also translated as faith – emphasizes the persuasive power of the thing it names.
The next step is to give the new thing a fancy name – “science” in this case – and the trap is sprung.
“Evolution” is an example. There’s nothing wrong with the professional scientific project of studying biodiversity’s development through time. There’s a good deal right with it. In the popular acceptation, however, evolution is the popular myth of the new imperial religion. It overlooks the simple fact that we humans are all born and educated in society, and by the trust in those who educate us we acquire cognitions of which we are persuaded: in all-embracing reasoned reflection, or science.
The good news we have to proclaim is that “the logos [word, discourse, reason] became flesh”. Christ makes life and understanding alike. He makes the world intelligible. In Christian teaching, we can find the intelligence – the understanding – necessary to unify the fragments of knowledge scattered in our culture. Understanding is, after all, one of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Let’s think about maybe helping Him help us.
Giorgio Salzano has taught political philosophy and cultural anthropology at the Pontifical Gregorian University and the University of Teramo.
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