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Catholics today could see the birth of a new model of Church

The shedding of institutional structures and the diminishing number of priests could, in fact, be liberating

By on Monday, 10 December 2012

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council could not have foreseen how the Church would change (Photo: CNS)

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council could not have foreseen how the Church would change (Photo: CNS)

It is 50 years since the Vatican Council began, and everyone, it seems, has had something to say on the anniversary; what strikes me, rather belatedly, reading the documents again, just how the world has changed since 1962, in a way that the Council Fathers could not possibly have foreseen.

Let me count the ways.

First, back in 1962, the Catholic Church spoke, more or less, with one voice. Something like a papal encyclical, or, on a local level, a bishop’s pastoral letter, enjoyed a clear and open field, relatively free from competition. There simply was not then the vast unregulated river of comment that streams forth day and night from the internet, 24-hour television, and the press. Today, a papal encyclical still packs a considerable punch, but thousands of people, indeed millions, can now publish their opinions on religious matters, who could not in the past. This profusion of voces populi resembles the sort of anarchy that all those who wish to control freedom of expression must dread.

Now, of course, it has to be said that much of this commentary is of no enduring value, but some of it is. When the history of these times comes to be written, some of these voices will be heard still, and future generations will see early 21st-century Catholicism as pluralistic, not monolithic: a cacophony of discordant voices, not a choir all singing from the same hymn sheet. This is not the Church that the Council Fathers foresaw, or the documents of the Council presuppose.

Second, the Council Fathers imagined a dialogue with the world which now no longer seems possible. Once upon a time, Catholics could engage in discussions at official level with polite Marxists from the Eastern Bloc. That bloc no longer exists; indeed, most blocs have crumbled. While the Church may still want dialogue, there seem now to be few worthy partners. Few organised bodies seem interested in reasoned debate. Take the question of gay marriage and the farcical consultation on the same subject. The British Government itself has rejected dialogue with the Church, as Bishop Joseph Devine has pointed out.

As with David Cameron, so with Richard Dawkins, and so Bin Laden’s minions. I am not for a moment saying that all these people belong in the same category, but they all share one thing – they are not interested in talking to the Catholic Church.

Third, the tone of the Council documents, and their emphasis on a knowledge of the Bible, seen, for example, in the introduction of the new lectionary, indicate an expectation that there would be a new flowering of study and learning. Sadly, for reasons largely beyond the Church’s control, the 50 years since the Council have seen a return to the Dark Ages in education. Dumbing down across the board, most clearly evident in the abandonment of the classics in schools, has largely cut theology off from its sources. The decline, too, of a book culture has led to the Bible becoming less accessible to many. What was once the shared patrimony of humanity – the stories of the Bible – has now become the preserve of those who dwell in a cultural ghetto. This collapse in educational standards is something everyone should lament, but few do, preferring to deny that it has happened. Catholicism needs a high culture in which to flourish, and that high culture, in Europe at least, is withering. The Vatican Council was, in some senses, the last hurrah of a high culture that seemed healthy, but was in fact to be dealt its death blow in 1968. Vatican II was supposed to usher in a new age of Biblical knowledge. Instead, the Bible is now less known than it was 50 years ago.

This may sound pessimistic, and in a way it is. The Vatican II Fathers probably, if they thought of the future at all, thought of the Church continuing much as before. In the last 50 years, this has been the unspoken assumption – that the Catholic Church would continue, along the same model as it has since the reign of Blessed Pius IX. But this looks increasingly unlikely. It is more than possible – indeed it seems more or less certain – that the Church of the future is not going to be like the Church of the past. It is going to have to do without the huge number of priests and religious that it once considered normal; it is going to have to do without the institutional structures. But this shedding of an old skin, which may well be deeply painful, could in fact be liberating. We could be on the brink, at last, of seeing the birth of a new model of Church, one that the Council Fathers hoped for, but the exact form of which would have surprised them considerably.

