The Archbishop of Dublin, Dermot Farrell, has announced that “radical change is coming in the Church”. For the Church in many places—and certainly for the Church in Dublin—this is very good news. Of course, it isn’t really news; it is a hope. Dublin needs hope because (to speak only of critical numbers) its 1.5 million Catholics are served by 312 active priests, 139 of whom are over 70 and 116 of whom are on loan from other places. Moreover, Dublin is the largest city and the capital of Ireland, a nation which has over the past generation played rapid “catch up” to Europe in the adoption of secular national values. So clearly the Church in Dublin is in crisis.
On the other hand, the Church in Dublin is hardly alone. Strong, healthy dioceses are the exception rather than the rule throughout the West, where social, political (and often even ecclesiastical) pressures against Christian fidelity have risen dramatically over the past seventy-five years, roughly since the close of World War II. Historically-speaking, of course, these pressures have been building slowly over the past five hundred years. The question is how to respond to them: How to build a Catholic culture that counteracts these pressures with an attractiveness that continuously draws others in.
Archbishop Farrell places his hope in the “synodal pathway” advocated by Pope Francis. As described by Farrell (“a powerful commitment from clergy and lay faithful, across the full range of the life and ministry of parish communities”), this approach sounds wonderful. It is certainly necessary: As I have frequently said, if we understand “synodality” as “the Church firing on all cylinders”, then it is just what we need. But processes based on new catch-phrases never accomplish anything. What is lacking in the Church in the West is, more than anything else, the Faith. The vast majority of Catholic leaders (cardinals, bishops, priests, religious, professors, and even politicians) are unwilling to embrace, preach and teach the hard sayings of the Gospel, beginning with…
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever. [Jn 6:53-58)
According to current polls, the vast majority of Catholics in the West, even if they go through the motions, are still saying: “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (Jn 6:60).
We live in a Church in which saying (and believing) what the dominant secular culture of the West wants to hear is a defining characteristic of huge numbers of Catholics at every level, yes, from Pope Francis on down. I am not saying that the Pope or this or that bishop is exclusively guided by modern secularism, but concerned Catholics would have to be fools if they did not realize that both Pope Francis and a great many Western cardinals and bishops frequently place secular priorities and secular accommodations artificially high on their “to do” lists, repeatedly tailoring the Catholic mission to the prudential positions which are still popular in the larger culture. It is popular, for example, to plead for the environment, advocate for the marginalized, and emphasize human fraternity.
But it is not popular to preach the Gospel in its fulness. It is not popular to repeat the sayings (so common in Sacred Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, and the saints) which our contemporary culture finds “hard”.
The most important things
There is a church down the street from where I live—a Protestant church, not a Catholic church—which is very active when it comes to feeding the hungry (which wins high marks in the dominant culture), but was extremely uncomfortable with the peaceful and prayerful witness of 40 Days for Life to close the abortion clinic in a small business center adjacent to the church’s property, for which the pro-life demonstrators walked on the sidewalks in front of both the business area and the church. In fact, the manpower for the pro-life effort came overwhelmingly from my own parish, over a mile away (an unusually healthy parish in the legendary diocese of Arlington).
As a result, the clinic was eventually replaced with an authentically Catholic medical center which serves the poor. But the adjacent church’s attitude toward all this was ambivalent at best, hostile at worst. We all know that this ambivalence (and, yes, hostility), which dominates the old mainstream (non-evangelical) Protestantism, is common in many Catholic parishes and institutions as well. The synodal pathway, in and of itself, has within it nothing to counter this rampant secularism. The synodal pathway is a process. It can be only as Catholic as those who engage in it.
The problem with “processes” ought to be well-known to everyone by now. Time after time, our dioceses have specified a “process” to invigorate a parish, raise money, promote vocations, screen future clergy, protect children, improve Catholic education, and engage the laity. And time after time such “processes” have had little or no long-term effect unless a vibrant commitment to Christ, the Church, the sacraments and the Catholic Faith (as opposed to popular fashions) animated the effort. General processes are largely useless in the absence of a highly particular Faith which includes what many are so reluctant to hear: hard sayings.
There has been a great effort on the part of the Church to affirm the sanctity of the so-called “Vatican II” popes. That’s fine; there are usually many personal and group interests at work in pressing for the canonization of particular individuals (a good example is the cause for canonization of Fr. Michael McGivney, the founder of the Knights of Columbus; and of course the canonization of the founders of many religious orders). In any case, I trust the Church to canonize saints without error, secure in the knowledge that there are a far greater number of saints who are not canonized.
But when it comes to the kind of sanctity that inspires authentic Catholic renewal in the persons, parishes and dioceses which constitute the life of the Church, it seems clear that neither Pope St. John XXIII nor Pope St. Paul VI had this sort of influence. Only Pope St. John Paul II clearly did have it—inspiring innumerable lay initiatives and a whole generation of priests who were far more deeply committed to the Faith (on average) than were those of the preceding years—and who made themselves available for priestly service in substantially increasing numbers at a time when so many of their predecessors were leaving the priesthood altogether
Or more of the same?
Now, what inspired such priests and laity during John Paul II’s long pontificate was precisely that Pope’s emphasis on faith in, and commitment to, all the hard sayings of Jesus Christ—an unshakeable counter-cultural witness at the highest levels of the Church. Again and again, Pope St. John Paul II clarified and forcefully stated the Church’s absolute certainty about these hard sayings, and especially these moral principles which were being almost universally rejected in the dominant culture of the West, and consequently rejected or ignored throughout the Church in the West. Pope Benedict (Joseph Ratzinger) had been St. John Paul’s right hand, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and he continued to solidify the Church’s commitment to the “hard sayings” through his own too-brief pontificate.
It is noteworthy that Pope St. John Paul II, reflecting on his ministry on the fiftieth anniversary of his priesthood, stated that one of his regrets was that he had not exercised enough discipline over wayward clerics, preferring to inspire by teaching and personal example. Interestingly, Pope Benedict quietly removed far more bishops for dereliction of duty than did his predecessor—but he did not, as he aged, regard himself as capable of continuing the very difficult administration of the Church (especially, it seems, against so much obfuscation and resistance in the Curia itself).
Which brings us to what? A fresh emphasis on common ground with the secular world and a new process of Church-wide consultation! I hope someone is inspired somewhere by all this, and I pray it re-energizes a deep commitment to Christ as measured by those sayings of Christ which Catholics today seem to find so very hard. But at the end of the current pontificate, after so many attempt to use yet another open-ended process for private purposes, I do not expect what Archbishop Farrell expects. I do not expect the revival of our Church. I do not look forward to whatever new substitute is put forward for the hard sayings of Jesus Christ.