How to cure the virus afflicting catholicism
Updated: May 1, 2020
Edward R. Benet
April 22nd 2020
We have been told countless times how to combat the coronavirus: stay at home if possible, wash your hands often and keep at least two metres away from other people. But maybe you should consider that there are viruses eating away at your faith as well, and they have been doing so since time immemorial. How do we combat them? What kind of spiritual hand washing do we need? Who or what do I need to distance myself from if my faith is to remain healthy and strong? Our world has become fixated with the coronavirus, perhaps understandably, but we stand by and allow other pathogens to destroy our faith without a whimper on our part! Remember that Jesus himself said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10,28).
Fifty-five years after the Second Vatican Council, there is a widespread consensus that the Church has failed to experience the kind of renewal that was expected to follow on the heels of the council. Five decades on, to the casual observer at least, the Catholic liturgy in many parishes appears listless; participation of the laity seems confined to a select group of the “usual suspects” doing tasks of a mechanical sort; understanding of Christian doctrine seems to have scarcely improved; an ever-growing body of the faithful claim to feel marginalised by the teachings, regulations and practices of the Church.
There is no strong consensus, however, on what is responsible for stifling the renewal promised by the council. Fingers are pointed in various directions – structures within the Church that have resisted reform; alienation of the faithful through the “excessive” emphases on moral teaching in encyclicals such as Humanae Vitae; “discriminatory” Church rules regarding admission to the sacraments of Holy Orders and Eucharist; a culture of clericalism that pervades parish life – the list goes on and on. But inadequate structures, discriminatory practices and non-inclusive attitudes do not tell the full story. Instead, I would like to identify two common, everyday, tendencies of contemporary Catholicism that act like viruses within the body of the faithful. These tendencies have pervaded the Church in the west during the past decades, forming attitudes that deviate the faithful away from what is essential in the life of the faith, hampering the full flowering of the great promise that was tangible in Rome fifty-five years ago.
The first tendency is the common practice of locating the locus of my faith elsewhere, instead of in my personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The Gospel tells us first and foremost to repent and believe in the Good News. It tells us to make a daily stance against self-centeredness, taking up the cross and orientating our actions towards others. We are to imbue our lives with contemplation of the person and life of Jesus, drinking the chalice that he drinks and being baptized with the baptism with which he is baptized, effecting an interior revolution in which we cease living for ourselves but live for others.
Instead of focussing on daily interior conversion, the first virus impels me to locate the principal battleground of the faith elsewhere. Instead of recognizing that the greatest obstacle to the life of faith is my own materialism and self-centredness, this virus tells me that the greatest obstacle to faith is the institutional Church, the attitude of my bishop, the structures in Rome that “silenced” priests in the past, regulations that exclude certain classes of people from the sacraments. The virus fudges the issue of where the real arena of the faith lies. It equates “Catholic faith” with “Vatican” and creates the impression that if the institution got its house in order then all would be well with the faith. It continually engages in controversies of an external sort, raising smoke that obscures the fundamental beacon of light from the Gospel that demands, above all else, interior conformity with Christ in the service of others.
None of this is to deny that Church structures, attitudes and practices are in grave need of reform. But a focus on external issues of the faith to the exclusion of what is essential to the Gospel is effectively to engage in a process of de-evangelisation of the faithful, distracting them from the heart of faith to the detriment of the life of the Church. In a society that is driven to its very core by consumerism, the media has little interest in speaking about interior conversion or radical personal conformation to Christ. But discriminatory structures, unjust regulations, and one-sided emphases in Church moral teaching are all readily aired and debated upon by people who often, ironically, have no interest at all in conforming themselves to Christ.