  • Old Duffer

    How about going back to prayer, respect for the Blessed Sacrament, Bible-study (as you mention), silence in church, and effective religious instruction rather than vapid sermons about love?

  • paulpriest

     You’re referring to a new model without explaining it.
    Do I take it you mean the dismantling of the already waning and ‘ineffective’ parish structure?
    Only to be replaced by various superchurch hubs – where a few priests deal ‘pastorally and spiritually’ for metropolitan-level amounts of people?

    Where Masses are in either huge Cathedral Arenas where God is truly praised to the roof  or in cosy side chapels like ‘house masses of old’ where the ‘spirit’ moves among us  and whispers in the silent soft places?
    …and people of differing tastes or preferences will have options for the EF form or a more charismatic/evangelical OF or one centred more towards a certain age bracket or social class [children/youth/young mums] or people struggling with disordered/challenging lifestyles?

    Where Priests can be free to specialise and exercise their differing charisms of preaching/teaching/being a counsellor/spirtual director/confessor/youth minister etc and where such things as catechesis, administration , pastoral ministry, religious education and ministry training can all be ‘enabled’ by committees of combined clergy, religious & professional laity?

    Where not only is there a Church central to the mision there is also a religious education centre, a conference centre, a retreat centre all under one roof to fulfil all an aspiring Catholics sacramental, spiritual, catechetical, ministeriall and pastoral needs?

    A model of ecclesiastical administration which could link in to a vast network of other churches and provide online resources, videomasses and homeschooling/catechetical resources  – even a radio or tv station for the housebound and elderly or young mums/students or those working from home – something inspirational to listen to for commuters or those working or living away from their families – like a Catholic national grid?!!!

    It coule be like a massive 24/7 drop-in centre where the elderly could come for cups of tea and cheap food and a bit of company? young mums could socialise and network? children from different schools but sharing the same religion could begin to ‘faith share and develop friendships?
    And as there would be so many more people there’d be an opportunity to form really sound groups like a Justice & Peace Group, Pro-Life group, meditation group, even bring back the Legion of Mary & the SVP, the Young Christian workers? and even some confraternities? Bible study groups, faith sharing etc…

    …wouldn’t it all be fantastic?

    Well no….
    … because you’d have sacrificed the parish system and disenfranchised, dispossessed, alienated and abandoned virtually all those parishioners in the process…[bar a select few of the enthusiastic middle-class/professionals]

    The Futurechurch paradigm
    So many dioceses have it on their drawing boards
    eradicating the parishes and building big new Cathedral-type centralised pastoral administration zones….

    …and the only people who will be there will be the people who ‘want’ to be there – those who will participate and belong and contribute and…erm…

    It all looks so good on paper – so many Bishops and chanceries are hoodwinked by its utopian vision….
    ..until one realises that it’s suicide and an utter abandonment of the faithful and a renunciation of the corporal and spirutal works of mercy to the many for the sake of the elitist [bourgeois] few….

  • Alexander VI

    How can Devine expect serious dialogue with the Prime Minister when  he claims that the PM is  “out of his depth” and “devoid of moral competence” ? The Church does not want dialogue it wants a veto. Many Catholics support gay marriage anyway.

  • Jonathan West

    As with David Cameron, so with Richard Dawkins, and so Bin Laden’s minions. I am not for a moment saying that all these people belong in the same category, but they all share one thing – they are not interested in talking to the Catholic Church.

    I would dispute this point. It’s not that they don’t want to talk to the church, it is that the church doesn’t like what they have to say.

  • Adam

    Before Mass at the Church I attended yesterday the priest was standing at the back of the Church in full cassock gently asking people who were talking to stop doing so.

  • Adam

     Oh really? Care to explain how any of these figures want to “talk” to the Church then?

  • Lazarus

    What they all share is a complete lack of interest in understanding the reasoning behind the Catholic position. They would doubtless all explain this failure in different ways: Dawkins on the ground it is simply ‘unscientific’ and thus not worth grappling with in detail; Bin Laden because it is unIslamic; Cameron -well, I have absolutely no idea what goes on in his head other than the desire for short term electoral advantage coupled with a complete inability to achieve it. But for whatever reasons, they do not engage with the reasoning, even while rejecting the conclusions.

