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The media wants ‘reform’ but what we really need is renewal

Young Catholics understand what it takes to make the Church truly flourish

By on Friday, 15 March 2013

People shelter from the rain in St Peter's Square on Wednesday (AP)

People shelter from the rain in St Peter's Square on Wednesday (AP)

Anybody following coverage of the events of the last month or
so could be forgiven for having a rather pessimistic view of the current state of the Church. With a tone of infallibility that would be denied the successor of Peter, certain elements have given the impression that the Church is failing, rotten to the very core. Not only, we are told, is the Church rife with administrative and financial problems, but the very message we purport to promote is at best ineffectual, and at worst damaging, even dangerous.

The medicine prescribed for this terminal decline is, apparently, reform: by which is meant, bringing the Church into line with the liberal secular consensus found in contemporary politics and society. Failure to do so, it seems, will mean that the Church ceases to be a vehicle of moral authority and a source of good in the world.

I am not naïve about the situation we find ourselves in, but this is not the answer. What such calls for reform fail to recognise is that what the Church presents is not simply one path among many – a moral option for those who like that kind of thing – but, rather, the revelation of the truth of the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, the sins of those proclaiming that truth, and the institutional failures which they perform, do not affect the Church’s objective moral authority, merely her credibility. That, I would suggest, is something that we can and must change.

First, however, some honesty is needed. The grim picture of the Church painted by many recent reports is not one that stands up to real scrutiny. I suspect I am not alone in finding such a portrait unrecognisable because, despite these projections of doom and gloom, the Church has in fact grown substantially in the past 40 years. We are all aware of the significant growth in Africa and South America, and even despite overall population growth worldwide, Catholics still represent 17 per cent of the world’s population (down only one per cent from 1970). Sunday Mass attendance in Britain now represents the largest single body of weekly religious observance, numbering over 860,000 souls.

We must not be complacent, particularly as European culture becomes more acutely secularised and church attendance generally falls, but this numerical growth is a sign that something has begun. The perceived demand for reform needs, then, to be contrasted with the evidence that the Church is not so much dying, but evolving.

This evolution, I would argue, is particularly evident among young Catholics, who are the single most impressive sign of contradiction to the secularist mandate. Not only have young people put up with dreary attempts to simplify a faith which often they know better than their parents, but their resilience has brought out an astonishing love of the Church which is infectious beyond measure. From Youth 2000 to Juventutem to Nightfever, these Catholics are thoroughly orthodox and committed to a deep personal conversion as the principal means of that most effective form of propagating the Gospel: peer evangelisation. They are beyond what Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth has described as a Marxist dialectic of “Left” and “Right”, of “traditionalist” and “progressive”, and are already living the faith handed down to us from the apostles with the new ardour, method, and expression, called for by the new evangelisation.

In a Channel 4 interview just after the announcement of Pope Benedict’s resignation, Paschal Uche – who greeted the Pope on the steps of Westminster Cathedral in 2010 – enunciated exactly this positive new outlook, when he defended the Church’s teaching on contraception in response to a question from the presenter, Jon Snow. Snow had assumed that Paschal’s Nigerian heritage would mean he would wish to see such “rules” (as they are often perceived) relaxed. He was mistaken. In a world where clear and reasoned moral guidance is now essentially absent from society, younger people are drawn to the clarity and precision found in the rich tradition of Catholicism.

If a young person is to take the radically counter-cultural step of practising their faith in the 21st century, they are not simply going to do so in a way that makes little difference to their lives. Why do we think that religious communities and liturgical expressions that embody the idea “the more Catholic, the better”, are the ones showing steady signs of growth?

The call to reform the Church – which is sadly not limited to secularists – misses this crucial point. The disgrace of the child abuse crisis will not be absolved by a change in the discipline of priestly celibacy, nor would it put a complete end to such crimes. No empirical evidence suggests otherwise. Equally, the apparent administrative issues in the Roman Curia will not be solved by a “collaborative papacy” wrapped up in false notions of collegiality, nor by simply delegating clerical roles to the laity. With the greatest respect, the lay faithful and local bishops are as capable of getting things wrong as anyone else. Those Christian communities that have colluded with secularist calls for reform have not only found themselves drowned out in public discourse, but have no evidence of success.

No. The “reform” we require, which I believe has already begun in those exceptional young people, would be better understood as “renewal”. We need to be renewed in the apostolic faith and tradition, and to rediscover the joy of communion with the Church. We need to “return to prayer”, as Pope Benedict said evocatively at the end of the Mass on Ash Wednesday this year, finding solace in the sacraments and in a renewed understanding of our reliance on God’s grace and mercy. We need to live lives more closely united to, and expressive of, the commandments and the law, conforming our wills to the Lord’s.

