Posts Tagged ‘anarchists and priests’

Over the last few decades, countless articles and analyses have been written about the vocations crisis, the perceived shortage of priests and religious when compared with the always-increasing number of worldwide, or at least American, Catholics. The narrative always tends to be that, following the Second Vatican Council, something broke down in the Church’s ability to reach people — with a hint of irony for how lauded that particular ecumenical council tends to be — and that, now, we’re facing a situation in which there simply won’t be enough priests to minister to the faithful. Both Europe and the United States — I don’t know the situation for Canada, although I’d presume it fits into that paradigm — have experienced declines that, if not akin to the sort of cliff Wile E. Coyote would stumble off of unawares — only to look down, hold up a sign reading “Yelp!”, and plummeting to his doom — would certainly resemble a steeply-sloping hill down which, I dunno, Bugs Bunny might roll Elmer Fudd in a barrel or something before he smacked into a tree with an orchestral crash. Either way, the Church is presumed to be, at best, Elmer Fudd, and at worst, the unfortunate Wile E. Coyote, super-genius, in some way outfoxed by their respective nemeses.

I am no statistician — I took Statistics 208 for non-majors in college, and got a C, and mostly I only remember being 95% confident about everything — but I would like to propose, in my meager, non-expert sort of way, that the problem isn’t one of a lack of priests, but a lack of Christians; that what happened wasn’t anything as complex as some sort of breakdown in communication, but something as simple as the Sixties. Social mores changed precipitously in a very short period of time, and the social pressure of church attendance fell away, and so lots of people who didn’t want to be there to begin with simply stopped going. This process has only continued; Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, simply lack the force of social coercion we once had, and so our numbers appear to have fallen, when in reality, it appears to me that only our attendance has.

Let me explain a bit.

I recall, but since I can’t find the citation feel free to correct me on this, a recent Pew Forum survey which indicated that only about fifteen percent of American Catholics attend mass every week. That leaves us with nine million out of sixty million Catholics who are doing the bare minimum of practicing their faith. This isn’t counting Catholics who work at soup kitchens on Saturdays. This isn’t counting Catholics who give generously to the poor. This is mass attendance, which ranges from active involvement to faithfully sleeping through the homily while thinking the Eucharist is some sort of fun game of make-believe. Since mass attendance may be the most reliable gauge of involvement in the Church, a way to quantify, if not qualify, how many people really are functional members of the Church, we’re faced with the reality that the Catholic Church in the US is really fairly small. And for those nine million Catholics, we have 40,788 priests. This leaves us with a ratio of about 221 laypeople for every priest, if my remembered-statistic is correct; working with a 2008 CARA survey that gave us 20% for mass attendance, we’re still at 294:1. For comparison, in 1962, well before this crisis began, it was 771:1, in 1942 it was 617:1, and in 1903 870:1; we’re, perhaps, at this point still benefitting from the glut of ordinations in the mid-sixties, but the numbers, at least, speak very clearly to me that the problem isn’t a lack of priests — we’ve got plenty of those — but a lack of Christians. And this is a very real problem that doesn’t get very much attention at all.

For as much as the Church has been pushing the new evangelization, it has struck me that the new evangelization is targeted primarily at Protestants and former Catholics; we was Protestants to convert, and former Catholics to revert. The heavy lifting of evangelization is left to the followers of Luther and the other movements the sprang up in his wake; we are content merely to siphon off their harvest. I know this is not a universal reality — there is a wonderful parish in Bensonhurst, NY that is very actively engaging the never-ever-ever-Christian Chinese immigrant population in the area, going so far as to teach many of its parishioners Mandarin — but it’s prevalent enough. It’s a rare sight that an RCIA group features more than a couple of baptisms.

Truth is, the vast majority of baptized Catholics — five in six — leave the Church by the time they’re twenty-two. The numbers are higher in Western Europe.

Now, before this gets into just the hashing out of numbers — which I both hate doing and reading, and so my sincerest apologies for that — I’ve been trying to figure out why the Church isn’t more evangelically and culturally engaging, and honestly, I can’t say I have a solution, which is well-above my paygrade as a mere diocesan seminarian. But I have some speculations which both informed and been informed by my mixing of myself up in Christian radicalism and anarchism.

What makes Christianity engaging to begin with? While it’s true that some people are attracted to its theological rigors — “I thought my way through it, and concluded it’s true and logical and consistent, but mostly that it’s true, and so here I am” — there is the reality that praxis, the faith as lived, is itself supposed to be attractive; people looked at Mother Teresa and by and large really did say “Now that’s a Christian.” There is something immensely Christ-like in the embrace of poverty, the gift of self, the abandoning of worldly ambition to the pursuit of the Lord and his service, and I wonder if this if something we’ve stopped expecting of people. It’s as if the most we’ve concluded we can readily ask of anyone is to go to work, do their job, pay their taxes, raise their kid, and be a decent human being — all of which are good things which are hard enough to do, but where, in all of that, is the Gospel?

