What must be done? Perhaps we should create another Church for things to work out? Well, that experiment has already been undertaken and has already failed (…) The crisis, caused by the many cases of clerical abuse, urges us to regard the Church as something almost unacceptable, which we must now take into our own hands and redesign. But a self-made Church cannot constitute hope.
— Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s essay on the abuse crisis
The ancient philosopher Xenophanes believed that if horses and cattle had hands, they would sculpt gods in the likeness of horses and cattle. I’ve seen a similar argument touted by atheists, parodying one of our most foundational doctrines: God would’ve not made Man in His image; rather it would’ve been Man to fashion God in Man’s image.
I’ve always thought this showed a serious misconception about the faith. I can assure the reader, the God I worship is not made in my image and likeness. If He was, He would certainly do many things differently, and act more in accordance with my ideas. One of the core frustrations of the religious man (a constructive frustration, necessary for spiritual growth) is the acknowledgement of how different God is from our desires and preconceptions. Progress in the path of faith means accepting this fact with increasing docility, and conforming our will to His.
Yet, even though I see the atheists’ argument as based on a misconception, I can certainly understand where they are coming from. For I think many religious people unwittingly give a bad example, providing evidence that Man often fashions God in his own image.
The most glaring example of this comes from liberal quarters. It is not uncommon for a liberal to observe the empty pews in the Church and conclude: “If only the Church would change her teachings on sexuality, if only the Church was more modern, the pews would be filled again.”
The conservative will correctly note that some liberal churches, like the Episcopalian Church, have done just that and their pews are nonetheless empty. But then the same conservative will observe the empty pews and conclude: “If only the Church would come back to pre-Vatican II liturgy, if only the Church would assert her doctrine more forcefully and clearly, the pews would be filled again.”
It seems like a completely different argument, but really it’s exactly the same. In both, our critic believes he has the solution for the Church’s woes. If only the Church would listen to him, and change accordingly, then the Church would be “saved”.
I argue, however, that doing this would not solve the problem. Actually, it would increase the problem, because it exacerbates the mindset at the root of the problem in the first place.
If you ask a non-practicing Catholic (the kind both liberals and conservatives want to entice back into the fold) the reasons for his non-attendance, he will probably say that he dislikes something in the Church, and that the Church should change that.
This is remarkably similar to the attitude of both the liberal and the conservative I mentioned before. It is the Church that should change, if this person is to come back. Mind you, sometimes the changes demanded may be entirely reasonable and fair (for example, the non-practicing Catholic who feels betrayed by the way the Church acted on the abuse crisis and demands a change that is sorely needed.) And certainly, the Church has “changed” in the sense of making pastoral accommodations to help many people from many backgrounds in their journey back home. But these changes were made authoritatively, which means they are still part of the Tradition of the Church, contrary to the changes demanded by both liberals and conservatives, that would require us to bury the authority of Popes and Councils (a more dramatic change than any Pope or Council has ever undertaken.)
However, I do not wish to focus on the reasons invoked by those who want the Church to change, but rather to focus on this attitude: that one possesses the solutions for the problems within the Church, and that the Church will only be saved when she implements those solutions.
As I said before, I sincerely believe that this attitude will not bring more people back to the Church, precisely because this attitude is at least part of the problem. Many non-practicing Catholics do not see the Church as relevant unless the Church changes to meet their expectations. So, why would that person rush back to Mass because the Church changed, not according to his expectations, but according to the expectations of someone else who says: “the pews will only fill if the Church does X”?
No, if the Church changes to meet the expectations of the conservative or liberal, then the non-practicing Catholic can reply: “well then, if the Church can change by demand, I will come back to the Church when she changes according to my own demands.” And here lies the seed of polarization. The Church becomes a battlefield between competing worldviews. There is no end in sight for the strife, unless one side unconditionally surrenders… something that is unlikely. In this case, the Church becomes no different from any secular institution, corporation or political body, where disputes and competition reign supreme. The Church is profaned, i.e. she becomes similar to profane, non-sacred, worldly realities.
I would like to propose a different perspective. I suggest we purge ourselves of the idea that we have the solution for everything, and the Church should change accordingly. In fact, I would challenge you to consider the following:
Pope St. Pius X, in his encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, defined Modernism as the synthesis of all heresies. I’ve noted that this is not due to something intrinsically wrong with modernity per se. Rather, as St. Pius says in the very same document, Modernism is rooted in pride. And this pride is defined as:
“[T]hat confidence in themselves [that] leads them to hold themselves up as the rule for all (…) which allows them to regard themselves as the sole possessors of knowledge (…) which rouses in them the spirit of disobedience.”
