I had something of a difficult moment yesterday afternoon. I was sitting alone in Church and trying to pray; all the while, I was thinking about the Church as an institution and asking myself what I think of it – and I didn’t like my response to myself.
In ‘Gaudium Et Spes’, the Second Vatican Council’s ‘Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World’, we read that “Christ entered this world to give witness to the truth, to rescue and not to sit in judgment, to serve and not to be served.” If this was the mission of Christ, then it is the mission of the Church also. Re-reading that document today, this line struck me quite powerfully – it seemed to encapsulate the criteria with which I was looking at the Church. The three points from that line resonated with me, but for all the wrong reasons.
When it comes to ‘the truth’, it seems to me that the Church fears this in many respects. For me, there is no conflict between faith and reason, faith and science, faith and the human disciplines. And in many areas, the Church clearly agrees with this, presenting philosophical and scientific arguments in various different spheres of what it proposes to the wider world. Any who doubt the esteem in which the Church holds science should remember that the ‘Big Bang’ theory was proposed by a Catholic priest, Fr George Lemaître; also, that Vatican has its own observatory, through which it engages and dialogues heavily with the scientific world. Yet despite the Church’s esteem for science and philosophy in some areas, the same cannot be said when it comes to other areas. Of particular note here is the fields of sexual ethics – in this area, there is a very clear dissonance between what the Church proposes and what science proposes; and there seems to be precious little dialogue between the two. The end result is that, in this area at least, there is a very real disconnect between the two positions. Now, I am not suggesting that the Church ought to change what she teaches – but I am suggesting that there needs to be dialogue so that whatever position the Church takes or maintains, she can put forward very cogent and cohesive arguments which are based on something more robust than an ancient philosophical notion of ‘natural law’. The position of the Church needs to be able to withstand the scrutiny of the world at large, not simply that of it’s own hierarchy.
Regarding the Church ‘rescuing and not sitting in judgement’, there is no doubt whatsoever that Pope Francis is making enormous strides and trying so hard to bring the Church along with him and to see in the way that he sees. I cannot help but think that this particular Holy Father plays a very prophetic role for the Church of our day – even if many within the Church do not recognise it as such. But that aside, otherwise I see a Church where ‘rescuing’ is not to the fore, while ‘sitting in judgement’ most assuredly is. For too many – laity as well as many of those in the hierarchy, the Church is something of a club where you could be forgiven for thinking that the goal is to keep out all the non-members, as well as those already within but who do not follow the club rules. And that doesn’t look too much like evangelisation to me. The Church needs to go out to the whole world – not keep it at arms length. I read somewhere that if the Church were a business, then it is mortally failing – its business model is outdated, its branding is tainted and its products are simply not in demand any longer. That’s quite a damning indictment when the whole point of its existence is to evangelise.
Finally, there is that part about the Church being here “to serve and not to be served”. For the most part, it looks to me as though the Church is content to take the faithful for granted – they will simply keep coming (even though all the evidence says otherwise), they will keep on paying (though far less are doing that these days) and will simply accept whatever the Church says, without question; well, this piece answers that point. I see this in many parishes, where priests exhibit a very clear sense of entitlement, as though they were feudal lords accepting the benefices of the commoners. Oddly, it is usually in those same parishes where the priests actually do as little as possible for the faithful – these are the “minimalist” parishes, and as long as Mass is provided, that is sufficient. Of course, that is anything but sufficient – people of faith need to have that faith not only sustained, but actively nurtured. This nurturing requires much more than just coming along to Mass once a week. What about those who are experiencing some difficulty? Those who are isolated? Those engaged in a spiritual struggle? Or the lonely? Priests, like any decent shepherd, need to be out there among the sheep – I believe the Holy Father said much the same thing a while back. Those priests content to do as little as possible for and with the people, preferring to spend most of their time thinking of themselves, leave me wondering what priesthood is really all about. Now, there are also a great many good and very active priests, whose parishes are vibrant and welcoming, very much a reflection of what I read about in the Gospels; but all parishes do not meet this yardstick.
‘Gaudium Et Spes’ goes on to speak of how “the Church has always had the duty of scrutinising the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel”. In the face of so many pressing issues, it is disheartening to hear nothing very much from the Church on many matters of concern, and – at other times – to read words which indicate that the Church is focussed only on itself. Navel-gazing and evangelisation do not make good bedfellows. I think there are some prophetic voices within the Church today – but, as was ever the case, the majority of those voices come from outwith the institution of organised religion. I believe something similar was the case when Christ walked the earth. I am not really convinced that the Church today has the innate ability – nor even the interior desire – to ‘scrutinise the signs of the times, to interpret them in the light of the Gospel’ and then to speak prophetically to the world. And whilst that world once listened attentively, she seems much more reluctant to do so today. Yet that should not be the case.
So, this was what was going through my mind yesterday afternoon, because of which my attempts to pray were very poor indeed, intensely distracted and not in the least fruitful to me. It wasn’t the best afternoon, needless to say, and it felt quite disheartening overall. I thank God that, to some degree at least, I am able to balance all this with my view of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ; but I have to reconcile inside myself that these are not two separate entities living uneasily together, but two aspects of the one thing.
I wonder how many others are engaged in a similar interior struggle of this sort.