This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald and can be found online here.
Anybody following coverage of the events of the last month or so could be forgiven for having a rather pessimistic view of the current state of the Church. With a tone of infallibility that would be denied the successor of Peter, certain elements have given the impression that the Church is failing, rotten to the very core. Not only, we are told, is the Church rife with administrative and financial problems, but the very message we purport to promote is at best ineffectual, and at worst damaging, even dangerous.
The medicine prescribed for this terminal decline is, apparently, reform: by which is meant, bringing the Church into line with the liberal secular consensus found in contemporary politics and society. Failure to do so, it seems, will mean that the Church ceases to be a vehicle of moral authority and a source of good in the world.
I am not naïve about the situation we find ourselves in, but this is not the answer. What such calls for reform fail to recognise is that what the Church presents is not simply one path among many – a moral option for those who like that kind of thing – but, rather, the revelation of the truth of the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, the sins of those proclaiming that truth, and the institutional failures which they perform, do not affect the Church’s objective moral authority, merely her credibility. That, I would suggest, is something that we can and must change.
First, however, some honesty is needed. The grim picture of the Church painted by many recent reports is not one that stands up to real scrutiny. I suspect I am not alone in finding such a portrait unrecognisable because, despite these projections of doom and gloom, the Church has in fact grown substantially in the past 40 years. We are all aware of the significant growth in Africa and South America, and even despite overall population growth worldwide, Catholics still represent 17 per cent of the world’s population (down only one per cent from 1970). Sunday Mass attendance in Britain now represents the largest single body of weekly religious observance, numbering over 860,000 souls.
We must not be complacent, particularly as European culture becomes more acutely secularised and church attendance generally falls, but this numerical growth is a sign that something has begun. The perceived demand for reform needs, then, to be contrasted with the evidence that the Church is not so much dying, but evolving.
This evolution, I would argue, is particularly evident among young Catholics, who are the single most impressive sign of contradiction to the secularist mandate. Not only have young people put up with dreary attempts to simplify a faith which often they know better than their parents, but their resilience has brought out an astonishing love of the Church which is infectious beyond measure. From Youth 2000 to Juventutem to Nightfever, these Catholics are thoroughly orthodox and committed to a deep personal conversion as the principal means of that most effective form of propagating the Gospel: peer evangelisation. They are beyond what Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth has described as a Marxist dialectic of “Left” and “Right”, of “traditionalist” and “progressive”, and are already living the faith handed down to us from the apostles with the new ardour, method, and expression, called for by the new evangelisation.
In a Channel 4 interview just after the announcement of Pope Benedict’s resignation, Paschal Uche – who greeted the Pope on the steps of Westminster Cathedral in 2010 – enunciated exactly this positive new outlook, when he defended the Church’s teaching on contraception in response to a question from the presenter, Jon Snow. Snow had assumed that Paschal’s Nigerian heritage would mean he would wish to see such “rules” (as they are often perceived) relaxed. He was mistaken. In a world where clear and reasoned moral guidance is now essentially absent from society, younger people are drawn to the clarity and precision found in the rich tradition of Catholicism.
If a young person is to take the radically counter-cultural step of practising their faith in the 21st century, they are not simply going to do so in a way that makes little difference to their lives. Why do we think that religious communities and liturgical expressions that embody the idea “the more Catholic, the better”, are the ones showing steady signs of growth?
The call to reform the Church – which is sadly not limited to secularists – misses this crucial point. The disgrace of the child abuse crisis will not be absolved by a change in the discipline of priestly celibacy, nor would it put a complete end to such crimes. No empirical evidence suggests otherwise. Equally, the apparent administrative issues in the Roman Curia will not be solved by a “collaborative papacy” wrapped up in false notions of collegiality, nor by simply delegating clerical roles to the laity. With the greatest respect, the lay faithful and local bishops are as capable of getting things wrong as anyone else. Those Christian communities that have colluded with secularist calls for reform have not only found themselves drowned out in public discourse, but have no evidence of success.
No. The “reform” we require, which I believe has already begun in those exceptional young people, would be better understood as “renewal”. We need to be renewed in the apostolic faith and tradition, and to rediscover the joy of communion with the Church. We need to “return to prayer”, as Pope Benedict said evocatively at the end of the Mass on Ash Wednesday this year, finding solace in the sacraments and in a renewed understanding of our reliance on God’s grace and mercy. We need to live lives more closely united to, and expressive of, the commandments and the law, conforming our wills to the Lord’s.
That is what will truly “reform” the Church in the image of Christ, and that is what will enable us to speak again to the world with confidence, presenting the unchanging and unique truths revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ, because – contrary to their claims – he remains the way, the truth, and the life.