“The Institutional Church”
The topic of the Plenary Assembly has a strong resonance in Ireland, where the advance of secularism came very rapidly and changed dramatically both individual and social attitudes.
A recent book by John Waters, a journalist who was swept along by those changes but who now believes that they were full of ambiguities, describes how the dominant culture was overturned: “(Power) was transferred to a generation suffering from a profound anger... arising from perceptions of the abuses of power... and from a sense of the failure to deliver on the promises of the 1916 Proclamation (Irish Proclamation of Independence, Easter 1916) and, indeed the essential content of Christianity. For this generation, Catholicism had nothing to offer except accusation, proscription and oppression. There was a sense that Ireland... had lost pace with the world and an even stronger sense that the Catholic Church had ceased to be a conduit for Christian and spiritual values, and was reduced to a power base, obsessed with controls” (Waters, J., Lapsed Agnostic, [LA] Continuum, London and New York, 2008, p. 40.).
That is a description of “a crisis of faith towards the Church”. He suggests that strong disillusionment arose because “the Catholic Church had ceased to be a conduit for Christian and spiritual values”.
The perception of the Church as ‘a power base, obsessed with control’ is summed up in the phrase ‘the institutional Church’. That terminology separates the Church from its spirit. Without the soul that gives it life what was once a living body, would be only a corpse.
This phenomenon is not primarily a reaction to failures of the Church and its leaders – though there have been serious failures. Nor is it the product of influences unique to Ireland. It is the reaction of a secularised world in which “God has, as it were, disappeared from (our) existential horizon” (John PaulII, to Pontifical Council for Culture, 5 March 1988.)
If the divine Spirit who gives life to the Church is not recognised; all that can be seen is the dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision (Ez 37:1-14). Many Catholics see the Church, not as a community to which they belong but as an institution, external to them, to which they turn for social and religious services but which involves the depth of their being only occasionally, if at all. John Waters says: “nobody ever told me... that religion was anything to do with the taste of reality and the awe I felt at being alive in a world full of wonder" (LA, p. 27).
Schools of Prayer
Secularism has its roots in a culture which finds it increasingly difficult to believe in a personal God who is love. A crisis of faith towards the Church follows inevitably from the crisis of faith in God.
If we fail to recognise the scale of the challenge of secularism, we will find ourselves mistaking symptoms and less important details for the real problem. We may then be tempted to think in terms of the approaches that are characteristic of this secularised culture, such as marketing strategies and restructuring programmes and techniques of communication. These have their place, but the challenge lies deeper.
The challenge requires what Pope John Paul described as a “further step of awareness, concerning as it does the deeper level of his being, which (Jesus) expects from those who are close to him: ‘But who do you say that I am?” ( John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte [NMI], 19).
This encounter with Jesus will not be the result of a plan or a structure or a lofty idea (Cf. DCE, 1). We can only arrive at this awareness “by allowing grace to take us by the hand. Only the experience of silence and prayer offers the proper setting” (NMI, 20) for growth in knowledge of the mystery of God and of ourselves. In the face of Christ, we recognise our own true selves (Cf. NMI 23, Gaudium et Spes, 22; Redemptor Hominis, 10).
In the search for plans and reforms and renewed structures, we may miss the essential. We have to find space for contemplation and prayer. Without the contemplative outlook which sees life in its deeper meaning and accepts it as a gift (John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 83), how can we have a vibrant faith in God, or in his Church?
We should reflect on how strange it is that Pope John Paul felt it necessary to say that Christian communities, at all levels, “must become genuine schools of prayer” through which “the heart truly ‘falls in love’ ” (NMI, 33). If Christian communities are not genuine schools of prayer, should we be surprised by the advance of secularism?
The surrounding culture where God has disappeared below the horizon makes it essential for believers to find a space in which they can learn and experience prayer. This can be done, and is being done, in many ways, through well prepared liturgical celebrations, through adoration of the Eucharistic Presence, through various forms of lectio divina, through movements, through prayer groups and so on. These are not just extras. Learning to pray is the only effective response to the challenge of secularism.
While providing these opportunities is vital, it is not enough. The Church is not simply an institution which does things for people. We must seriously challenge individual Christians to put time and effort into opening themselves to the truth of God. “It would be wrong to think that ordinary Christians can be content with a shallow prayer that is unable to fill their whole life” (NMI, 34). In answer to those who challenge us, saying ‘What are the bishops and clergy doing about the growth of secularism?’ part of our response has to be, ‘What are you prepared to do yourself?’
Not merely prohibitions
John Waters referred a generation which sees the Church as a source of prohibitions and condemnations. This is a symptom of the same lack of appreciation of the depth of the mystery. If one does not understand something of the love of God which has given life a new horizon, then moral living will no longer be love freely chosen and freely lived out (Cf. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 18). St Thomas Aquinas pointed out that "even the letter of the Gospel could kill unless the saving grace of faith is present within" (Summa Theologiae, 1-II q106, a2c). The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “the Commandments properly so-called come in the second place” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2062); they express the implications of belonging to God through the covenant of love.
The moral crisis of our day has many dimensions – philosophical and cultural. But the essential element is that morality is losing its foundation in an adequate anthropology. When we recognise ourselves in the face of Christ and see our lives in the light of his promise, morality is no longer just a matter of rules. It is about relationships, choices and attitudes that recognise the dignity and worth of every human being in the light of the love God shows us.
Pope Benedict said to the Irish Bishops during our ad limina visit in 2006: “It is important to emphasize the Good News, the life-giving and life-enhancing message of the Gospel (cf. Jn 10:10)... we must correct the idea that Catholicism is merely ‘a collection of prohibitions’... Superficial presentations of Catholic teaching must be avoided, because only the fullness of the faith can communicate the liberating power of the Gospel”.
In relation to the Church and to moral teaching, the basic need is that identified by St Augustine and referred to in Spe Salvi: our hearts need to be enlarged and cleansed (Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 33, cf.Augustine, Homily 4 on 1John, par 6). We must learn to be a people with a contemplative outlook. That is the challenge for every Christian.