I wonder if Catholics realize how irrelevant we have become. Actually, it’s worse than that. I wonder if Catholics realize how irrelevant we have made the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While the sowers of the Gospel all locked inside the walls of an insular Church, the devil is ravaging the fertile soil that could have borne fruit. The countryside is being choked by thorns and and we seem content to argue with each other about who is best to lead our wounded Church into the next stage of ruination.
It’s easy to blame the secular culture for this. Certainly, our modern culture has challenged the Christian faith. Since the early 20th century, many of our authorities have been responsible for significant death and destruction. In the middle of the last century, when so many loved ones were lost to war and genocide, a wave of discontent and skepticism of authority swept the globe. Freedom and democracy were held up by many as the solution. Popular movements sprang up in various forms throughout the world.
Perhaps sensing that these trends were increasing skepticism of even Church authority, Catholic leaders grasped at relevance at the Second Vatican Council. They attempted a lay-oriented reform through the exploration of a rich Catholic theology that had become underappreciated over the centuries. But Catholic leadership was ultimately (if just for the time being) unsuccessful. What was intended to be an engagement with the modern world that had grown wary of authority was itself used an excuse—perhaps quite predictably, in retrospect—to reject the authority of the Church. Unmoored from our apostolic tradition, we became prophets with a message no one felt challenged by. Instead of mercy and humility, we often preached freedom and democracy to a world that was already advancing freedom and democracy on its own terms.
It is notable, then, that a younger generation of Catholics who did not inherit the skepticism of their ancestors also didn’t inherit their appreciation for freedom and democracy. Young people today have seen that even freedom and democracy are incapable of combatting by themselves the most serious tragedies that affect us on a personal scale–most significantly abortion, but also abuse, divorce, violence, and now drug use. For example, many of us were raised to oppose abortion, through school sponsored field trips to the March for Life and by influential pro-life figureheads both within the Church and without. But having been primed to fight this battle, we have learned through heartbreak and disappointment that people are apt to abuse their freedoms and that democracy has no inherent safeguards against the denigration of the dignity of the human person, be it the unborn or the immigrant.
Therefore, for those Catholics who remain attached to the Church, by the grace of God, there is a not insignificant number who call for a return to antiquated forms of authority, even if it means rejecting Vatican II, which they see as an unacceptable acquiescence to contemporary trends. By reclaiming the “way things were,” they hope to recreate a world, if not just a Church, that does not suffer from these same tragedies in the same way. Traditionalism, at least as far as younger people represent the movement, is not a love of tradition for its own sake but a means to an end. Young traditionalists see the more stringent moral codes, patterns of life, and culture once advanced by the Church as responsible to a significant degree for the relatively low rates of abortion, divorce, and other metrics of moral rectitude in the past. Therefore, traditionalists see the old way as the solution: self-healing can only begin by rooting out all vestiges of the freedom and democracy that found their way into the “new Church” and replacing them with the rules and structure of the “old Church.”
Meanwhile, the number of people who do not claim any attachment to the Church has been growing, and a large percentage of those that have remained even nominally attached seem far removed from its life-giving Sacraments. The new generation that has grown up with access to the internet, social media, and Fortnite has had little interest in the decades of intra-Church debate, choosing instead to forge their own spiritual path or none at all. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that they have been “unmoved.”
Nothing about these debates we are having about Vatican II or Francis or anything has had any relevance whatsoever to the experiences of those who have never accepted the Church in the first place or have prejudged it as not worth their time. Michael Sean Winters’ article encapsulates our irrelevance in a way. He writes that the bishops should “drop everything” to address the divides that risk tearing the Church apart. Our divided Church, with our ideological arguments and the antipathy we have towards our fellow Catholics, is destroying opportunities for evangelization. I can imagine nothing more unattractive to Church “outsiders” than debating excommunications and censures. Are Bishops supposed to be navel-gazing, bureaucratic canonists or are they supposed to be prophets of God?
Pope Francis, for his part, has taken a very particular approach that he outlines extensively in Evangelii Gaudium. He maintains an emphasis on the kerygma, the foundational proclamation of the Gospel that the Son of God has died on the cross and, through faith, saves us from our sins. Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium, “This first proclamation is called ‘first’ not because it exists at the beginning and can then be forgotten or replaced by other more important things. It is first in a qualitative sense because it is the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another throughout the process of catechesis, at every level and moment.” Truthfully, it is the kerygma which is our future, just as it is our past and our present. The kerygma is what bishops should drop everything for. The kerygma is what we must be preaching.
Recently, Pew released a study showing that only a minority (~30%) of self-identifying Catholics believed in the Real Presence. That was eye-opening for sure. But what is even more appalling are the Catholic responses to another survey, from 2008. A pathetic 13% of Catholics noted that they are saved through faith. And that’s being generous. Only 3% (!) explicitly made clear that it was faith in Jesus that led to salvation. This would seem to suggest that we are doing a better job teaching about the Real Presence than the most foundational aspect of faith–faith itself! Indeed, we are suffering from a crisis of faith!
Bishop Robert Barron is arguably one of the foremost prelates in the United States working on the problem of the “nones.” His most recent booklet on the abuse crisis, A Letter to a Suffering Church, does address the abuse crisis with strong and pointed language. But the bulk of the book is actually the argument for “why stay” and it revolves around God’s work in the Church and most especially the Eucharist. Bishop Barron clearly understands what is at stake here. This isn’t an argument for rules or structures. It isn’t an argument for democracy and freedom. It’s an argument for the salvation of souls, for God’s grace and limitless gift of mercy. It’s an argument for faith.
Reaching nones is a tremendous challenge. It is insufficient to drop “truth bombs” in podcasts or blogs or even to make moving videos with high production value. Preaching the gospel in the 21st century requires deep abiding relationships with those outside our circle of Church friends and being an authentic witness to the joy of the Gospel in everyday life. Francis writes, “[T]he Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction. True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others.”
Through our ongoing debates and squabbles, we are becoming further removed from the life-giving message of the Gospel and consequently, becoming further irrelevant to those looking for meaning in their lives. We live as if God’s gift of salvation meant nothing to us. Surely, such a great gift cannot be kept to ourselves!
We can reach people through programs and a rich sense of community. Ultimately, though, it is the Eucharist that lasts. The Eucharist endures. It is the most meaningful and most intimate encounter with the God Incarnate that we can have in this earthly life. Pragmatically, our future as one Church lies in bringing people to the Eucharist. Then Cardinal Ratzinger, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote, “[E]very celebration of the Eucharist is performed in union not only with the proper Bishop, but also with the Pope, with the episcopal order, with all the clergy, and with the entire people. Every valid celebration of the Eucharist expresses this universal communion with Peter and with the whole Church, or objectively calls for it, as in the case of the Christian Churches separated from Rome.”
By strengthening devotion not only to the Eucharist insofar as it is the Real Presence, by also by re-proposing the Eucharist as a remarkable gift of God’s love and mercy in faith, we can have hope that our Church can be unified through God’s gift of faith in Christ Jesus and, consequently, be relevant once again.