Men without conviction, churches without people

George Weigel

Europe’s wholesale abandonment of its Christian faith is often explained as the inevitable by-product of modern social, economic, and political life. But there is far more to the story of Euro-secularization than that, as three ecclesiastics, a Presbyterian minister and two Italian priests, demonstrated this past Christmas.

The minister in question was the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Rt. Rev. Dr. Derek Browning. In his Yuletide message to his disappearing flock, Dr. Browning confessed that in his “darker moments,” he sometimes wondered whether “…the world have been a better place without [Jesus]. If there was no Jesus, and therefore no Christianity, would there have been no Crusades? Would there have been no Spanish Inquisition?” (Dr. Browning didn’t contemplate the possibility that, without Jesus, there would have been no iconoclastic destruction of Scotland’s ancient and beautiful Catholic churches, or no mass burnings of “witches” by his forebears in the kirk; but that, perhaps, would have been cutting a bit too close to the bone.)

Then there was Father Fredo Olivero of the Church of San Rocco di Torino in the Archdiocese of Turin. At Christmas midnight Mass, Don Fredo substituted the syrupy Italian pop-religious tune, Dolce sentire, for the Creed, explaining, “Do you know why I do not say the Creed? Because I do not believe it….after many years I understood that it was something I did not understand and that I could not accept. So let’s sing something else that says the essential things of life…”

Which, evidently, do not include the confession of faith that Jesus is Lord and Savior.

Not to be outdone by those uppity Piedmontese in Turin, a priest of Genoa, Father Paolo Farinella, announced in the leftist Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, that he had canceled his parish Masses for January 1 (the Octave of Christmas and the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God) and January 6 (the Epiphany). Why? Because, according to Don Paolo, Christmas is now “a fairy tale from the nativity scene with lullabies and bagpipes, the exclusive support of a capitalist and consumerist economy, transforming the whole of Christianity into civil religion.”

So there. No Mass.

These three episodes illustrate a larger point: “secularization” is not something that just happened to western Europe, like the Black Death. The radical secularization that has transformed Christianity’s heartland into the most religiously arid half-continent on the planet has at least as much to do with the craven surrender of ministers of the Gospel to theological and political fads, and their consequent loss of faith, as it does with the impact of urbanization, mass education, and the industrial revolution on Europeans’ understanding of themselves.

If the Gospel is not preached with conviction – the convictions that humanity is in need of salvation and that Jesus is the Savior who liberates us into the fullness of our humanity and gives us eternal life – then the Gospel will not be believed.

If ministers of the Gospel indulge in gratuitous virtue-signaling by promoting the worst of black legends, as if the sum total of Christianity’s impact on world history is embodied by “the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition,” why would anyone come to their churches or listen to whatever’s being offered there by way of I’m-OK-You’re-OK therapeutic balm?

If ministers of the Gospel cannot challenge the world’s distortions of the Gospel with the truth of the Gospel, but fall back instead on penny-ante pseudo-Marxist clichés, is it any wonder that their church pews are empty?

Christianity is dying in western Europe. There are many reasons for that, including the complicity of many churchmen in the ideological awfulness that turned mid-20th century Europe into a slaughterhouse. But the Gospel has power, and those who believe that, and preach it in the conviction that it can transform and ennoble lives, can still get a hearing. Indeed, as post-modernity decomposes into ever more bizarre forms of irrationality, the cleansing, liberating truth of the Gospel and the vision of life well-lived found in the Beatitudes ought to be a compelling offer.

But the offer must be made. And it won’t be made by churchmen who wonder aloud whether the world wouldn’t have been better off without Jesus, or who substitute treacle for the Creed, or who throw public hissy-fits rather than celebrating the Eucharist.

COMING UP: The Catholic Church doesn’t do ‘paradigm shifts’

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Ever since Thomas Kuhn popularized it with his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the notion of a “paradigm shift” has led to fascinating arguments about whether this or that break with previous scientific understanding counted as one. But that a “paradigm shift” – like the “shift” from Sir Isaac Newton’s cosmology to Albert Einstein’s, or the shift from the miasma theory of disease to the germ theory of disease – is a rupture in continuity is not in much dispute. A “paradigm shift” signals a dramatic, sudden, and unexpected break in human understanding – and thus something of a new beginning.

So are there “paradigm shifts” in the Church?

We seem to have biblical evidence for one in the first chapter of the Letter to the Galatians, where St. Paul describes, very telegraphically, how he came to grasp an astonishing truth: that the salvation promised to the People of Israel in the covenants with Abraham and Moses had been extended to the Gentiles. Some might find another “paradigm shift” in the first chapter of John’s gospel, in which Jesus of Nazareth is identified as the “Word” who “was in the beginning with God.”

These are matters of divine revelation, however, and as the Church has long believed and taught, revelation ended with the death of the last apostle. So the evolution of the Church’s understanding of the Gospel over the centuries is not a matter of “paradigm shifts,” or ruptures, or radical breaks and new beginnings; it’s a question of what theologians call the development of doctrine. And as Blessed John Henry Newman taught us, authentic doctrinal development is organic and in continuity with “the faith once… delivered to the saints” (Jude 1.3). The Catholic Church doesn’t do rupture: that was tried 500 years ago, with catastrophic results for Christian unity and the cause of Christ.

So it was unfortunate that Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State of the Holy See, recently described Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family, as a “paradigm shift.”

Perhaps Cardinal Parolin meant “paradigm shift” in some other sense than Thomas Kuhn’s (although Kuhn’s notion of paradigm-shift-as-rupture is the common understanding of the term). Perhaps the cardinal was suggesting that Amoris Laetitia asked all the people of the Church to treat those who have not been married in the Church but who wish to be part of the Catholic community with greater sensitivity and charity (a worthy proposal, although compassion is the norm in the situations with which I’m most familiar). But whatever he may have intended, the cardinal cannot have meant that Amoris Laetitia is a “paradigm shift” in the sense of a radical break with previous Catholic understandings. For the Catholic Church doesn’t do “paradigm shifts” in that sense of the term, and the Pope himself has insisted that Amoris Laetitia does not propose a rupture with the Church’s settled doctrines on the indissolubility of marriage and worthiness to receive Holy Communion.

Where something similar to a Kuhn-type “paradigm shift” is underway, however, is in the reception of Amoris Laetitia in various local churches – and this is ominous. The pastoral implementation of Amoris Laetitia mandated in Malta, Germany, and San Diego is quite different than what has been mandated in Poland, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Portsmouth, England, and Edmonton, Alberta. Because of that, the Catholic Church is beginning to resemble the Anglican Communion (itself the product of a traumatic “paradigm shift” that cost John Fisher and Thomas More their heads). For in the Anglican Communion, what is believed and celebrated and practiced in England is quite different from what is believed, celebrated, and practiced in Nigeria or Uganda.

This fragmentation is not Catholic. Catholicism means one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and unity is one of the four distinctive marks of the Church. That unity means that the Church embodies the principle of non-contradiction, such that a grave sin on the Polish side of the Oder River can’t be a source of grace on the German side of the border.

Something is broken in Catholicism today and it isn’t going to be healed by appeals to paradigm shifts. In the first Christian centuries, bishops frankly confronted and, when necessary, fraternally corrected each other. That practice is as essential today as it was in the days of Cyprian and Augustine – not to mention Peter and Paul.