And what about the Catholic Church?

Following yesterday's post about the catastrophic decline in the Church of England, it is only fair to turn an eye to my own Church, the Catholic Church. A Church with very clear dogma's, and some pretty impressive leadership, given yesterday's analysis shouldn't it be thriving?

In fact the decimation of the Catholic Church in Europe as a whole, and not just in England and Wales, cannot be underestimated. Seminaries have closed across the continent, while closer to home in Ireland, once the bedrock of world wide Catholicism with its missionary priests found in almost every country in the developing world as well as stocking the parishes of the English speaking countries such as the United States, has closed all but one of its seminaries, city parishes are stalked by ghosts and the credibility of the bishops in shaping society as a whole almost at the level of contempt. And that has all happened in just 20 years.

I was in Ireland in the early 1990's, in a noviciate in the outskirts of Dublin. The local parish boasted a mass attendance of...13,000 each Sunday. The parish priest was a man of absolute power, and he knew it. Visiting out refectory for lunch, he never even bothered to greet the novices, let alone have a conversation with us. We were literally below him on the social/ecclesial stakes. He was about as close as it got to God walking down the high street. It was also the year that the Bishop of Galloway was exposed as the father of a child. I remember the Archbishop of Dublin, hardly a man of great cheer at the best of times, positively wringing his hands in disbelief and shame at the Chrism Mass. It was the first blow of what was to prove a string of massive hits against the moral credibility of the Catholic hierarchy at every level, one which has left the Church broken, despised, rejected.

Again, like the Church of England, it was sex that brought things to a crisis point. Priests preaching traditional family mores while indulging in all kinds of sexual practices themselves reeks of hypocrisy. While the Catholic Church had taken an unyielding line against everything from birth control to homosexuality members of its clergy were indulging in it all. The highest levels were caught up in it, even to the level of the college of Cardinals, preaching hell fire against gay marriage while having indulged in a string of gay relationships himself for years. Absolute zero in terms of credibility.

For Catholics the crunch in credibility came with Humanae Vitae. This in many ways prophetic document stalled in the matter of using artificial means in planning a family, condemning it outright. Rather than embrace and then challenge the developments in science which gave more control to a couple in shaping their family's size, it rejected them out of hand, and in a way which left most lay Catholic confused as to really why. In the end most Catholic couples have chosen to use them, while the clergy have constantly banged on about it as a rule or law which should be confessed as a real, serious sin.

A couple I knew well had had several children but the wife was increasingly ill with each pregnancy, and the doctors advised that after her near death at the last one any new pregnancy would be fatal. In such a situation the Church simply said no sex, adding more stress to an already difficult situation, stripping them of any sexual life until she should naturally pass through the menopause. Valuing the intimacy of their relationship, and aware of what St Paul warns as being subsumed by unreleased sexual desire, they threw out the Church's rule book as something which no longer spoke to their situation. They had kept to natural family planning methods until this time, knew the arguments, were devout members of the Church, but in the end the rule book just didn't meet the complications of their sit

While Anglicans dont know what they believe, Catholics simply insist on repeating the old dogmas without flexibility, as though even one compromise might bring the whole house crashing down around them. Entrenchment about sexual matters and the shape of relationships, such as the absolute indissolubility of marriage are preached time and again giving the impression to the wider world, as well as to much of its own community, that it is just reactionary, legalistic and unable to come to terms with the modern world, just as it was time and again in the past from everything from the make up of the universe to democracy. Refusing sacraments to the unmarried mother, to the remarried divorcees (so long as they aren't important people such as royalty or notables such as the Kennedys) or to committed homosexual couples just sticks in most people's throats as an over zealous legalism faced with genuine human complexity. It just doesn't seem very Christian in the sense of compassionate, understanding and that sense of solidarity with the broken, struggling humanity searching for salvation.

 Yet this isn't necessarily the Church's approach. Take suicide for example, where the Church once hounded the dead out of hallowed ground and condemned them in no uncertain terms to eternal damnation ( a pretty good example of both faith and morals) now, applying the insights of science and psychology is has reshaped its response as one of compassion and understanding, reaching out to the bereaved with great sensitivity and according the deceased the full ritual of a Catholic funeral. Or the development of the theology of marriage which has revolutionised the understanding of annulment of a marriage, leading to tens of thousands of Catholics, legally married in a church, finding themselves free to marry again in a way using the law to lessen the rigor of the law as it impacts on people's lives.

However, this flexibility isn't really mainstream, or at least didn't sound as if it was under Pope John Paul II or especially Pope Benedict XVI, where a number of these issues were made very visible, central red lines which no good Catholic could ever cross. The balance was out of kilter, so you could starve the poor to make massive profits, or be a key player in a military-industrial complex sending thousands of people to their deaths and the Church hardly bleated, indeed quite often a Cardinal would himself dine at your table. Or you could be a man such as Rupert Murdoch, who through his media empire comprising such luminary titles as The Sun escalated the moral degeneracy of whole societies across the globe and still be made a Papal Knight, but be the common law wife of a man who raped you every Saturday night on his return from the pub, and the use of a single condom placed you in the firing line of one sermon after another, issued with the full weight of the Papal office and demanding your attendance at the confessional before you should dare approach the altar.

