Recently a reader at my blog asked me what it would take for me to call “heresy” on someone else. Apparently, to refuse to lightly j’accuse is to be continually vomited out of Jesus’ mouth in a lukewarm stream, but I may find redemption if only I will carp endlessly about how the world is ending and the Church is dying, and lay the fault for it at the feet of the bishops and possibly of me, myself.
Hyperventilation seems incongruous, to me, with all we know about our Church. It is not the way of the saints. Our early fathers and mothers preached and suffered but they did not fret, and where they engaged in criticism they always saved some for themselves.
Where the great reformers saw problems they worked hard to correct them with a detachment that communicated humility. Most of them, by the way, had folks in their retinues who struggled with faith. I am reading Sigrid Undset’s excellent Catherine of Siena, and am struck by how generously she dealt with those who wished to follow her example but would get distracted and wander off for a little while. One such “son” in particular did this several times, and Catherine never condemned him—always welcoming his return, accepting his contrition and shooing him off to confession before putting him back to work. She seemed very content to pray for him and trust God to bring him about in God’s good time, which is indeed what happened.
It’s hard sometimes to trust God’s timepiece when ours is so much more accessible (and makes everything seem so urgent). The Church is not dying, because she cannot die. But the worry is easy to understand. We see the empty seminaries of the West and sink into such a gloom that the record numbers of seminarians in the East and Africa seem not to count; we take no solace in reading that there are more priests in formation in the 21st century than in our 1961 heyday. Our first-world conceit insists that we are the superior missionaries to the rest of the world, and it cannot square with the reality that the West has become a mission frontier.
Perhaps it is because so many Catholics currently seem to be wandering that some are panicking and reaching for their cutlasses. Certainly the Church does seem to be in a prolonged season of penance, wrought by both her tragic inattention to clerical abuses and the sinfully inadequate catechesis of the last forty years. That a couple of generations of “You are special; Mass is special; God is special” CCD classes (which offered nothing to counter a deadly cultural obsession with esteem-building) has produced millions of Catholics who have no idea what makes the Church more “special” than anything else, really should not surprise.
It is a near certainty that the Church will get smaller, down the road—our good pope has said as much:
“The Church,” he said as Joseph Ratzinger, “will become small, and will to a great extent have to start over again. But after a time of testing, an internalized and simplified Church will radiate great power and influence; for the population of an entirely planned and controlled world are going to be inexpressibly lonely . . . and they will then discover the little community of believers as something quite new. As a hope that is there for them, as the answer they have secretly always been asking for.”
Call it Adult Catechesis.
Perhaps sometime in the not-too-distant future, as governments move against her, the Church will be forced into poverty and become subject to the oppression of her earlier days. We may even see martyrs in the Western Church, once more.
But that, of course, is when the Church will triumph. Even if we lose every material aspect—our buildings, the great art vouchsafed to us—the Church will triumph, because it is greater than any structure, innovation, or physicality, which (no matter how meaningful) is nothing at all compared to Christ. This is something a materially fixated world cannot understand: to silence a voice is not to stop prayer; to close a parish is not to end it. The Church is built by the author of Life, and is itself alive with that Divinity. Life will always find a way, which is why man is constantly trying to keep it at bay—another conceit.
This is not the first time, or even the fifth, that the Church has seemed weakened or needful, or that worldliness has seemed to be eclipsing it, but there is no end to the Church. The nation may tumble; nations always do, in the end, when America tumbles, the Roman Catholic Church may very well see itself superseded by a government-friendly “American Catholic Church” that marginalizes the Roman church and even sends it underground.
What a privilege it will be, then, to have to give up our comfortable notions of what “real” Catholicism is, and what “real” Church is, in order to keep the Mass, and the Holy Eucharist in our midst. Stripped to our essentials, we may actually rediscover the unity that is currently so elusive among us.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
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