I was speaking some time ago with an old roommate, an immensely intelligent agnostic for whom I have great respect, and, this question in mind, I asked him point-blank what he thought of the Catholic Church. Having been told that I expected complete honesty, he gave it to me, and the very first thing he said was that, for a church that’s always talking about serving the poor, it has a lot of really nice stuff. That that we’ve given so much attention to our church buildings and vestments and sacramental tools, so we can have nice spaces to worship in, seemed immensely hypocritical to him, as though the two couldn’t really exist in the same space. For all as I’ve explained, in the past, that beauty is a good thing, that we build these places to honor God, for as much as he understood the Catholic position and reasoning on the matter, it didn’t seem to hold together. Splendor and serving the poor didn’t mesh.

I would not be surprised if this is a feeling widely shared. In a world that has lost all its trust for institutions, the Church seems to be just another one. This is not to say we aren’t doing good work, but it is to say we’re doing a pretty crappy job of getting the message out their that this work is of paramount importance. What’s worse, the past decade of sexual scandals has drained whatever credibility we had left as an institution away. We’ve got very little respect left in the wider culture. It’s all been torn away by our own failure and inaction, and even the work we’ve done to repair that damage has proven insufficient; the wider world still thinks of pedophile priests with ease.

We are at rock bottom.

There’s not a whole lot more we can do to make things worse.

We are suspected, unpopular, untrusted. We are hypocrites in funny hats. We are roundly mocked, and what is worse, much of it seems to be deserved. And now I’m wondering if all our splendor is officially no longer helping matters.

I want our church, which is true and wonderful and holy, to be evangelically engaging in the modern world. I want to do it without compromising the truth of what Catholicism is at it’s core — remaining theologically orthodox, keeping the sacraments and our sacramental theology, our respect for life, our opposition to the culture of death and its many permutations, keeping everything that’s essential — and shunting off the rest. We are no longer able to engage the world as we did during the Church’s height and age of splendors, so perhaps we should no longer be spending millions of dollars building cathedrals. Is the Eucharist not the Eucharist if it’s in a simple building? Do the sacraments falter depending on the setting? If a priest in mortal sin can offer absolution, a priest in a storefront church can do the same.

The core preaching of the Church is centered upon sanctification, the transformation of our lives according to the words and mission and preaching and gifts of Christ. And perhaps the time has come to consider preaching from poverty again, and shuttering our fabulous buildings as no longer serving a need. We¬† need to be able to evangelize the culture in different ways, because the ways we’ve found, which are basically to be faithful, mass-going, successful middle-class people, simply aren’t working, and so it struck me: maybe the problem is that we can’t do that anymore. Maybe Christ never meant for us to be prosperous. Maybe we’re supposed to be poor and dependent, worshipping in storefront churches and pooling our resources. Maybe we’re supposed to stop talking to Caesar and get back to the catacombs, if you will, or the farms, or the streets, anywhere but Washington. Maybe we need to shutter our cathedrals and sell off our cars and walk our way around the country as vagabonds like St. Francis. But I don’t know.

Either way, I’m wondering if respectability is what we should be working for, and so my thinking of late has embraced this sort of vision, because it proposes, very dramatically, a way to abandon ourselves and live our principles, the Gospel life of poverty and giving. It places God at the center of our lives, and makes a dramatic pitch to people looking for meaning: God is absolutely sovereign, and there is no other.


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The Waterboys are a band I like a little bit: a Celtic rock group, formed in Scotland by lead singer-songwriter Mike Scott in the early 80’s, dissolving in the early 90’s, reforming with much of the original lineup replaced just before the millenium. Like Hawkwind, which has been going for decades and is now basically “Dave Brock plus whoever’s tagging along”, the Waterboys are basically “Mike Scott plus musical companions”, and Scott has even said as much.

The Waterboys have always benefitted from pretty good tunes, but harmonically they tend to be pretty simple. Their music lives from the lyrics, and – particularly in the earlier times – from the immense energy put into the singing and performance. Mike Scott was, back then, a raging pagan, albeit one who liked C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald a lot; since then he’s moved more in a monotheistic direction and is these days a bit of a syncretist. Their best album, “This is the Sea”, showcases the early pagan intensity quite heavily in “The Pan Within”; the song “The Whole of the Moon” was released as a single, though failed to climb the charts partly because Mike Scott didn’t want to lipsynch on Top of the Pops; and the 6 other tracks show varying degrees of power and rage and elemental wildness. My favourite of them all is this one: (more…)

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