By Michael P. Riccards
Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerith of tiny Luxembourg has argued that the COVID-19 epidemic could accelerate by 10 years the secularization of the West. For some reason, apparently this view is shared by other high members of the hierarchy.
Is this really their view of the future of the troubled Church? It is disconcerting to see such a statement from a close Jesuit colleague of the pope, and his remedy is that this collapse will give the church a time to begin anew its missionary efforts. It is an argument that was fallaciously made after the Reformation. What is most apparent is that they simply take that decline as a given.
Pope St. John XXIII sought to reinvigorate the church by calling a churchwide council together. It created a real sense of enthusiasm but also a great deal of confusion. He and Paul VI tried to update the church and not lose adherents. But there is no sign that that worked overall. So Pope St. John Paul II came into the papacy with a strict diet of traditionalism, authoritarianism and discipline, but even with his enormous gifts in communication, his incredible intellect and his genuine chrism, he left a church weaker than before. His great defect was his inability to foresee the turmoil due to pedophilia. His successor, Benedict, dedicated himself to more of a regime of restoration, even bringing back the beautiful Tridentine rite and magnificent papal garb, but that prescription did not work for contemporary Catholics. The right wing of the church has had its best shot with those fine two men, but the decline has only accelerated. About 20-25% of Catholics go to weekly mass.
Pope Francis has tried some experiments with liberalism, but the conservative wing has clearly rejected his prescriptions and even charged the pope with heresy! How Cardinal Hollerith can be so sanguine is a mystery. The church needs to rethink its next moves, and a return to traditionalism isn’t going to do it.
It is true that pandemics do hurt the institutional church. The Black Plague resulted in the loss of so many priests that it frayed the ties between the lower clergy and the institutional church, leading eventually to the Reformation centuries later. But during World War I in the United States, priests and nuns worked assiduously to deal with the needs of the people. In my own parish, St. Vincent in Madison, New Jersey, the beloved pastor, Father John Lambert, actually said the funeral masses and then dug graves in the cold winter soil to bury his parishioners. He died beloved and surely a saint.
The problems of the church are obvious: it is losing in Latin America countries millions to more inclusive and exciting Protestant fundamentalism. While in the United States and in Western Europe, the church is losing to bland secularism. One can’t find a Lutheran or Anglican with a Geiger counter. The pope’s instincts are correct, but he is aged and weary of fighting the good fight.
The church needs a married clergy and female priests; it needs to revamp the orders of sisters since they are so critical to the young; it needs to restore the priest worker movement under Pius XII to bring the faith into the offices and factories;, it needs to restore full rights to divorced Catholics; it needs to avoid the preoccupation on sexuality and return to the gospel of Christ. Try as I may, I can’t find in the new Testament Jesus talking of gays, abortion, or even masturbation. The church is fixated on those questions. It has also furthered a much politicized hierarchy in America. I do not know why I should give a contribution at mass or support the Knights of Columbus when I can simply eliminate the middle man and give directly to the GOP.
As much as I love the Tridentine mass, it is not making a dent with my children or grandchildren. We need music and even liturgy that matches the old Protestants. Even the Vatican has noted how poor the sermons are at mass. Maybe we should just eliminate them or better train priests how to preach and stop buying the canned sermons. Even when Jesus gave his first sermon in the synagogue, he spoke on Isaiah from the heart.
It has been estimated that about 40% of the priests are gay Is there a way we can used that sensitivity rather than force them back into the closet? Above all we must learn like St. Paul how to spread the good news by the social media we now have. Confirmation is in decline. How about using the social media to teach the faith? Penance is the lost sacrament. How about having general absolution like we allow troops going into battle? And most of all, how can we spread the gospel to a new generation, showing it as a real alternative to weary secularism, consumerism and greed?
Michael P. Riccards, a former college president. is the author of 30 books, including Faith and Leadership: The Papacy and the Roman Catholic Church.