The Challenge Facing the Church

Opinion Piece published under the name Tom Scott in The Melbourne Age newspaper.

Australia's only elector for the coming conclave to choose a new pope, Cardinal George Pell, is quoted in the media saying he hopes the next pope will follow in the philosophical footsteps of his predecessor. Here are the Cardinal's quoted words:

"The Pope made Catholics feel secure," he said.
"That's certainly the way that I feel and that's certainly the way that most Catholics would feel."
"Those who want radical change realised that they had no hope while he was in charge and I hope that with the next pope, there'll be a similar sense of security."

It is questionable that most Catholics do feel the way the Cardinal has suggested. Across the length and breadth of the Western world on average about 85% of baptised Catholics no longer regularly participate. This figure is up from about 40-45% since the 1960s and had been climbing steadily since the end of the First World War. The exit in the last forty years, while the Church has been under the shepherding care of Pope John Paul, II has been alarming.

The challenge today seems to be between two essentially incompatible views of what this whole "Catholic religious" endeavour is about.

Is it merely a quest for certitude and "security" in the sense that someone like Cardinal Pell, or the Pope, can hand any of the faithful a guaranteed prescription that if they follow a few simple A-B-C type steps they will "get to heaven" or "be saved"? The Cardinal seems to believe he can hand out some formula like that.

That seemed to be at the heart of his argument a few years ago when he tried to get the Primacy of Conscience teaching struck off the Church teaching agenda. There are also, I'd submit, a section of the lay faithful who do very much perceive their faith journey in those terms. They are looking to someone like the Pope, or like a Cardinal Pell, to play a role akin to a doctor, or a motor mechanic, who will tell them "just follow these simple A-B-C steps and I guarantee you will be cured, your car will run correctly, or you will be saved".

In the Western world it seems the vast majority of people have walked away from that vision of what the religious quest is all about. One could not disagree with Church leaders like the Cardinal when they have suggested that a substantial proportion of them have walked away through laziness, or because of the allures of secularism, consumerism, hedonism, or simply because they feel it has all become "just too hard to think about". That is accepted.

What they do not seem to be able to accept is that another substantial proportion have also walked away simply because they think the Cardinal Pell/PJPII vision is too simplistic and in fact they cannot provide any guarantee that their A-B-C steps will result in salvation, or even just a meaningful life. They are seeking something more substantial than what the Cardinal and the Pope have had to offer.

I have been suggesting it is a more authentic "truth" than the one either of them have been able to put forward. It is not simple formulas but it is a "process" through which we as individuals have to discern truth in the myriad of moral dilemmas we have to face, and successfully navigate, each day and each moment in our lives.

The recent Terri Schiavo case in America underlines the divide. Moral choice involves a process of discernment across moral laws like the Ten Commandments and sometimes we do have to make difficult choices that involve us choosing between a range of moral options that might be in conflict. The element in the Church seeking "security" and certitude, often dressed up as conservative or orthodox righteousness, do not seem to be able to perceive life in those terms.

They seem to present the spiritual quest as some sort of exercise in memorising the Ten Commandments so that they can repeat them off pat when they meet St Peter at the pearly gates. Salvation is not about learning the Ten Commandments. It is about learning how to correctly apply them in the moral dilemmas of life.

Rather than "dumping" Primacy of Conscience as Dr Pell suggests, I believe the difficult challenge of showing people how to make those difficult moral choices in conformity with this insightful teaching of the Church is the way forward. That is what has a better chance of re-evangelising the world than anything that the Cardinal or PJP have done. The evidence is starkly, and embarrassingly there: most people in the Western world have simply "given up" — and this is despite all the jetsetting around the world, despite all the World Youth Day hoopla, despite all the saints who have been canonised or beatified, despite all "the media savvy" and ability of both Pope John Paul and Cardinal Pell to get their photos in the paper. Self-evidently all their media exposure does not result in "runs on the board" where it really counts!

The harsh evidence is that the solutions to re-evangelisation put forward by the likes of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Pell do not result in "bringing the Good News to all people". One day someone will answer for that. One suspects it will not be "the lost sheep" or "the little children" who have swallowed the line put out by PJP and the Cardinal and who are attracted to all the media hype that has characterised the Church in recent decades.

The leadership of the Church really do delude themselves if they believe a continuation of the communication policies of PJPII are going to result in a re-evangelisation of the Western world. The evidence is clearly there that all it will result in is driving the Church deeper and deeper into remnant status. If they persist, in another decade or two literally there will only be 5% left participating (and calling all the rest of of the world "liberals", "heretics" and "heathen" and feeling they are the only one's who are saved). The rest will have joined the 85% who have already gone off to seek spiritual sustenance in private places or just given up altogether.

The challenge the Catholic Church faces today is stark. It is between meeting the needs of those who seek security and certitude as the Cardinal is suggesting. Or it is in meeting the needs of those who are seeking assistance when they are confronted with the heart breaking moral dilemmas of caring for a family member like Terri Schiavo — or the more mundane moral choices that are involved when one comes across a colleague in the workplace who is involved in some wrong-doing and one has to decide if the correct moral choice is simply to ignore it as being "none of your business" or if the correct moral choice is to become a whistle blower and dob that person in.

©2005Tom Scott/Brian Coyne/Vias Tuas Communications
Published: 07Apr2005 in

Tom Scott

"In spite of all that might be said against our age,
what a moment it is to be alive in!" James McAuley