The first reading at Mass on Sunday contained one of the more arresting images from the prophet Ezekiel: “Son of man, I have appointed you as sentry to the House of Israel. When you hear a word from my mouth, warn them in my name.”
It would be a pretty hopeless sentry who did not keep an eye out for danger, and who kept shtum when he saw something dangerous coming. We all know, because we have heard it said so many times, that the Church is supposed to have a prophetic voice, and to take a counter-cultural stand against the errors and fads of the age. And yet, because the Church is in the world, it often tends to be formed by the world, so both currents are present in the Church: the countercultural, and its opposite, the conformist. The situation today is no exception.
Depressingly, the Church today (by which I mean the leadership of the Church) often seems to speak like just another branch of the commentariat. Take the whole question of climate change. It is very hard to distinguish between the content and tone of a Church document on this matter and an article in the secular press. The discourse in both is more or less the same. This is a pity, because it is a sign that the specific nature of Church teaching has been lost, towhit, the emphasis that environmental degradation is the result of personal sin, and personal sin is always the result of the personal choice of someone, somewhere, to do something objectively. Now, I am quite aware that this teaching is contained in the work of St John Paul II; and I am sure it is somewhere in Laudato Si, but that is not really the point. It has not surfaced much in the general conversation.
Again, with the Church’s social teaching, and its teaching about the structures of sin that create poverty and prevent those born in poverty ever leaving it – has this idea really made an impression? Or does the Church’s talk about economic matters sound rather New Labourish (that is, several decades out of date) and indistinguishable from all the other virtue-signallers who care about the poor but don’t actually do anything about the state of the poor?
Has the Church’s teaching in these two matters degenerated from a matter of right practice to a matter of saying the right thing? Do people ever confess their sins against the environment? Do they ever accuse themselves in the confessional of crimes against the poor?
The one field where the Church does well in communicating a teaching that is certainly not pleasing to the world, but which the world hears and cannot help but hearing, is in the field of bioethics. The Catholic Church is pro-life, and the whole ecclesial pro-life movement stands as testimony to that, and has had considerable success in reminding the world of the terrible sin of abortion. This was in no small part thanks to the constant and energetic teaching of Saint John Paul II and Saint Teresa of Calcutta, to name but two. Here one sees the Church fulfilling its vocation to be a sentry to the House of Israel.
To say that we should wind down the talk about the protection of all life at all stages, because this talk is somehow alienating, would be mistaken. The hostility that the pro-life discourse arouses is a pretty good providential sign that here we are doing the right thing. Well done to Jacob Rees-Mogg and the many others who take a stand that must feel sometimes like that of Elijah on Mount Carmel: “I, I alone, am left as a prophet of the LORD, while the prophets of Baal are four hundred and fifty.” (I Kings 18:22) Elijah was a lonely voice, but he was the one who spoke truth. The prophets of Baal were a bunch of stooges and frauds who ate at Jezebel’s table – a rather good image, one calls to mind so many of the false prophets of today.
Where else is the counter-cultural prophetic voice to be found today, I wonder? It survives in some of the religious orders, those who, coincidentally, have vocations. It is present in some of the diocesan bishops – again, where vocations gather, that is the place to look. Its strength varies from country to country and continent to continent. Where the Church is small and persecuted, it is present. Where the Church presents a model of society that the state cannot, that is, where the Church upholds the values of human life and flourishing in lands where the state has failed to do so, there the prophetic voice is heard. It is for this reason that we really do need to listen to the bishops of countries like Nigeria, Mexico and Kenya, to name but three.
But in places where the Church desperately wants to make itself popular, by talking about fashionable causes that others can talk about just as well if not better, there it is destined not to be a sentry to the House of Israel, but a voice that is ignored.
One is left thinking of the wise words of Dean Inge, which are usually attributed to the Church: “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” Beware of false suitors, O Bride of Christ!