Life & Soul

The Amazon fires are a good metaphor for today’s Church


The media is full of apocalyptic news of fires in the “lungs” of the world and discussion of the bleak future we face if this unprecedented crisis is not tackled. The Pope, governments and celebrities have all added their voices to the anxiety over what this means for the planet.

Despite the pictures posted by the seers and sages of Hollywood, the fires in the Amazon are not visible from the air as swathes of blazing trees. They are more insidious: they are fires at the level of the forest floor which can damage trees with thin bark and therefore kill them, without the canopy of the forest ever visibly burning.

They are started not by global warming so much as the activity of farmers who clear the forest to make land they can cultivate, stacking the timber they have felled till it becomes tinder dry and combusts in the dry season. It is said that Brazil’s leaders have failed to address the scale of the problem. It is those from outside who are stepping up the pressure for something to be done to deal with it because, in the end, the health of the whole world depends on the health of this region.

To me, this is an good analogy for what is happening in the Church. Devastating fires continue to blaze unabated. The canopy – what you see from above – may appear intact, but there are fires at ground level which threaten its survival in certain places.

What are these fires? A recently published survey found that about two thirds of US Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Most Holy Eucharist.

If Christ isn’t truly and substantially present in the Blessed Sacrament then in what sense does Christ minister the other sacraments? They became rituals whose efficacy depends on a subjective response. This is presumably why Sunday Mass congregations are shrinking and churches closing at a rate which makes deforestation look like inertia.

For at least two generations we have failed to catechise effectively. We have neglected our own model for catechesis, which centres not on children preparing for Sacraments of Initiation but on catechising adults. Failure to do so results not only in millions of lapsed Catholics but also in a laity often ill-equipped to engage safely or usefully in a dialogue with the world and with other religions – the very dialogue which was supposed to replace the old “fortress Church” mentality.

It is now more than a year since the McCarrick scandal and the incendiary testimony of Archbishop Viganò broke.

The smoke of Satan rises still from these fires, poisoning the atmosphere. It will continue to do so until the results of a thorough investigation are published.

Every day come reports of another bishop or priest being accused of abuse or a senior churchman of cover-up. This fire attacks the roots of whether we can trust our shepherds, their claims to understand the scale of the problem and their desire to fix it. Transparency not silence is supposed to be the new husbandry for cultivating the Church.

If the Church is to live sustainably – that is, if the generations which follow this are to be nourished by the sacraments to live virtuous, supernaturally productive lives, within ordered Catholic families supported by holy priests and consecrated people – it is time to act. The time for denial is over.