    Contrast that with fifty years ago where most of the Catholic Church’s opponents shared the sort of deep education in the humanities that is found in the Church’s reasoning, with a particular emphasis on the classics and the Bible. Moreover, many shared that general humanistic (and the irony of that name being half inched by the saddoes of the BHA!) approach of trying to understand a different worldview in depth before criticizing it.

  • Lazarus

    Well, like it or not, the Church is going to change -particularly if the decline in priestly vocations isn’t reversed. We have no choice, so we might as well follow Blessed John Paul’s advice: ‘Do not be afraid. Do not be satisfied with mediocrity. Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.’

    The irony of the Spirit of Vatican II seems lost on many ‘liberal’ Catholics. We may be going to have a Church with more lay involvement. We may be going to have a Church with an educated laity. But that laity is going to be far more orthodox, far more respectful of the sacramental life and priests than the Tabletista generation. 

    So do I want fewer priests and religious? Absolutely not, and we should be doing everything we can in prayer and action to reverse that trend. But if it happens, so be it. ‘Do not be afraid.’

  • Lazarus

    Bishop Devine wanted dialogue on this issue but it’s quite clear that Cameron (and indeed the Scottish government) doesn’t. Having realized this, I don’t blame him for giving the PM both barrels.

    Many (mediaeval) Catholics supported thumping serfs. It was just as irrelevant to the morality of serf thumping as (claimed) support for gay ‘marriage’ is today. Each generation has its own temptations and idiocies. 

  • scary goat

    Fr…..excuse me if I am missing something, but how on earth can losing our priests, religious, and institutional structures be “liberating”??????? It sounds “liberating” in the sense that a mugger might “liberate” an old lady from her recently cashed pension! 

    I also agree with Paul P below that “super-churches” will not reach the people.  We can see the small scale beginnings of this in our own local area. We are lucky….we actually still have our local parishes intact…..and that’s where the people go regularly.  And there are quite good numbers.  The diocese, to give credit where credit’s due, has arranged a lot of lectures etc. for the Year of Faith, grouped in several areas of the city, but who turns up to these?  The usual suspects: the really involved people, PPC members, catechists, sacristans, and a few really keen others.  From our own 3 parish grouping which has in total about 700 /800 people,  about 30 turn up.  And the slightly further afield parishes go pretty much unrepresented.

    People want a community, a parish, where they can belong.  With at least reasonable access to a regular priest.  I do not believe that “regional centres” will attract the people….it’s too impersonal.  It will leave the ordinary people abandoned.

    As I have said before, I don’t know what the answer is, except to pray for vocations, but I do know what it isn’t.  Closing local parishes is not the answer.  We need parishes, priests and religious.  God help us.

  • Peter

    The Church of the future must be much more aggressive in dealing with the scientific claims of atheism.  

    For centuries the Church had rightly taught that the universe had a beginning, despite vigorous opposition from scientists and philosophers right up to the beginning of the 20th century.  

    With regard to creationism, the Church sits on the fence despite the overwhelming evidence for evolution, while the unscientific claims of creationists that the earth is 6000 years old continue to open the Church up to ridicule.  

    In the modern scientific age, the Church cannot afford to be associated with such extreme fideism which borders on the fundamental, and ought to make a clean break and clarify its position, otherwise rational non-believers instead of being attracted to the Church, will be repulsed by it.

    This lack of clarity in the Church’s position is also a major obstacle in dealing effectively with neo-atheists who use the creationist stick to constantly beat religion with.  The Church needs to detatch itself from fundamentalist Christianity so that it can free itself to fight the scient.fic claims of atheists on a level playing field.

    The good thing is that this fight is eminently winnable, because the neo-atheists are fundamentally caught up in the stale mindset of the 19th century.  The sad thing is that they are allowed to get away with it by a Church which is itself is bogged down by creationis.

