Saturday, December 3, 2011

Starving Amidst Plenty: The Catholic Church's Curious Decline

Here are two postings I find it interesting to read as counterpoints to each other:

At America magazine, the editors note that the Catholic church in the U.S. is contracting: 

Schools have closed, hospitals merged, novitiates shuttered—moments rarely captured on film. With priestly and religious vocations and Mass attendance in decline, the church can no longer do all it once did. 

And at the Commonweal blog site, Cathleen Kaveny notes (as I did in a posting yesterday) that the latest data on Mass attendance in the Boston archdiocese show only 16% of Catholics attending Mass regularly any longer.  Kaveny wonders about the effectiveness of the many campaigns now unfolding in various dioceses to bring Catholics back home.  

As she notes, among Catholics of a Donatist smaller-and-purer-is-better bent, it's really a matter of good riddance to bad cess: many Catholics actively promote the exodus of dissenting or questioning Catholics from their church.  Read almost any Catholic blog site regularly, including those of the center, and you're likely on any given day to come across more than one taunt from a "faithful" Catholic to his/her dissenting and questioning brothers and sisters to leave the Catholic church for a less pure one, for the Protestant churches in general or the Episcopal church, in particular.

And so Kaveny observes,

I can’t help wondering, for say, Archbishop Chaput and others like him, what’s the point of a broad evangelization program:  Why invite people back just so you can kick them out again? If these issues are deal-breakers, why go through the motions? You might have a smaller, purer church (the Donatists thought so).  But it’s awfully unlikely that you’ll have a  BIGGER, purer church.

I think Cathleen Kaveny is very right.  I also think that her observation here functions well as a gloss on America's observation that "the church" has to tighten its belt and can no longer do all it once did because priestly and religious vocations are in decline.  

I don't disagree at all with America that the Catholic church in the U.S. is in disarray.  What gives me pause to think, though, as I read the America editorial is that there's an implicit claim in the editorial's analysis that the church is to be equated with priests and religious.

And so the church is in decline because clerical vocations and vocations to the religious life are precipitously declining.  Yet as that decline has taken place, there has never been a dearth of vocations to various ministries among the Catholic people as a whole.  Nor has there ever been a dearth of vocations to the priesthood among married men and women.

What has governed the response of the Catholic church to the challenges of the last half century, at an official level, has been an adamantine determination on the part of Catholic leaders to keep the current all-male, celibate clerical system intact at all costs.  And (though this is not usually spelled out openly and plainly) to equate a "vocation" with a vocation to the priesthood or religious life.

And so Catholics in places like the U.S. have for some time now faced the curious spectacle of watching their church die on the vine, even as that church overflows with gifts, talents, and callings.  Which "the church" refuses even to see, since those gifts, talents, and callings don't come in the form of clerical and religious vocations.

And which, in many cases, Catholics of the rabid right want actively to disallow, as they seek to run off many of their brothers and sisters bearing those gifts, exhibiting those talents, and experiencing those callings.

There's a curious malaise at work in any institution that simultaneously faces total decline and even death, and at the same time contains within itself abundant remedies for its own healing.  I'm not quite sure how to name that malaise.  

It's clear to me that it has much to do with unresolved issues of power and control that cause the leaders of such institutions to equate their survival with the survival of the institution they lead, even when that institution is actually and perceptibly falling apart under their leadership--so that their survival as a ruling elite is pitched against the survival of the very institution whose gifts, talents, and vocations sustain the leadership elite.

As I say, I'm not quite sure how to name this particular kind of institutional sickness, which quite commonly characterizes authoritarian institutions in decline, and which almost always results in their eventual total desuetude.  One thing I do know: it's sinful.  Because it's always sinful for us to face the gifts God offers us in superabundance and pretend they're not there or not pertinent to our needs, when they don't happen to come wrapped in precisely the shade of wrapping paper we desire.

And I think that,  in the church's current precipitous decline, we're only beginning to see the effects of the radical sinfulness that has for too long determined the decisions of the major leaders of our church.  A precipitous decline that has now begun to reach a point of no return in many of the developed areas of the globe--even as the Catholic people of those areas (recent cases in point: Austria and Belgium) plead desperately with the hierarchy to be heard, and to have their gifts put to use before the point of no return has been definitively reached . . . .

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