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Re-Evangelizing the West: “Secularized” culture – or a secularized Church?

Pope Benedict has created a new Vatican office to “re-evangelize” the West, aiming to combat it’s “secularization”. My immediate reaction on reading this was to wonder if by “secularization”, he is truly concerned about a loss of faith, or the precipitous decline of the Catholic Church in Europe? At USA Today, Cathy Lynn Grossman asks the same question: “Is it God or the Catholic Church facing ‘eclipse’ in the West?“.

There is no doubt at all that in Europe at least, loyal adherence to the teaching of Catholic Church is in free fall. Belgium is one dramatic example: once universally Catholic, it is now one of the most secularized countries in Europe. Only 7% attend weekly Mass, half of babies are not baptized, and three quarters of couples do not marry in church). In Austria, the number of people formally leaving the church annually, now at over 80 000, has doubled over the past two years – and this is a measure of formal resignation, not just of a gradual drift. A similar process of a steadily increasing rate of formal resignations, is similarly under way in Germany. In Ireland, which was once widely described as “priest-ridden”, many Catholics hold the institutional Church in open contempt.

Much of this is attributable to the record on sexual abuse and the inadequate response by the Vatican and the bishops, but there is more to it than that. The process of disaffection was well-established even before issues of sexual abuse became a major concern in Europe, and there are many more indicators of the problem than mere membership figures. In Italy, where open criticism of the Church remains rare, the complete disregard for Church teaching on contraception has been obvious for decades in the population growth rate – or lack of it. (One can assume that the lack of Italian babies is not down to Italian men suddenly starting to practice sexual abstinence). Belgium, Spain and Portugal have all legalised same sex marriage, Austria and France offer strong civil unions, Ireland will follow soon. Divorce is legal and common in all “Catholic” countries. Artificial contraception is routinely available right across Europe, some form of provision for abortion is available everywhere except Ireland and Poland. Even the possibility of legal euthenasia is coming increasingly under discussion.

Is this a sign of “secularization”? It certainly seems to be part of what the Vatican means. However, the process is also affecting the Church’s own clergy. It is widely recognized that a significant proportion of Catholic priests today are to some degree sexually active. In Italy, a group of priests’ mistresses recently wrote to the Pope, asking for an end to compulsory celibacy so that they could the secrecy of their lives in a clerical closet. In Austria, a poll this month has found that 79% of priests want an end to the celibacy rule (“Eight in ten Austrian priests want an end to celibacy“). Does this mean that the clergy too are turning away from faith and becoming “secularized”?

Of course it doesn’t. What it means, rather, is that people are resisting the attempts of the Catholic Church to exercise control over their lives, and ignoring church rules that have nothing to do with religious faith.

Obviously, the sexual issues I discussed above are moral issues, and need to be considered in the context of religious faith. But is the rejection of Church rules a sign that people are rejecting religion, or are rejecting the validity of the Church rules? A few days ago, while checking Vatican documents on one issue, I stumbled upon the Vatican document  “Some Comments on the NOTIFICATION regarding certain writings of FR. MARCIANO VIDAL, C.Ss.R”, discussing the steps taken to restrict the writings of a moral theologian who had fallen foul of Vatican guidelines. What struck me most about this document, and the original notification which led to it, was a ringing statement in the middle that

First among these is the centrality of the person of Christ in Catholic moral theology. The value of recta ratio in arriving at a knowledge of the human person is certainly recognized. At the same time, however, it is Christ who is the indispensable and definitive reference point for a complete knowledge of the human person; this is the basis for integrated moral acting, in which there is no dichotomy between that which depends on the humanum and that which comes from faith.

I fully accept that in some respects, Europe is clearly becoming a secular, post-Christian culture. This is most clearly demonstrated in an extraordinary obsession with material gain, and visible displays of wealth.  The Church has been critical of this, just as it has been of the greater sexual freedom, and I welcome this. Some of the increased personal freedom has itself been corrupted to sexual licence and an unhealthy obsession with a search for perfect bodies, and increasingly exotic physical indulgence in drugs, alcohol and the like. But on the other hand, there have also been signs that many people are increasingly interested in spirituality, whether inside or outside the Church.

Personally, I wonder if part of the problem has not been that “Europe” has been secularized, but that the Catholic Church itself has been. Instead of helping the peoples of Europe to find the means to develop their personal spirituality and integrate it into their lives,  there has been an obsession with power, control and political influence- very secular concerns indeed.

In arguing for a greater Church emphasis on spirituality, I emphatically do not propose that Catholics should thereby abandon all concerns for the material world in some kind of 24/7 mysticism. This is not either/or. Rather, I think of the Jesuit dictum, “contemplatives in action”. By teaching us how to grow in spirituality, how to achieve that personal connection with the divine and the discernment of spirits that can guide us in our daily lives in the world, the Church could be showing us how to integrate the sacred and the secular. Instead, by emphasising instead simple obedience to artificial moral rules, the Church forced many people into an unnecessary choice – and partly secularized itself.


10 Responses

  1. The drift happened in wake of the retrenchment after vatican II. Those who opposed the reforms of the Council worked continuously to disregard the Spirit working in the lives of the laity: e.g. the report of Paul VI Birth Control Study Group. The exaltation of the Medieval at the expense of the Modern” e.g Tridentine Mass Over Novus Ordo; the declaration of inherent evil in certain moral questions without proof: children raised in same sex household are psychologically harmed. While no one wants the Church to assume that all the questions of believers can be ascertained by science or psychology without reference to the centrality of Christ, there is a pervasive lack of trust in what the Modern Age can offer. Steering the Barque of Peter so close to the shore rather than setting out into the deep is the job hazzard which the Roman Pontiffs have regularly failed to comprehend since the death of Pope John XXIII. John Paul II adopted the “Superstar” stance of a modern world celebrity without seriously accepting the contributions of present day society for the practice of Faith. Micromanaging has become the obsession of the Vatican to the extend to telling the English speaking world how to pray the Liturgy. By installing career clergy in the Episcopate the whole artifice cannot help but collapse from the top heavy emphasis. There is a Death/Resurrection scenario which must be played out int he lives of all who follow Christ and the Church is not exempt fom this process.
    Sadly this opportunity for growth is being missed in the quest for compliance and acquiesence instead of trust.
    Duc in Altum.

