In a recent article for First Things, George Weigel makes a fundamental error when he criticizes the notion, recently repeated by Pope Francis (quoting the late Cardinal Martini), that the Catholic Church is “behind the times.” His analysis–based on the erroneous inference that being “behind” implies a desire for the Church to “play catch-up” with the most harmful ideologies and trends of the last two centuries–is a critique of a false premise. He correctly explains that the Church should not adopt the problematic aspects of our hyper-individualist, secular culture, but he framed his response as a critique of what Francis and Martini meant. In his essay, Weigel shows a casual disregard for the unique challenges faced by the Church today, challenges that cannot be overcome by insisting on bygone attitudes and sensibilities.
If Weigel’s interpretation was correct, I would share his concerns, which he lists as rhetorical questions and laments some modern woes, warning the Church not to adopt them. He writes,
A Western culture come unglued from the deep truths of the human condition? A culture that celebrates the imperial, autonomous Self? A culture that detaches sex from love and responsibility? A culture that breeds a politics of immediate gratification and intergenerational irresponsibility?
There is nothing new about what Weigel says here. The Church has warned against adopting the spirit of the age since the beginning. It is undoubtedly a sure road to spiritual disaster. This is reminiscent of how Francis warns in Gaudete et Exsultate that good discernment requires us to carefully distinguish between the Spirit of God and the “spirit of the world.” This sentiment has been expressed so many times and in so many ways by Catholics throughout the centuries that there is scarce benefit in saying it once more. The problem is that Weigel incorrectly associates Pope Francis and others with this idea that the Church must “surrender to the times.”
Can this really be that difficult of a concept? The world has changed so quickly and dramatically, even in the last several decades, but much of the Church’s evangelical “toolkit,” her messaging, her life, seem rooted in centuries-old language and structures. Some in the Church prefer it this way and intentionally attempt to create a time capsule out of the Church, as if things will be better only if Christians revert to a prior time and a prior culture. But in doing this, they offer a theology and way of life that are completely irrelevant to most people today. Sometimes it happens unintentionally, a sort of “it worked before” mentality. This mentality is harmful, especially when it comes up against Catholic leaders who recognize the problems posed by the modern world. Such leaders understand the need for the Church to update approaches and make organizational changes, but they immediately become bogged down in old structures and glacial bureaucracies that quickly smother any fire kindled by the Spirit with giant wads of red tape.
That the Church is behind the times is not something to be celebrated, as Weigel implies. It means the Church is deficient in its ability to preach Christ to people today, or to respond to their needs and in their unique sufferings. The world has changed and is continuing to change, and the Church must change too. As Francis writes in Gaudete et Exsultate, “The forces of evil [can] induce us not to change, to leave things as they are, to opt for a rigid resistance to change. Yet that would be to block the working of the Spirit. We are free, with the freedom of Christ…. ‘Test everything; hold fast to what is good’ (1 Thess 5:21).”
Weigel illustrates his position by presenting two examples of change: one positive and one negative. His negative example is the German and Austrian Churches, which have followed many other Western Churches in declining Mass attendance and other measures of religiosity. He dismisses the “synodal process” that Francis advocates out of hand, and he accuses the Church in Germany of “jettisoning truth.” His argument suggests that the German bishops are responsible for, or at least complicit in, the decline in Mass attendance percentages due to their “accommodations,” but he does not attempt to justify this opinion, unsurprisingly.