  • Alan

    The Church has been changing throughout its 2000-year-old history.  The 1st century Church would find the 6th century one completely unrecognisable, which in turn would be flummoxed by the 11th century one, which would be mystified by the 16th century one, and so on to the 21st century.  Nothing wrong with this, it happens with all institutions.  I’m told by many that the future of the Church lies not in the parish structure but in what are called “evangelistic cells”.  I await with interest.

  • Lazarus

    Despite what I’ve said below, I agree with most of your points here: ‘super churches’ won’t reach people in the same way as a community gathered around a parish priest. On the other hand, we shouldn’t keep small, financially unviable parishes going at all costs: I’ve had experience of doing this when I was an Episcopalian, and you spend all your time focused on raising money for dry rot etc rather than God.

    Essentially, I don’t have any answer besides each one of us constantly exerting ourselves to deepen our understanding and love of God. Of course we need some practical answers as well -I just don’t have them! But whatever the future brings, we need to face it with hope and love, rather than bitterness and despair.


    Be under no illusions – if the structures collapse, if the Catholic institutions fail to get a grip, if Bishops continue to be more concerned about ‘bad press’ than boldly defending the truth without fear or favour, then the Church is finished. Any talk about it morphing into ‘something new and wondrous, albeit small and marginal’ is so much pie in the sky. We are Catholics. We are supposed to combine our Faith with hard-headed Reason. And Reason dictates that cultural irrelevance, rank cowardice and the sheer lack of guts on the part of so many in the Church hierarchy in England and elsewhere (though not in Rome) will determine the collapse of the Church across swathes of Europe, including the UK. This will be all the more tragic given that another Religion which, for all its faults, does not lack guts and courage (combined, unfortunately, with ruthlessness and cruelty) will most certainly not stand despondently by blathering platitudes – and that is Islam. Islam will fight, and very probably literally, if the mindless, ahistorical, uncultured, truly ignorant ruling elites think they can push homosexuality and the rest of western depravity upon it. What an appallingly wretched and contemptible end for 2000 years of Christianity: to be so lacking in fortitude (to cite just one of the cardinal virtues) that it can only whimper its retreat into oblivion. Is this really what our great tradition has come down to? We are a disgrace to all those brave souls who went before us, many of them suffering martyrdom in defence of the Truth. We on the other hand don’t even appear to be able to organise so much as a peaceful march in defence of everything we (presumably) believe in and hold dear.  

  • Mark

    Lack of priests is a management as well as spiritual problem:

    1. Stop treating priests like social workers and return to the concept of priest as supervisor and scholar; then more leadership oriented men could be attracted to the priesthood.

    2. Allow parish priests (not religious orders of monks or Bishops) to be married. Few men in today’s lonely world will choose celibacy because it isolates them; a few can handle it with help from grace but most simply can’t. As celibacy is a rule not a doctrine (the Orthodox live fine without it), it can be changed.

    3. Finally, sell off the parish buildings that are not real churches (Liverpool Cathedral) and focus on the remaining sacred architecture that truly reflects Christian identity.

  • Benedict Carter

    Return to the idea of am priest being an alter Christus SACRIFICING FOR SIN. 

    THAT’s the fundamental – not a “superviser” – that’s exactly the protestant concept of ministry. 

  • Benedict Carter

    No, Catholics know each other from any era whatsoever. 

  • Benedict Carter

    Father Malachi Martin once famously said (in the early 1970′s) that the structures of Catholicism had already collapsed almost completely. What remained looked the same but was just a hollow shell. That this could have happened within ten years of the ending of the Council he put down to  a withdrawal of grace (presumably temporarily) from the Church by Christ, saying, “This is the only possible theological explanation”.

    An interesting idea. Discuss.  

  • Jonathan West

    What they all share is a complete lack of interest in understanding the reasoning behind the Catholic position.

    Do you have any interest in understanding the reasoning behind their position? 

  • Arden Forester

    David Cameron may not be interested in talking to the Catholic Church. He’s not interested in talking to the Church of England either. It’s just a case of “get with the programme”.