That is what will truly “reform” the Church in the image of Christ, and that is what will enable us to speak again to the world with confidence, presenting the unchanging and unique truths revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ, because – contrary to their claims – he remains the way, the truth, and the life.

Fr James Bradley is the communications officer of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham

  • Tridentinus

    Sorry for taking so long to answer you.

    The teaching of the Church and therefore the teaching of Christ, is that all sexual activity outdide of marriage is mortally sinful whereby the soul is deprived of Sanctifying Grace which is necessary for Salvation. Mortal sin is 1. a sin of grave matter, 2. is committed with the full knowledge of the sinner that it is a mortal sin and 3. in spite of this, is committed with the deliberate consent of the sinner.

    Homosexual activity fulfils 1. If the other conditions, 2 and 3, are also fulfilled then the sinner unless he repents and seeks forgiveness through the Sacrament of Penance, will go to hell because that is the infallible teaching of the Church. Only the sinner knows and God of course, whether they have sinned or not that is why I do not judge them.

    In my post I used the words, ‘formally’ consign themselves not certainly or absolutely.

  • Tridentinus

    Not too sure about the Latin but why would they want to praise Satan?

    Greek – was the language of commerce and learning also considered the “lingua franca” of the entire Mediterranean part of the Roman Empire so the soldiers who crucified Christ probably spoke in that tongue

    Latin was the official language of the Empire and the Courts. It is still the official language of the Roman Church.

  • Tridentinus

    With the greatest respect where do you get your authority from to declare that the Church is not infallible in teaching morals or for that matter can learn anything from the world regarding morality?

    If I believed that I could not possibly consider myself to be a Catholic.

  • anon

    Regular retreats and pilgrimages to beautiful Catholic places, the promotion of lay groups, such as the Third Order of St Francis and the Carmelite Leaven (without the immediate requirement of pursuing the great commitment of final lay for life vows); donating and taking an active interest in the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, Cafod, ACN etc

  • Tridentinus

    Surely you should give a source for this?

  • Tridentinus

    “Do as I say, not as I do” was never a persuasive slogan.

    The logical outcome of your reasoning would seem to imply that only those of us who are perfect (without sin) can pronounce upon questions of morality.

    No thief may condemn theft, no murderer may condemn murder, no liar may condemn deceit, etc. None of us can claim to be perfect, therefore none of us may speak on moral issues.

    No morality would ever exist as there would be no one to tell us what is moral or what is immoral, parent, teacher, priest, pope, whoever.

    If I have ever stolen anything, however small, told a lie, swore, etc, because of this I can never counsel my children to not steal, lie or swear without being a hypocrite.

    It would seem that, “Do as I say, not as I do” is quite a persuasive slogan after all.

  • Tridentinus

    Just exactly what was Jesus trying to reform?

    I would suggest the individual hearts of men rather than the secular or religious establishments of the time.

    The apparent barbarism of the Roman Empire for centuriesendured until the Christian era of Rome. The castigation of the Saducees and Pharisees was more for their failure to recognise Jesus as the Messiah during His lifetime rather than their conservatism.

    He certainly repudiated the attempt by Judas Iscariot to involve Him in the politics of Palestine.

  • Tridentinus

    The Church is you and I. If you are counselled not to sin and you go ahead and do so, it does not affect me on my personal journey towards salvation, it only affects you. If your sin is in the public domain then it affects the Church only in so far as its enemies will use your public ‘indiscretion’ to discredit it

  • Tridentinus

    Oh, dear, you do seem to have a such a hatred of the Catholic Church.

  • Tridentinus

    i don’t think you have quite understood what he was saying.

  • Tridentinus

    Joseph Ratzinger was the only one who saw the light.

  • Jonathan West

    As a matter of observation, it can be seen that the world regards child sex abuse as a crime and has legislated accordingly, while the church has sought to cover up such crimes when committed by its clergy.

    In this case, who has something to learn from whom in terms of moral teaching?

  • Jonathan West

    In that case, why has for instance Francis Phillips recently had an article published here titled “Pope Francis is preaching by his behaviour”. Why does the teaching of Jesus include the words “by their fruit you will recognize them”. The clear meaning of that passage (Matthew 17 if you want to look it up). Then there is james 3:13 “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.”

    So, what you are suggesting is not only unpersuasive, it is directly contradicted by the biblical teachings.

    You can hardly expect people to persuaded by the moral teachings of a church whose hierarchy continues to act contrary to its teachings. It’s one thing to have sinned in the past, repented and changed your ways, quite another preaching and practice to continue nto be at odds with each other.