  2. Terry, this is outstanding commentary. Thank you for it.

    I commented on the initiative to re-evangelize the West in similar vein at my Bilgrimage site today, and will now add a link to your article to my posting.

  3. Terry,

    I agree with William – outstanding commentary. I am not in full agreement with your conclusion. Nevertheless, it is still outstanding.

  4. Terry,

    It seems to me that secularization has occurred for a variety of reasons, including the following:

    Secular institutions have assumed responsibility for many of the charitable and educational functions that were previously performed by religious institutions. Hence, there is simply less “need” for religion.

    Increased advances in science and technology have led to an increased belief in the saving power of man. Churches and religious affiliation are seen as backward and antiquated ways of thinking.

    A variety of other factors including those you have cited above, have led to a conclusion of not only, “Who needs the Church?”, but “Who needs God?”. Yet, even after abandoning the Church and God, people still feel the need for a spiritual direction.

    I remember vividly my son at the age of 16 telling me that he didn’t want to go to Church any more because he didn’t believe the things that the Church taught. Upon further inquiry, it was clear that while he didn’t confess to the beliefs of the Church, he had nothing better with which to replace them.

    I think the Church has a very difficult time ahead of it. On one hand, the Church cannot offer mealy-mouthed answers to difficult moral concerns in an effort to win back naysayers. On the other hand, it cannot be rigid in the moral precepts at the expense of the message of Jesus Christ.

  5. These are great points David. I too wrote about this on my own blog and your observation about your sixteen year old son is exactly where I went with my thinking.

    The Western churches are dealing with the same issues parents deal with in their young adult children. This is why I think humanity is maturing while our religious institutions are acting like parents who can’t deal with the fact little Johnny is not ten any more and actually wants the keys to daddy’s car. For a lot of scared parents that’s way too much freedom for little Johnny–and way too far outside their control.

  6. Terry, one of the things I like about your analysis here is how it recognizes the integral connection between what the church teaches about moral issues, and what it proclaims about Jesus and the message of Jesus.

    It’s impossible to hold moral positions that seem, to many of us, to fly in the face of who Jesus was, what he did, and what he said, and then to maintain that we’re also proclaiming Jesus and his message authentically.

    What I hear you and Marciano Vidal saying is that some of the moral teachings the church now holds–particularly in the area of human sexuality–are becoming an impediment to many Catholics precisely because of our commitment to Jesus and the gospels.

    When these teachings are forced on us from the top down, with no consultation or dialogue, and with no recognition of the considerable dissent among the people of God; when they are not lived by those proclaiming them to us; when they have little or no foundation in the scriptures, especially the gospels: crisis results.

    For many of us, the only way to hold onto Jesus and the gospels is to distance ourselves from an institution that, with some of its teachings, is obscuring Jesus and the gospels for us.

    In my view, many disaffected Catholics in the West are not secularized at all. It’s precisely our faith in what is central to the church’s teaching and mission that forces us to keep a distance. The problem that is at the heart of it all is a malignant clericalism on which the last pope and the current one have hinged the future of the church.

    We see the malignant fruits of that clericalism in the abuse crisis. Until this clericalism is addressed honestly and effectively, many Catholics in the West will continue keeping our distance–and rejecting sexual teachings that are all about maintaining clerical power and control over the rest of the people of God.

  7. Another excellent article. You made a lot of good points here.

  8. I agree, a very good commentary. The Vatican needs to stop its fruitless and silly diplomatic games: trying to block condoms in Africa, gay rights in the Third World, same-sex marriage, addresses to the United Nations in official papal capacity….

    Who is listening? They’ve lost their audience. Did the early Christians spend time lobbying their governments? When will they realize the interior culture of the Church has almost entierly collapsed. We have nothing to offer society at large, as a Church, so long as this is the case.

  9. It is my belief that the signal ‘sin’ of the Church is a lack of relevance. The questions of the day are inadequately addressed by the positions of 100 (or 2000) years ago. If they were, they wouldn’t be questions today. Why go to confessional when I have a shrink who doesn’t make me say rosaries. Why go to church for support when I have Facebook who doesn’t require a donation. Why follow dictates that predate the automobile when I can read for myself what Jesus does and does not say.

    Are there valid ripostes to these questions? IS Christianity and the institution of the Church relevant in the post-industrial world? I believe so, but many of the mainline faiths aren’t aware enough to ask those questions, and many others are too entrenched in their storied dogma to have meaningful answers.



    • Some really good questions, Tim. I can attempt to answer only one of them: one good reason for attending Church is that it is “communion” – union with the community.

      On “confession”, I believe there is value in speaking about issues, as adults, with a priest or spiritual director, but have become convinced that the old style of confession was introduced and certainly was often abused as a means of clerical control. The modern word “reconciliation” is more promising, but is not really much better unless it becomes a two way process. In addition to speaking about our own “sins” to a confessor, we should also be speaking about the ways in which we have been hurt or scandalised by the church.

      I certainly don’ accept that the Church is there to provide “dictates” that must be followed. They are welcome to teach and advise, but I reserve the right to disagree with teaching that is unsound in reasoning or based on false premises. I reject out of hand any claims of inherent legislative power.

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