The second virus that has pervaded Catholicism in the last fifty years is the widespread failure to recognize that there are fundamental ways in which the Church cannot conform itself to the spirit of the age, no matter how egalitarian or fair that spirit might appear to be. The spirit of the age carries public opinion along with it, forming a general consensus on what is right and wrong, what is just and unjust. The spirit of the last fifty years has been caught up with issues of equality and rights, but it has developed a distorted, historically-conditioned perspective on individual rights. If men and women are equal in the eyes of God, as most of us agree that they are, then this fact, interpreted by the spirit of the age, is believed to supersede the Church’s tradition of a male priesthood, instituted by Christ himself for reasons that may not be entirely clear to everybody. If all people are equal, and if their individual rights are absolute - as is held by the spirit of our age - then why should a person be denied the right to marry whoever he chooses, regardless of their gender? Why should a state outlaw the taking of one’s own life, if the quality of one’s life is so poor that one cannot bear to live anymore? If the end justifies the means – one of the fundamental tenets of the spirit of our age - then why should medical experimentation with a noble purpose be prohibited on embryos made up of a few cells that cannot conceivably feel pain?
This virus, this failure to appreciate that the Church must hold to articles of faith, principles and practices that are not relative to the spirit of the age, has the same alienating effect on the faithful as the first, leading to discontent with Church structures and regulations, a falling away from public practice of the faith, and distraction from the fundamental priority of immersing ourselves daily into relationship with Christ.
The second virus has difficulty allowing that there are relativistic and time-conditioned emphases in the “principles” upheld by the spirit of our age. It fails to appreciate that the Church has a solemn duty to call every age to repent and believe in the Gospel, correcting the defective value systems of the status quo. As such, the Church itself is no ordinary human institution, governed by the principles of a given time. The Pope inherits the mantle and role of Peter, which is to be the principal witness to the Incarnation and Resurrection of the Son of God, strengthening the faith of others, and calling the entire Church to a deeper relationship with Christ. Part of this duty involves carefully conserving the body of the faith that he has received and passing it on to others. If a majority of the “faithful” happen to disagree with some element of the faith - for example the belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist - the spirit of our age would say, “Let there be a vote and let the majority decision be respected!” Such a practice is incompatible with the nature of the Church and with the role of Peter, and would soon lead to the complete dilution of what has been conserved for us at the expense of the blood of the martyrs. It would result in our faith losing those very elements that are of divine origin and not readily palatable from a purely human, majority perspective. We see that process of dissolution evolving at an alarming pace already in some of the other denominations.
Instead of allowing this conflict between the ideals of society and the ideals of the Church to become the source of angst and alienation against the faith, my calling as a follower of Jesus is to continue to cultivate the interior conformity with him that is my primary obligation as a believer, whilst striving to understand why the Church is committed to values that can seem to be discriminatory, or lack compassion. The degree to which I am dismayed by the failure of the Church to witness to the compassion of the Gospel; the degree to which I am frustrated by the inadequacy or refusal of the Church to explain its practices, is the degree to which I am called to witness to the Gospel, explicate the teaching of the Church in a coherent way, and catechize the faithful in whatever way I can, starting with myself.
The two viruses may be pervasive in western society, but they do not tell the final story of the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council which is still being written. The Church has seen a revolution in its perception of itself during the past fifty years, in its dialogue with other religions, in its understanding of the vocation of the laity, its approach to the celebration of the sacraments, and its attitude towards Scripture. If dramatic renewal is to come then it will come, not solely through the changing of structures, but through individuals and movements in the Church taking these elements of progress and utilizing them concretely for building up the body of Christ. History shows that the greatest periods in the life of the church have received their spark from individuals and movements like Paul of Tarsus, Francis of Assisi and his Friars, Philip Neri and his Oratory, Ignatius Loyola and the Jesuits, and an untold multitude of others radically conforming themselves to Christ and showing the way for others. As Catherine of Siena said, “If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world on fire.”
The “handwashing” and “social distancing” that we need to combat these viruses are easily achieved. In fact, one single act cleanses us thoroughly and keeps all sources of contamination safely at bay – self-abandonment into the merciful arms of Jesus. Happy Feast of Divine Mercy!