— Pascendi Dominici Gregis, #40
It is this attitude that makes Modernism: the demand that the Church adjust herself to modernity as the ultimate wisdom, irrespective of whether modern values are compatible with a true understanding of Christianity or not.
I think that Modernism is indeed the synthesis of all heresies in this regard, because this attitude is fundamentally linked to the core source of all heresies and evils: Original Sin (the wish to live independently from God.)
For there is another misconception in atheist sectors: that God wanted to keep Adam and Eve in ignorance by forbidding them to taste from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. They wrongly interpret this as yet another anti-scientific stance in the Bible. But we know from a correct biblical exegesis that when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, it was not because they craved knowledge, but because they wanted a life on their own terms, separated from God. Satan himself illustrates this, for he tempts them: “If you eat from the fruit of this tree, you will become like gods.”
This attitude is perfectly countered by Jesus, the New Adam, in the garden of Gethsemani. Foretelling His own death, Jesus prays to the Father to spare Him. Nevertheless, in the end, He yields by saying: “Thy will be done;” A cry echoed by the Virgin St. Mary’s fiat, for she was the New Eve crushing the head of the ancient serpent.
It is not strange, therefore, to see this same idea being conveyed in I our most fundamental prayer, the one that God Himself taught us so that we should know how to pray: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Here, in my opinion, lies the antidote to the mindset that we have all the answers and, therefore, the Church should change according to our understanding. It is not the Church that should fundamentally change to fit us, it is we who should be willing to change fundamentally in order to embrace the Church’s teachings.
Does this mean we should just passively acquiesce if we find the Church acting wrongly? Far from it. However, underlying our legitimate criticisms (which Pope Francis certainly welcomes) there must be a profoundly different stance from what we have seen so often in recent years. The critic must not fall into the temptation of becoming an accuser of the Church, but must be willing to change himself, his ideas, his prejudices, his solutions, his answers, his projects and his will, first and foremost before asking the Church to do the same. He must be willing to remove the beam from his own eye before trying to remove the speck from his brother’s eye.
This is why the worn-out comparison between the papal critics and St. Paul or St. Catherine of Siena simply does not hold water. Actually, it proves my point. The critics are the ones comparing themselves to those saints. But these saints would never self-canonize themselves in such a way. First, they didn’t criticize the Church for her teachings on faith and morals, but for not following those teachings. Second, their criticism was completely different from the constant gossip, partisanship, denigration and vitriol we see every day in social media, whenever the Pope is mentioned. They were not accusers, but collaborators. Not self-styled collaborators hiding their accusations under the guise of collaboration, but actual, real collaborators. The role of the accuser, as Francis has expressed several times, belongs to another, and there is no holiness in that one.
And this brings us to another important point regarding those saints: their criticism was accompanied by fruits of holiness. And what is holiness but the understanding that our ideas are the fruit of an intellect in need of metanoia (i.e. conformity with the will of God), and not a personal reference point for “saving the world”? What is holiness but a humble willingness to be changed by the Church’s teachings, so that they will mold our lives, especially in areas of inordinate attachments to rigid preconceptions and ideas we are reluctant to forego?
It is my firm belief that only when Catholics change their attitude and become willing to be changed by the Church instead of trying to change the Church, will they be able to solve the problem of empty pews. Only when the Church becomes a source of inner renewal for Christians, so that it leads to radical and visible transformations in their lives, will the non-practicing ones be challenged on their idea that the Church is unnecessary for leading a good life. Only when the Church is viewed not as yet another political body, but as the Body of Christ, will she be found to be worthwhile to a cynical generation that has fallen away.
And only when they see Christians acting in this counterintuitive, yet joyful way, will the world start questioning. When they do, the Christian will reply to them: “You want to change the Church? But the Church changed me!” Only then will the scales fall from their eyes, allowing them to see that they had it backwards all along. And only then will they say: “I want to change in the same way you have! Please help me!”
Only a Church that is viewed like this can constitute hope. That was the Pope Emeritus’ point in the opening quote of this article.
As I began this article with Benedict’s quote, I would like to finish it with a a fuller sample of that same quote (my emphasis):
“What must be done? Perhaps we should create another Church for things to work out? Well, that experiment has already been undertaken and has already failed. Only obedience and love for our Lord Jesus Christ can point the way. So let us first try to understand anew and from within [ourselves] what the Lord wants, and has wanted with us”
Obedience and love. This is key for the discernment of our behavior as Catholics. Let us take up this task, by saying to Our Father: “Thy will, not mine, be done.“
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.