The dissonance between the two I think has rung deep in the subconscious of many decent Catholics, and brought about an unease about the Church and how trustworthy its application of its dogmas really are when it comes to normal, complex, human life.

This is even more so when it comes to the contemporary world as a whole, with its larger lack of empathy with any sort of strong moral structures which tell people what to do in the bedroom. That the Church has made such a song and dance about issues which even to most Catholics really miss the point simply alienates the wider public from taking a closer look at what the Church really believes and leaves it open to ridicule and exaggeration by those who really do hate the Church and all its stands for. This is more so because the way the Papacy has tended to talk about these issues is so obtuse and couched in theological and philosophical terminology no one outside a specialist circle has the faintest idea what they are talking about. I remember listening to Question Time when the Pope was about to visit and some question came up about some aspect of Catholic moral teaching, and the answers just didn't address what the Church was, in fact, saying. Intelligent but non-specialist people can't readily understand Vatican-speak, and so just pick up the conclusion, the rule that is being imposed. Thus it comes across as authoritarian, not as pastoral, not as Christian, not as really true to the Church's nature.

There is also another consequence of this. I know a couple of people in their mid-20s, both of whom were very active in Church life until their late teens as altar servers and the like. Now they never go. Asked why, they will say they believe in God, in Jesus, and respect the Church in an affectionate but distant way, but they no longer feel they belong...mainly because they are sleeping with their girlfriends. They know the Church says that is wrong, they maybe feel a bit guilty but in the end can't see what is wrong with it and don't want to give up something that is an important good thing in their lives. So, they don't come because as they see it the Church is basically saying they aren't good enough, having broken the rules and refusing the change their behaviour. So, they stay away not because they don't believe but because they feel unwanted, shamed in a way, and because they don't want to be hypocrites. In a way they respect the Church too much.  And because they don't have the foggiest idea why the Church things they are wrong, they have no way of staying close to it even if they disagree with it, which is what quite a number of those who actually are practicing Catholics in fact do.

Of course those looking for certainty in a see of change find the authoritarian touches rather appealing, and many of those parts of the Church which have flourished under the very strong handed leadership of JPII and BXVI have been such groups as Opus Dei, Legionaries of Christ, the Neo-Catechumenate etc which have very authoritarian structures with a heavy stress on obedience, not least to the Pope. Older priests also can be heard making worrying comments about the 'reactionary' mindset of many of those in seminaries, where there is a growing affection for the usus antiquitor, the older version of the Mass in Latin that dominated Church use from the 16th century until the reforms of the 1960s. The appeal is to the timelessness of the traditions of the Christian Church as an antidote to the ceaseless change that is modernity.

I can understand that appeal, but the past is the past, and the Church has a principle that you must constantly change to remain the same because the Gospel is a living thing, not a fossilised document, whose essence is incarnated into particular times, situations and cultures. The reforms of the 16th century transformed medieval Catholicism beyond recognition. You need only compare the architecture of the Gothic with the Rococco to see what I mean. Christianity being the religion being based around the Divine Person of Christ, rather than the laws set in stone or the words of a book, has a core that meets and shapes each place, person and community where that relationship is established. The temptation with authoritarian approaches is that a particular moment becomes crystalised, set in stone and made the paradigm for all others. Even the apostolic Church metamorphosed into a structure of bishops and priests, and the Jewish traditions became increasingly marginalised as pagan philosophy became the mode of thought common to the Christian community. Out of this dynamic flexibility a missionary transformation of the Roman world took place until, within 300 years, the emperors themselves embraced the Faith.

Pope Francis I think is a good example of how putting the essential encounter with Jesus at the centre of the Church's being appeals in a dynamic way. His talk of forgiveness, conversion of life, love for the poor etc could come straight out of the pages of the Gospels, and after decades of hostility from the media a sort of stillness has taken hold. By returning to the essence of things rather than focusing on particular issues, not rejecting the Church's teaching on homosexuality or abortion for example, but re-balancing them in relation to what is central to the Church's vision, he has created space for the logic of Christianity to take hold, and this in turn seems, so far, to be bringing people back into the practice of their faith.

After the cultural wars which the Church spectacularly has lost across Europe and Latin America, this return to the essence which lies behind the Church's convictions about such things as birth control and gay marriage rather than fighting those who no longer understand or hold those convictions, creates space for people to move closer to the centre of what the Church believes. Those people whose lives no longer chime with ancient truths can at least be given space to hear those truths, and to make them in some way their own, and draw close once again to Jesus in His Church. This gives them space to then grow in those truths,  within a world very different to the one in which I for one was born. This creates some sort of space in which the process of continually placing the relationship with Christ at the very centre of people's experience can in turn once again shape the culture of those who believe and beyond, bringing fresh perspectives in the light of the rapid development of modernity within which the relationship with Jesus Christ is lived. This is what I think Pope Francis understands.











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