The debate that began with Giorgio Gawronski’s February 22 article in L’Osservatore Romano, “Empty churches and integral humanism,” is one of the few interesting discussions currently stirring in Catholic thought. Writing on an issue that has since been taken up by several others,[1] his article addresses the problem mentioned in the title: Why are churches empty and becoming even more empty? Gawronski writes, “In Italy, ‘practicing’ Catholics have decreased in the last ten years from 33% to 27%; among young people aged 18-29, this figure is at 14%, and it continues to drop by almost 3% per year.” What is causing this disaffection that afflicts Europe and the developed world much more than Africa, Latin America, and the Philippines?

We know the usual reasons given, such as secularization, consumerism, and moral relativism. To these, traditionalists and conservatives in the Church add Vatican II and Pope Francis, the head of the Church, whose alleged sins include changing doctrine and deviating from tradition. On the opposing side, progressives blame a “rigid” Church—one that is insistent on priestly celibacy, puritanical sexual morality, and ecclesiastical chauvinism—for the decreasing numbers of the faithful. These arguments, from the right and left, are not convincing; they are justifications more than they are explanations. As Gawronski writes, “Statistically, neither the more ‘modern’ Churches nor the more ‘conservative’ Churches have had successful results.”

We cannot attribute the present crisis of faith in the West to the Council, nor can we think that it will be resolved by a Vatican III. As Lucio Brunelli explained well, “The crisis of ‘empty churches’ started long ago and began when churches were full. … It was, in the 1950’s, a militant Church, tough in doctrine, influential in political life. And yet, except for its outward respect for appearances and social conventions, it no longer captured the hearts and minds of a large part of the younger generation. Religious practice was still high, but the situation can be compared to a house of cards. Just one jolt and it would come down. The winds of 1968 brought that jolt to the Church in the form of a generation of restless children. The advent of the new consumerist power ‘that laughs at the Gospel’—as Pasolini prophesied in 1970—seemed to make the entire popular Christian tapestry, tied to rural Italy, melt like snow in the sun. What took centuries to build was gone in little more than a decade.” Along these lines, Mateo Matzuzzi relays the words of Cardinal Wim Eijk, the archbishop of Utrecht: “We had a surplus of priests and religious congregations. Many missionaries came from tiny Holland. But we soon understood that the foundations of that proud pillar of Catholicism were much less solid that they seemed.”

This means the “traditional” Christianity of the 1950s had grave shortcomings. There is no other way to explain the speed of its disintegration the moment it was faced with the challenge of modernization, which began in earnest in Europe in the 1960s. Christianity at the time was founded on two pillars: the passive acceptance of dogma and moral doctrine—limited, for the most part, to sexual matters. When the “American way of life” burst in, with its liberal outlook, the Catholic world was woefully unprepared. From the Counter-Reformation onwards, the Church had become accustomed to assuming a defensive stance and was largely unready for a critical confrontation with modernity. It then found itself overwhelmed by an American modernism that suddenly made the Catholic Church appear antiquated by comparison—as a leftover from history. Fellini’s 1960 film La Dolce Vita marks the moment of transition; the generational gap between two Italys, one of the past and one of the future. The Church and Christianity were limited at the time by their culture. Neo-scholasticism was dominant in seminaries and in the pontifical universities, and its thought was marked by radical anti-modern attitudes. It was hostile to the liberal order and was accompanied by a dogmatic theology devoid of a theology of man. At the time, theology looked upon the categories of “experience” and of “religious meaning” with suspicion.

Overwhelmed by antimodern polemics, due to their inadequate formulations, the theology at the time left a void where there should have been a vision of man open to the supernatural. Neo-scholasticism and twentieth-century Neo-Thomism conceived the human as the Enlightenment did, as an autonomous block, closed off, to which grace is added like a meteorite. The consequence of this was fear when faced with the secularized world, which it perceived as anthropologically strange and as an enemy. A bridge between dogma and (what was seen as) “atheist” humanism seemed impossible. As a result, this “Christian” psychology held until the doors of the churches closed. Each departure came at the cost of internal crises, abdications, and capitulations. The great crisis that followed in the post-conciliar years was not due to a sudden collapse, but the limits of Catholic culture. Post-conciliar progressivism was the exact opposite of the traditionalism that preceded it, and it can only be explained by the limits of neo-scholastic culture.

