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. 

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14 Responses

  1. Avatar Marie says:

    Thank you Daniel for a very insightful article. I wholeheartedly believe the solution for the young (and all of us really) is found in Pope Francis’ recent answer when asked “what does evangelization mean to you?” on his flight home from Southern Africa: He said, “Because of the Gospel’. Proclamation comes before testifying. First live like a Christian and if they ask you, speak. Testifying is the first step and the protagonist of evangelization is not the missionary but the Holy Spirit who leads Christians and missionaries to bear witness. Then questions will come or won’t come, but what counts is the witness of life….”

    This is what has been lost over time. We need to be witnesses by our behaviour, not so much by words. More than ever we need our religious to bare witness to hope and charity through actions, to get out among the people. That I pray one day my children will see. I also believe, sadly, that is where much of the resistance comes from. We do not want to be held to account for our lack witness to hope and charity for our brothers in need. It’s far easier to just say I believe in this or that, therefore I’m good.

  2. Avatar chris dorf says:

    The groups that are attacking Pope Francis are piling on today. Everywher you look they are reposting others articles that are slamming him. Horrible. Its not like they are St Bridget of Sweden doing the criticism…

    • Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

      All the dissent is regrettable but in the same way, I think the greater risk, the greater evil, is when we fail to evangelize because we are so busy trying to be right. And that goes for “us” too. That’s not to say that there are serious concerns or that we shouldn’t do what we’re doing here, which is speaking out against it in a way. But ideally, this would always be couched in a way that is attractive, beautiful, etc. Just lots of people slinging mud and, like I said in the article, this can’t be a “good look” to those who need to experience the joy of the Gospel.

      • Avatar jong says:

        Daniel Amiri
        The recent article of Paul Fahey enlighten us on the meaning of “rigid catholics”. That article clearly open up our eyes why Pope Francis is imploring all of us to seek conversion & silence, why? Only a converted heart can discern the situations and can follow the Holy Spirit where ever it wills. Silence is the powerful weapon of Pope Francis and Pope BXVI as their powerful bond in prayer & solidarity is a testament why all the evil plot of the Council of Media since Day1 of Pope Francis papacy failed. Matthew18:19-20 is working powerfully on expanded Petrine Ministry.
        The confusions & diabolical disorientation are growing and Pope Francis were inspired now to challenge all the Dissenters to declare an open war by identifying and exposing themselves whom they want to belong. Pope Francis recent words saying “I am not afraid of schisms” is directed to the leader and officers of the Rebel Groups, it is a Declaration of War by daring to divide the Church from disobedient and obedient.
        We are now seeing the signs of Final Confrontation if we are attentive to the words of Pope Francis.
        Silence & Conversion is the weapon Pope Francis is showing us. CCC2717, Exodus14:14 and John1:5
        Thank you Pope Francis for leading the Church to victory by purifying the Church. CCC675

    • Avatar Jessica says:

      And now I have a new saint to look up! She sounds awesome.

  3. Avatar Jude says:

    This sounds a lot like the “God is love” of the 70’s.

    Nothing matters, nothing is to be called out because “God is love”.

    We cannot just pretend that the rest of the faith doesn’t matter, or that it doesn’t have to be protected. That used to be the main job of the pope before the globe trotting papacy came to be. It is fine to approach evangelization of the unchurched masses with the “God loves you” message or some variation on that theme, but to pretend that the rest is fluff on the one hand, or that there is no challenge to it from inside the church as well on the other, is too simple.

    The numbers of people who believe in the real presence, and don’t have some kind of modern empty notion of it, are really not that much better even among people who still attend mass ‘regularly’…suggesting that we may need to fix problems inside before we can concentrate on outside. Some may be of the opinion that the current approach, or that of the last few decades, is not the right way, It would be hard to argue that the results of these methods show otherwise.

    It is one thing to say that the church doesn’t allow this or that, but we understand that it happens, and another to say that it does allow it. The world must be presented with a consistent message. We do not have to confront the unchurched masses with all the rules and all of the dogmas on the one hand, but we should agree on what they are, and that they matter. It would seem that we don’t, I don’t mean just the people who answer survey questions, but priests, nuns, bishops and cardinals as well. (from whom people who answer survey questions take their leads). The tensions that exist today between this side and that, are symptoms but hopefully, they are addressing of the problem as well.

    If someone says that they are concerned that a bunch of bishops and cardinals, with the approval of the pope could produce a document like that for the Amazon synod, (whether it is enacted or not,,, just that they would produce it at all), it is not because they want to go out into the world and preach rigidity. The Amazon document (for example) is public, there is no reason that concern about it should not be public. Does that hurt the evangelization efforts, letting the world see the church as it is, divided and confused? I don’t know, Is anyone outside of a handful of people paying attention to any of it?

    • Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

      When a stark minority of Catholics actually profess the basic belief that makes one a Christian, it would seem that something is needed. I believe that this has been the focus of Francis’ papacy, to reignite our love of God by revealing to us again and again that it was God who chose us, who had mercy on us and saved us. “Miserando atque eligendo.” Indeed, this is the motto of his papacy! Everything about Francis can be summed up by these words.

    • Avatar Marie says:

      Jude- If the message is not being accepted, or is not understood or is not heard, that suggests a new approach is needed, or something is missing. No one is pretending the faith doesn’t matter. On the contrary, it does matter, and we want everyone to understand it’s importance. How is that done? By example, so much so that people feel compelled to learn and understand more. That’s how it works, and that’s what is missing.

  4. Avatar Chris dorf says:

    The world could be on the verge of wars between peoples and religions that claim authority of Truth and to be the sole followers of the true God. That God exists in every human heart as we all have souls and made in the image of God seems to be being put aside in today’s climate. the anger and hatred in Rwanda that led to a massacre is happening in the United States and in European countries is certain people’s are aligning person against person and Nation against Nation.
    … Just saying…

  5. Avatar Manuel says:

    Great article. Thanks.
    Out of curiosity, i know the pew study is a standard.. but has its sampling been scrutinized. I know of no parish that doesn’t have some program for first communion. So the research would suggest that those polled have ceased to believe what they had been taught. Even the most cartoon/collage plagued communion prep texts ive had the misfortune of seeing used mention the real presence.

    • Avatar Ralph says:

      The Church can teach doctrine but cannot force people to believe. This is not to say that catechesis cannot be improved but at the same time the Church is not the only institution at work on this issue. Many parents have little or no interest in helping to promote religious belief at home. Children later go off to college and are exposed to different, often anti-Catholic views, and perhaps people fall away from the faith because there are so many distractions today and religion seems far away from more “practical” concerns.

      Also, I have to say that I am not so sure that things were better in this department before Vatican II. Admittedly I don’t have any statistics but the older Catholics I know who grew up and were taught in the pre-Vatican II era seem just as likely to be ignorant of the faith as post-Vatican II Catholics. Nostalgia for the past is understandable but I am not so sure that belief was stronger in the past. It might be that people stayed Catholic because of social pressure or because Catholicism was tied to ethnic identity. Today there is much less pressure to stay within the Church and accept all of the Church’s teachings.

      Pope Francis seems to understand these factors so that is why he is promoting love of God as a possible solution to the problem. People must come to fervently love God and not just see faith as a social obligation or part of an identity. Those are flimsy reasons to believe and are too weak to guard against the winds of modernity. Once you open your heart to God it becomes much easier to accept beliefs such as the Real Presence.

      I am not saying that Catholics don’t love God, but I think there is a creeping cynicism that I see more and more today and this is not conducive to strengthening faith. I suffer from this problem myself and Pope Francis has been a strong ally for me in my own efforts to ward off the temptation to become cynical about the faith and the world.

  6. Avatar Chris dorf says:

    Ralph, I feel like this little piece that you wrote:
    “Pope Francis seems to understand these factors so that is why he is promoting love of God as a possible solution to the problem. People must come to fervently love God and not just see faith as a social obligation or part of an identity. Those are flimsy reasons to believe and are too weak to guard against the winds of modernity. Once you open your heart to God it becomes much easier to accept beliefs such as the Real Presence.

    I am not saying that Catholics don’t love God, but I think there is a creeping cynicism that I see more and more today and this is not conducive to strengthening faith. ”

    I have watched happen in the world what you was talked about in your response. when people start seeing other people as enemies rather than children of God we end up with the Good Samaritan story there everybody walks by looks at other human beings as aliens.

  7. Avatar chris dorf says:

    The accusations made by Cardinals and Bishops and other groups are of the most serious in nature—claiming that Pope Francis is telling people that sins against God are NOT sins…intimating that he is the fulfillment the statement in 2 Timothy:
    “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.
    These are great accusations or slander…

  8. Avatar Miles says:

    Thank you Daniel. Good read, spot-on. Here in the UK our parish church, in a three year rolling program, first promote a personal relationship with Christ through prayer and enquiry and then back it up with Kerygma. Our small parish has blossomed to a Sunday Mass attendance of 1,900 for which we have to hold 7 Masses, 2 Saturday & 5 Sunday, to accommodate our lively community of faithful catholics who originate from 74 different countries. Our two priests and a Deacon are supported by 250+ active laity delivering all the little jobs that need to be done in a ‘Missionary’ parish. No ‘maintenance’ church here. Daily Mass and Adoration are well attended. Prayer groups, Gospel Study Groups, so much going on.

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