Weigel’s “positive” example is an anecdote from a friend of his, who helped a newly Christian African village reject–in a fiery ceremony–the idols they had been worshipping before their conversion. Framed as a response to the Amazon Synod, the story’s relevance to Weigel’s argument is merely tangential at best. Does Weigel think that Francis and the Amazon Synod are calling the Church to confirm others in the worship of pagan gods? If Weigel was correct in his assessment, then surely it would be worrisome. But what he calls the “Pachamama flap” was entirely different from the situation he describes in Africa. In Africa, the newly converted Christians were rejecting the idols they once worshiped. The prayer services of the indigenous people of the Amazon in Rome in October were expressions of their Christian faith, “without idolatrous intentions.” All that we can draw from Weigel’s criticism of the synod is the insinuation that the Church is inevitably harmed by any new forms of authentic Christian expression. Once again, Weigel seems preoccupied more with his fear of change than with presenting the Gospel afresh. Evangelii Gaudium says, in contrast,
We must be bold enough to discover new signs and new symbols, new flesh to embody and communicate the word, and different forms of beauty which are valued in different cultural settings, including those unconventional modes of beauty which may mean little to the evangelizers, yet prove particularly attractive for others.
Given his two examples, I find it hard to trust Weigel’s assessment of when the Church has actually “surrendered to the times” and whether, having done so, it has had universally negative effects. For example, I harbor absolutely no personal affection for a certain parish in Timonium, Maryland. I might reflexively agree with Weigel if he would say this is a parish that has “surrendered to the times” with its cushy narthex/coffee bar and megachurch aesthetic. But the results speak for themselves, and by results I mean a parish that was dying but is now thriving because of certain “accommodating” changes the pastor made over the years. How would Weigel account for this?
Mike Tenney makes a compelling argument in an article published last September for the blog The Holy Ruckus. I recommend reading the whole thing. The article explores the exodus of Catholics from the Church using the analogy of the Allied military’s study of planes that were shot down in World War II. He writes,
Allied engineers began studying the damaged planes that returned from battle. They found a consistent pattern: the outer wings, the tail, and the fuselage were frequently damaged. So the engineers proposed adding additional armor to those areas. The cockpit and the engines weren’t being hit very often, apparently, so they had no plans to add additional armor in those areas. Sounds reasonable, right?
Tenney goes on to explain that the Allied forces realized that the planes that weren’t coming back were the ones that were being hit in the cockpits and engines. Tenney compares this to what we’re seeing in the Church, and it directly addresses the argument that Weigel and many traditionalists embrace:
Much like the well-meaning WWII engineers who thought armoring the damaged areas of the surviving planes would help solve the problem, many in today’s Church make a similar error in survivorship bias by assuming that because some traditional parishes and devotions are thriving, we can transplant their success across the board with similar liturgical efforts.
The solution to people leaving the Church is likely something that we can’t see directly. Something is missing from the Church’s life that is causing our Mass-attendance numbers to shrink. There is no need to overcomplicate what that “missing thing” might be, but it does require some imagination and critical thinking. Most importantly, we cannot simply assume that the parishes that are alive today or even thriving have necessarily done anything that would be successful if we implemented it universally. The church in the West as a whole is not growing, and many parishes across the world are dying or closing or consolidating. Now is the time to ask ourselves, “What needs to change?” Tenney’s piece convincingly suggests that a simple “return to tradition,” as suggested by Weigel, is not the answer.
Finally, Christus Vivit is filled with beautiful passages that are relevant to this topic. It’s on the youth, after all! At the very least, I wanted to include at least one in full:
Let us ask the Lord to free the Church from those who would make her grow old, encase her in the past, hold her back or keep her at a standstill. But let us also ask him to free her from another temptation: that of thinking she is young because she accepts everything the world offers her, thinking that she is renewed because she sets her message aside and acts like everybody else. No! The Church is young when she is herself, when she receives ever anew the strength born of God’s word, the Eucharist, and the daily presence of Christ and the power of his Spirit in our lives. The Church is young when she shows herself capable of constantly returning to her source.
There is nothing to fear from change so long as the Church remains authentically herself. Change does not have to mean losing our heritage or traditions, but change is necessary if we want to bring the Truth of Christ forward into a new generation and context. Catholics must reject the opinions of those who remain closed to change and reforms, because it is in refusing to change that the Church surely loses what is most dear to her: the salvation of souls.