    It appears consultation means letting people have their say so long as he doesn’t have to listen. A sham, really. No debate, no proper consultation, no manifesto commitment.

  • Cestius

    While I agree with your first two points, on your third one I would say that the church is the people not the building and frankly what goes on inside the building is far more important than its architecture. I worship in an old Methodist chapel that has been converted into a Roman Catholic church – it’s plain and simple but we have adapted it to our purpose and it works better than many old and cold gothic buildings, let alone some of the worse horrors of 1960s architecture.

  • Patrickhowes

    Iam left with exactly the same feeling of being left at the cliff´s edge with Father A,explaining what lies behind.I hate being teased….

  • Benedict Carter

    The SSPX plans a new “super-seminary” in the USA as the current one cannot anymore contain the numbers. The FSSP seminary in the States – packed full of men in their early twenties. The ICKSP – seminaries full. All Traditionalist Benedictine and Dominican monasteries in France – booming. 

    This tells ME something, if no-one else. 

  • Enid Ecumaniac

    We at the St. Martin Luther Institute of Advanced Ecumenical Heresy do not share Paul Priest’s worries about the new architecturally-challenging crystal super-centres that are soon coming to a diocese near you. We look forward to contributing our own charisms of ecumenical “events”. In fact, we have already got the agreement of 23 Bishops that their super-centres will incorporate a graveyard with a centrally-placed ecumenical “altar” where we can hold our midnight revelries. The set of cleaving knives are a problem though, as the diocese has had to sign up to some kind of Health and Safety rules so we’ll bring them ourselves. Also, a massage centre will be built in each super-centre, all the better to “get in tune” with one’s spiritual chakras while listening to Paul Inwood’s latest “Rap Mass” and “Salve Regina Acid Trance” . 



    Father, you say the Church of the future “is going to have to do without the huge number of priests and religious that it once considered normal; it is going to have to do without the institutional structures,” you appear to be unwittingly describing a nonconformist association of megachurches, each existing more or less independently of each other though overall under a loose coordinating board or panel that, presumably, reports to Rome. In other words, you appear to be describing a quasi protestant denomination. This would completely eviscerate Catholic spirituality and destroy local roots and affiliations. And catholic schools? Are these to be surrendered too together with the rest of localism? I’m sorry to be so critical but your article smacks not just of defeatism, of surrendering before a shot is fired, but of a subtle (and at times not so subtle) complacency, a subtext that reeks, I am afraid to say, with a degree of quiet satisfaction at what would be not just a radical restructuring, but a catastrophic loss of identity. No wonder the political class has nothing but contempt for the UK catholic church. Newman and Manning must be wondering why they ever bothered crossing the Tiber. 

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Actually, my point of view is more or less the opposite to what you mistakenly attribute to me.

  • Sweetjae

    Well, Fr. Malachy or the SSPX is not the Magisterium founded by Christ and stop putting words in the Mouth of God. Good idea.

  • Sweetjae

    Its always been like that in the Catholic Church, don’t know what your are talking about.

  • Sweetjae

    1. Catholic priests’ primary goal are twofold, be as Alter Christus and duties it entail, secondly, to be a spiritual pastor of the people, not supervisors. ( we already have a lot of that..look at your parliament).

    2. The Church nor the Pope already has the power to change that Teaching that were highly recommended by Jesus Christ and St. Paul found in Scripture. Read them. Besides if there is an equal emergency from both the family of the priest and his parishioners, which one should he go to first? Divided loyalty and attention in the service of God is not a good option.

    3. Well for one Cathedrals are real Churches, so I don’t know how was that related to the your argument about lack of priests.

  • Sweetjae

    Geesh, i agree with you. Alan, the Catholic Church is founded by Christ as Universal, Abiding, Ageless and Organic entity….in other words, regardless of time and generations, it’s the SAME AS EVER until the end of time.