Faced with the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Christians who found a landing spot in Marxism, the most important answer from the Church did not come from traditionalist groups—by those opposing the Council—but from new ecclesial movements. These movements demonstrated, in an increasingly hostile climate, how to avoid becoming entrapped by the conservative response and encounter the hopes and expectations of young people, even those who were far from the faith and did not come from Catholic families or parishes. This encounter became possible—not only thanks to the charismatic personalities of the founders, but because the Christian proposal to young people reflected the dynamic of the early Church. As Gawronski affirmed in his article, it was the personal testimony and community, the participation in an experience of a renewed humanity, that was capable of bringing reality and history together. “As it happened in the first centuries,” writes Brunelli. In fact, these ecclesial movements represented—at least until the 1990s—a great hope, a sign of vitality and youthfulness for a Christianity adrift, one that had been rejected by the political and sectarian messianism of 1968.

Then the winds of restoration, following 1989 and the fall of Communism, tied the Church back into a ball of knots. The Church put its armor back on, once again scared by an increasingly overbearing secularization, and closed its doors. Evangelization and human development, the two pillars of Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi, were forgotten along the way. Instead of evangelization, we had culture wars centered on the fight against abortion, euthanasia, and gay marriage. In the place of human development, there was a total acquiescence to the capitalist model and a profound vacuum in the place of the social doctrine of the Church. Conformism and Manicheism—these are the two pillars of today’s Catholicism. Confronted with this perspective, the continued emptying of churches and the distance between young people and the faith are not surprising. Why would a young person of today ever be attracted to a Church that limits itself to moralism and the culture wars? A young person who, remember, is light years away from the highly engaged Catholics of the 1970s.

What is lacking in ordinary Catholics, and even those active in the faith, is the concept of “encounter.” This concept overcomes and eclipses the distinctions between right and left, and it allows us to go directly to the heart of humanity. How can the Church reach this “heart” today? This is a question that must be asked, especially in light of our churches that are occupied only by the elderly. In response to this challenge, Pope Francis remarked on September 13, 2018:

“Theology, in fact, cannot be abstract – if it were abstract, it would be ideology – as it arises from an existential knowledge, born from the encounter with the Word made flesh! Theology is then called to communicate the concreteness of God’s love. And tenderness is a “concrete existential” asset, to translate in our times the affection that the Lord nourishes for us.

Today, in fact, there is less focus on the concept or practice and more on “feeling” than in the past. We may like it or not, but it is a fact: we start from what we feel. Theology can certainly not be reduced to sentiment, but neither can it ignore that in many parts of the world the approach to vital issues no longer begins with the ultimate questions or social demands, but with what the person feels emotionally.”

In this address, the pope makes a statement of great importance: “the approach to vital issues no longer begins with the ultimate questions or social demands, but with what the person feels emotionally.” It is as if he is saying the driving force with which Christianity can encounter the world is not the philosophy of the 1950s anymore, marked with existentialism and questions on the meaning of life. Neither is the driving force the politics of the 1970s, marked by militarism or Marxist ideology. We find it, possibly, in a new sensibility, one that characterizes the present time.

This is the historical judgment behind Francis’s insistent message about the tenderness of God. People today are, in our fragility, particularly receptive to the emotional dimension. In a “world without bonds,” in a fluid society, the meaning of life is not found at the conclusion of a process of logical reasoning as much as it is the outcome of the discovery of feeling loved, being loved. This “emotional” responsibility foremost belongs to priests and religious today, women and men.

Churches become empty when pastors, rather than being pastors, are bureaucrats, functionaries, employees. The problem in the ordinary Church is our great lack of pastors, of people who love Christ and share the lives of those who are entrusted to them. Secularization is, when approached from this perspective, just an excuse—one that hides a lack of faith and tenderness. It is the alibi that hides the distance between the words of often clever and high-minded homilies, and words of real closeness, capable of fostering encounter and action. Where the pastor is a man of God who becomes all to all, is where the Church returns, miraculously full. Ordinary men and women, the youth of today, have not lost the feeling of divine love.

[1] See G. De Rita, La Chiesa di fronte all’era dello Spirito, 13-03; L. Brunelli, Le chiese vuote e la fantasia di Dio, 10-04; A. Piva, Vuote le piazze, vuote le chiese, 24-04; M. Matzuzzi, Cristiani senza Cristo, «Il Foglio», 01-05

This article has been translated into English and published by Where Peter Is with the permission of the author. It was first published in Italian in L’Osservatore Romano with the title, “Le chiese vuote e l’alibi della secolarizzazione.”


Image by Matthias Böckel from Pixabay 

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Massimo Borghesi is professor of moral philosophy at the University of Perugia. He is the author of several books, including volumes on Augusto del Noce, Luigi Giussani, and political theology. More recently, he is the author of The Mind of Pope Francis: Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Intellectual Journey.

Empty churches and the “secularization” excuse
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