Life & Soul

Pastor Iuventus

A bold diagnosis of a declining Church

Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit has published an interesting document called Unleash the Gospel. It is the fruit of a diocesan synod in a climate of severely declining sacramental practice, vocations to marriage and priesthood, and the closure of parishes.

It is a decline in the practice of the faith that is replicated to a greater or lesser extent in huge parts of the world – even in Africa.

I was speaking to a Religious from Zambia who was telling me about the vocations crisis in her country. The comforting thought that the Church in Africa is growing is only true in a few parts of the continent. In Zambia and elsewhere they are losing huge numbers of Catholics to Pentecostal sects.

Unleash the Gospel offers its own analysis of the roots of the present crisis. It begins by quoting Benedict XVI’s statement that even among those who believe that God exists “many are living a ‘practical atheism’ ” – that is, they are living as if God did not exist. The document also identifies “false or pseudo religions”, or belief systems based on misguided assumptions. The first is “scientific fundamentalism”: the idea that science can answer all human questions.

The presupposition is that the universe is a closed system in which, by knowing the laws of science, one has exhausted the mysteries of the universe – or at least, it’s inevitable that we will do so. Professor Stephen Hawking is on record as saying that it is only a matter of time before physics will come up with a “theory of everything, and then we shall know the mind of God”. This is a claim that one is required simply to take on the authority of the one making it. It is therefore just as much an article of faith as of science, a pseudo-religious claim, but one ardently espoused by most students at my local Catholic sixth form. Yet empirical science cannot account for many of the most important aspects of human existence, including ethical and aesthetic values, love, friendship, sacrifice, knowledge “and even science itself”.

The next cause of the decline in faith the document calls “moralistic therapeutic deism”, a phrase coined by sociologists. This is religion as a kind of reflexive virtue-signalling. Such a system emphasises moral attitudes: being nice, kind, respectful, tolerant, inclusive, etc. It is therapeutic in that it sees God as a kind of resource who is on call to take care of problems that arise for me, but without the concomitant that he would be interested in holding me accountable for my choices. In such a view, God may have created the world, but he is scarcely involved in it in a way that might be real and present. Jesus is to be respected as an ethical guru, but not as God’s Son, giving himself to save me from the devastating consequences of my sin, or to invite me to enter into a radical newness of life through my baptism into the life of the Trinity. I have a priest friend who has an even more pithy formulation for this. He describes such an attitude as “wanting the inoculation, not the disease”of faith.

“Secular messianism” is the next factor to come under scrutiny. The text describes this as a “politicised version of Christianity that makes the Gospel subservient to a human agenda” by conceiving the Church as primarily an organ of social progress, a kind of holy service provider. What is needed to counter this is an eschatological vision of the Gospel: “What we believe and do in this life has eternal consequences, because the world as we know it will one day come to an end and Christ will return as the Lord before whom every knee shall bow.”

It is clear that these roots of the crisis which the document identifies have found soil in which to thrive within the Church itself. The document recalls Blessed John Henry Newman’s observation that if Christ’s disciples aren’t persecuted in some ages perhaps it’s because they are too conformed to the thinking and behaviour of their contemporaries: “They have taken the world’s pay and must not grudge its yoke.” The greatest threat is not from secularisation as such, but from the secularisation of the Church, a desire that she should conform to the spirit of the age. Let those of us without sin cast the first stone, but it is helpful to see these attitudes being “called out”, as the Americans say, so that we can repair the failed catechesis which in many cases abetted them.

Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London