The Martini Curve revisited

George Weigel

Pope Francis concluded his pre-Christmas address to the Roman Curia by invoking the memory of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, SJ, who died in September 2012. The Holy Father recalled that, “in his last interview, a few days before his death, [Cardinal Martini] said something that should make us think: ‘The Church is 200 years behind the times. Why is she not shaken up? Are we afraid? Fear, instead of courage. Yet faith is the Church’s foundation. Faith, confidence, courage … Only love conquers weariness.’”

The Martini Curve should indeed make us think. I thought about it at the time and ended up with questions rather than answers. What, precisely, was the Church two hundred years behind? A western culture come unglued from the deep truths of the human condition? A culture that celebrates the imperial autonomous Self? A culture that detaches sex from love and responsibility? A culture that breeds a politics of immediate gratification and inter-generational irresponsibility? Why on earth would the Church want to catch up with that?

Call me a dullard, but try as I might to adjust my thinking, I’m afraid that’s what I still think about the allegation that Catholicism’s contemporary failures result from our being stuck in a rut behind the curve of history. Moreover, since Cardinal Martini’s death seven years ago, certain empirical facts have become unmistakable: the local Churches that have tried hardest to play catch-up with “history” and “the times” are collapsing.

The premier example is Catholicism in the German-speaking world. Weekly Mass attendance percentages have fallen into single digits in German cities and aren’t much better in Austria and the German-speaking parts of Switzerland. Has this implosion of the sacramental community compelled a rethinking of the strategy of cultural accommodation? On the contrary. With a bullheadedness once caricatured as typically Prussian, the great majority of German bishops support a national “synodal process” that seems determined to put the pedal to the metal of surrendering to “the times,” even if — particularly if — this means jettisoning the truths that, according to both revelation and reason, make for happiness and beatitude.

Is there a single example, anywhere, of a local Church where a frantic effort to catch up with 21st-century secularism and its worship of the new trinity (Me, Myself, and I) has led to an evangelical renaissance — to a wave of conversions to Christ? Is there a single circumstance in which Catholicism’s uncritical embrace of “the times” has led to a rebirth of decency and nobility in culture? Or to a less-polarized politics? If so, it’s a remarkably well-hidden accomplishment.

There is, however, evidence that the offer of friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ as the pathway to a more humane future gets traction.

Shortly after last October’s Great Pachamama Flap, I got a bracing e-mail from a missionary priest in West Africa. After expressing condolences for my “recent Roman penance” at the Amazonian synod (which had featured a lot of politically-correct chatter about the ecological sensitivity of indigenous religions), my friend related an instructive story: “You’ll be happy to know that last year, when one of our villages invited me to come and help them destroy their idols and baptize their chief, we did not, before doing so, engage in any ‘dialogue with the spirits,’ as was so highly praised in the [Synod’s working document]. There was no Tiber to throw [the idols] in, so a sledgehammer and a fire had to suffice. Somehow the village managed to survive without such a dialogue, and in fact they have invited me back … to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the great event, and to bless a cross that will be set up in the village as a permanent reminder of their decision.”

Three weeks ago, the local archbishop wrote those same villagers, telling them of his “immense joy” that, the year before, they had “turned away from idols in order to turn resolutely to the Living and True God … You have recognized in Jesus Christ the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Open wide your hearts to him … and always conquer evil with good.”

There’s no Martini Curve in that part of the global vineyard, it seems. Rather, there is, to borrow from the late cardinal’s last interview, “faith, courage, confidence … [and the] “love that conquers weariness.” That is surely something to think about in the Vatican — and throughout a world Church in which everyone is called to missionary discipleship.

Featured image by Mafon1959 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37710065

COMING UP: New Year’s Resolutions for Concerned Catholics: A Few Suggestions

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During and after the grim martial law period in the early 1980s, many freedom-minded Poles would greet each other on January 1 with a sardonic wish: “May the new year be better than you know it’s going to be!” As 2020 opens that salutation might well be adopted by Catholics concerned about the future of the Church, for more hard news is coming. So let’s get some of that out of the way, preemptively, before considering some resolutions that might help us all deal with the year ahead in faith, hope, and charity.

Financial scandals in the Vatican will intensify. It’s been clear for some months now that the dam of secrecy, masking irresponsibility (and worse), is cracking. So expect more disturbing revelations about corrupt self-dealing, misuse of charitable funds, stupid investments, and general incompetence behind the Leonine Wall.

Vatican diplomacy will continue to disappoint. And the disappointed will include all who care about the human rights the Church proclaims in its social doctrine. Over the past six years, Holy See diplomacy has failed in Syria, Russia, Ukraine, Burma, Cuba, China, and Venezuela. 2020 seems unlikely to see a more robust Vatican defense of human rights. But it will likely witness more extreme Vatican positions on climate change and migrants; as it’s done in the past, that absolutism will help shrink the space for devising reasonable approaches to these issues.

A report on the career of Theodore McCarrick will be issued by the Holy See. The report will please no one. Amid the cacophony that will follow its release, it will be important to remember three salient truths about this tawdry business: Psychopaths fool people; McCarrick was a psychopath;  and McCarrick fooled many people for decades, including wise and holy people, wealthy donors who fell for his “Going My Way act,” and his former friends on the port side of U.S. and world Catholicism.

Aggressive and politically motivated state attorneys general will continue to issue reports on historic sexual abuse cases. The response from cowed Church leaders will be tepid, at best. And what will get lost again – as it got lost after the now-paradigmatic Pennsylvania attorney general’s report – are two realities ignored by too many media outlets, too many institutions with responsibility for the safety of the young, and too many Catholics: that the Catholic Church today is arguably the safest environment for young people in the country; and that, from bitter experience, the Catholic Church has learned some things about creating safe environments from which the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, public schools, and public school teachers’ unions could all learn

And the suggested resolutions?

Resolve to be a missionary disciple at the retail level. Amidst these and other troubles, concerned Catholics constantly ask me, “What can I do?” To which I always respond, “Between now and next Easter, try and bring at least five disaffected Catholics back to Sunday Mass, and try to introduce at least one unevangelized person to Christ.” Retail evangelization is essential to authentic Catholic reform; it’s also deeply satisfying.  Let’s get on with it, irrespective of the troubles.

Resolve to limit your exposure to the Catholic blogosphere. In 2019, many Catholic websites went bonkers. There is no need to click on sites that specialize in all-hysteria or all-propaganda all-the-time. If you want reliable Catholic news, visit the Web sites of Catholic News Agency and the National Catholic Register. If you want sane commentary on the turbulent Catholic scene, go to the websites of Catholic World Report, First Things, and The Catholic Thing. That’s more than enough for anyone. Limiting your blogosphere browsing to these sites, while ignoring the hysteria-mongers and propagandists, will lower your blood pressure while keeping you well-informed.

Resolve to intensify your prayer for the vindication of Cardinal George Pell. This innocent man’s false conviction will be contested before Australia’s High Court in the first quarter of 2020. Pray that justice is done, that Australia’s reputation as a country governed by the rule of law is restored, and that the cardinal is enabled to resume his crucial role in Catholic affairs.

Resolve to deepen your spiritual life by serious spiritual reading. A good place to be start would be a recently published book by Archbishop J. Augustine DiNoia, OP: Grace in Season – The Riches of the Gospel in Seventy Sermons.

Resolve to thank the good priests and bishops you know for their sacrifice and service. They deserve it.

And may 2020 be a year full of grace for everyone. (We’ll all need it.)