  • Sweetjae

    Most probably what the good Father here was saying, “losing” our priests and institutional structures is liberating in the sense that the Catholic Church is purging herself of excesses. Analogy, same as an obese man losing unwanted weight…..for his own good and well being.

  • Sweetjae

    I think you somewhat misinterpreted the real intent of the good Father. Losing excess weight is not a bad thing, purging herself to have quality and not quantity prieshood is not a bad thing either.

    Besides we don’t care if the political class has contempt for the UK Catholic Church, go to the line, they are just self-adoring people anyways.

  • Sweetjae

    Good quality product embraces age old Tradition NOT tinged with disobedience.

  • nytor

    “The shedding of institutional structures and the diminishing number of priests could, in fact, be liberating”

    That’s exactly what the liberals think – they are pining for a model of lay leadership which has priests in bit parts doing the occasional bit of consecrating.

    It is not a model that I endorse, and I’m surprised that you do.

  • Sweetjae

    Hey Mr. c, if you agree with my description of the Catholic Church, then why do still insist that a legit Council is wrong and you are right?????

  • nytor

    Evangelistic cells? They sound terrifying. They could, however, refer to the many thriving and growing traditionalist communities within the Church which are starting to reassert themselves against the modernists!

  • teigitur

    Indeed Benedict. These are the future of the Church.Only the SSPX needs to be re-absorbed into the body, it will do nothing but good.

  • teigitur

    Are you stalking Benedict? Its illegal you know.

  • Bob Hayes

    Well said!

  • Bob Hayes

    ‘Many Catholics support gay marriage anyway’. 

    Then they have broken with the Faith – and are no longer Catholic. 

  • Rizzo The Bear

    Proper order.

  • Rizzo The Bear

    At a recent symposium, a priest actually came up with ‘effective’ religious instruction, too … and he was from Nigeria!

    A breath of fresh air.

  • Patrickhowes

    May be David Cameron tried speaking with our hierarchy but found the shutters down and they in hiding!They speak up about nothing.It is as if they have desserted us!

  • Jess

    That is a very brave priest, and he should be thanked.  Unfortunately, however, some priests themselves set a bad example when they are socializing with their favorite parishioners before or during Mass.

  • NewMeena

    “[Bishops should be]….boldly defending the truth without fear or favour….”

    I think some of them might not be as sure as you are as to what “the truth” actually is, in at least some situations.

    Of course it is easy to hold the view that the truth (about everything) is the same thing that we THOUGHT the truth was a long time ago.
    But human understanding changes with time in many different sorts of complex and inter-related ways.

  • NewMeena

    But our understanding (even of the truth) changes with time.

  • NewMeena

    “For centuries the Church had rightly taught that the universe had a beginning, despite vigorous opposition from scientists and philosophers right up to the beginning of the 20th century.”

    Mankind has often thought that his current (at the particular time) picture of the universe was the totality of everything. At the moment, with some speculative exceptions, this is the universe of the receding galaxies with its other components. But this might only be a description of a “local” pocket of organisation – while (again) “the whole ocean of truth” (the “real” universe) still remains unknown.

    Maybe the universe did not have a beginning, or maybe (if there is a God and the Bible is true) Genesis only refers to our little local pocket of organisation which actually does seem to have had a beginning.

    What the situation will look like in a few centuries or some thousands of years time is quite unknown.

  • aearon43

    Erm, ok, so it looks like you don’t like the consolidation approach. Do you really think though it amounts to an “utter abandonment of the faithful?” Utter?

    The sad fact is that many parishes will have to close because they will become economically unsustainable. Old buildings cost a lot of money to maintain and heat. People like Card. Schoenborn at least have a plan for dealing with the reduction in Mass attendance. You clearly don’t like it — but, what is your plan?

  • aearon43

    Like paulpriest above, some good points here, but I don’t really think it’s the end of the Church. The Church, in absolute terms, is much larger now that she was in the middle ages. It’s going to be a rough ride for a while, particularly in Western Europe, but will it really be any worse than it was, say, under Henry VIII?

  • aearon43

    Well said.