Monday, November 29, 2010

The Defenders of the Church and the Apologetic Challenge of Catholicism Today

And, building on what I have just posted: it strikes me that Austen Ivereigh at America continues to get it all wrong, when he writes today* about the need of loyal Catholics to defend the church.  What the church needs is not to be defended, but to recognize the extremely serious apologetic situation its own shortcomings have created for it at this point in history, and to begin the path of addressing those shortcomings honestly and with humility.  Its loyal defenders are doing a disservice to the Catholic church, when they deal with any question or challenge that comes along with a clenched fist, as though being a good Catholic is akin to hopping into a rugby scrimmage and pummeling one's opponent into submission.

The defensive posture itself is a serious problem, in the church of Vatican II, which began the process of admitting that the Catholic church is not the sole repository of truth and goodness in the world, but that the Spirit can be active in other religious groups and secular movements that can challenge the church to reform, to become a more adequate sacramental sign of God's universal loving embrace of the world as the church journeys towards the reign of God.  The fact that some influential Catholic journalists continue writing in the hunkered-down, pugilistic, macho posture of defense these many years following Vatican II indicates the extent to which the last two papacies have been successful in undermining the project of Vatican II.  And thwarting the Holy Spirit, which, Catholics believe, guides the church as ecumenical councils chart the church's course.

The defenders of the faith have become one of the most serious obstacles to continued connection to the Catholic church, for many people.  What they are often defending is clearly not the gospel itself, not the values of the gospel, but culturally-determined arrangements (e.g., a worldview in which heterosexual men enjoy power and privilege denied to women and gay people) that make them comfortable.  And put them on top in the rugby scrimmages.

What the defenders of the faith too often appear to be defending, when they claim to be defending the Catholic church, is the conflation of Catholic teaching and Catholic values with certain historically conditioned, entirely changeable cultural outlooks that absolutely have to change now, if the church is to have any kind of bright future.  As Howard Bess writes at Alternet today, young people are leaving the churches in droves.

A recent Barma Group study shows that 80% of young people raised in churches now in the U.S. will be "disengaged" from church life by the time they are 30.  Bess offers three explanations for this mass exodus from church life:

1) Churches are no longer intellectually challenging. 

2) Churches are no longer leaders in moral and ethical discussions.

3) Churches are no longer visionary.

Re-cycling the same old tired heterosexist worldview of the modern period, in which any heterosexual man at all, no matter how checkered his own moral past, has the right to posture as the pinnacle of God's creation and the self-evident defender of the church, is no longer going to work with a generation increasingly weary of the churches' homophobic, misogynistic outlook.  Re-branding the Catholic church as a holy reservation for privileged heterosexual males and women willing to put up with second-class citizenship may assure that the church retains the affiliation of the kind of younger members inclined to groups like Opus Dei or the Legionaries of Christ.

But it is not going to be a draw for the large majority of today's younger people, who rightly expect the church to offer something authentically countercultural: a worldview rooted in gospel values, which does not grant power and privilege to one gender or one sexual orientation, but which sees all as equally blessed by God, and equally called to assist the church in living towards the vision of the reign of God.  The Catholic church has a serious apologetic problem on its hands right now.  And warming over the anti-modernist, sexist and patriarchal tenets of movements like Opus Dei in journalist scrimmage matches against the "enemies" of the church is not assisting with that serious apologetic challenge.

*This link has been working only sporadically this morning.  If it doesn't open when you first click on it, you might try later and see if it does so then.

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