    So the church can and will recover some moral authority if and when it catches up with the world and does all in its power to ensure that abusers who have used the church as a cover are delivered to justice, that the welfare of victims of abuse is treated as being of primary importance in such cases, and that all practical measures are taken to prevent or deter abuse.

    The church is a long way from achieving that.

  • Jonathan West

    It is because it is unreliable that it is permissted. Take a look at the following from the Catholic Culture website http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=3416

    “This teaching is well known. Its major claim is that the choice to engage in genital coition can rightly be made only by a man and a woman who have made themselves to be husband and wife by the covenant of marriage, and that it can be made rightly by them only when they respect, in their choices to unite coitally, the goods of life and marital friendship.”

    and later

    “The sex act is, whether one wants it to be so or not, a life-giving sort of act. It is precisely because it is this sort of act that some people today choose to contracept, for the precise point of contraception is to make the act one chooses to do, i.e., the sort of act open to the transmission of human life, to be a different sort of act, namely, one closed deliberately to the transmission of human life.”

    It seems to me that if NFP is “effective” as you suggest, then sex during infertile period is an act that is “closed deliberately to the transmission of human life” and therefore not acceptable.

    I suggest that you ask your priest about this, about what appears to be the conflict between the principles of church teaching and what is stated to be acceptable in practice.

    And if NFP is acceptable because it is unreliable, then it is worth considering this passage also from the Catholic Culture article

    “Yet as we know, all contraceptives have their “failure rates,” due both to the methods, none of which is foolproof, and to their users.”

    If that is so, the the use of contraceptives is not “closed deliberately to the transmission of human life”.

    So, if we take the Catholic Culture article, that sex cannot be closed to the transmission of life with your assertion that NFP is effective, then we come up against a contradiction.

  • Tridentinus

    I am not saying that one does not lead by example at all. What I am saying is that however much it is desirable for the Church hierarchy to be ‘perfect’, the sad fact is that like the rest of us,they are not. The Church is composed of sinners and that includes everyone from the Pope down.

    The abuse was carried out by priests even perhaps higher clerics, who knew or should have known that what they were doing was wrong. No one disputes this or thinks it wasn’t wrong. Their superiors acknowledged this by the very fact that on discovery most of the abusers were moved on and given some sort of counselling or psychiatric treatment in the hope that it would cure them.

    The superiors of these abusers mistakenly did not report them to the authorities in order to avoid a scandal. They only succeeded in delaying the scandal and because of the haphazard supervision of the abusers were responsible for the abuse continuing over many decades. This resulted in there being many more victims than there need have been. How ever high up in the hierarchy the cover-up extended the decisions to cover-up were taken by individuals singly or in groups in the tragically mistaken belief that it was for the good of the Church.

    Their sins, no more than those of the abusers themselves, cannot be imputed to the Church, for those who sin greviously put themselves, temporarily at least, outside the Church, the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, the Temple of God, whether they be Pope, priest or layman.

    Having said that, going back to preaching by behaviour or example. Would we expect a paedophile priest to advocate following his example? Of course not! As you rightly say the world regards paedophilia as a crime. The Church too, regards paedophilia as a mortal sin which unless repented, is punishable by eternal damnation so nothing to learn from the world there: the BBC for example.

    The hierarchy has in recent years acknowledged that the abuse has taken place, apologised for it and the way it was handled, has compensated a lot of victims and has put in place measures to try and stop homosexuals from entering its seminaries and bringing the guilty to book. None of them sadly, will entirely eradicate the evil entirely no more than it can be eradicated in secular society.

    Another thing is that the number of abusers as a percentage of the numbers of priests who have been ordained and served over the last 60 years is miniscule yet it seems to be the only thing that everyone fixes on whenever the Church is mentioned. The devil was at work amongst the abusers and their shielders and he is still hard at work in wresting souls from Christ by keeping the pot boiling for as long as he can..

  • Jonathan West

    The question of the number abusers as a proportion of the number of priests is utterly irrelevant. What matters is the number of victims. Specifically the number of avoidable victims. Because of the cover-up carried out by bishops, archbishops and cardinals who were not themselves abusers, the number of victims was massively increased.

    As for this part of your comment

    The hierarchy has in recent years acknowledged that the abuse has taken place, apologised for it and the way it was handled, has compensated a lot of victims and has put in place measures to try and stop homosexuals from entering its seminaries and bringing the guilty to book.

    I have to say that if you believe that, it is a triumph of wishful thinking over evidence. I can’t present the evidence to you because the moderators will delete my posts out of fear that I might say something defamatory, even if I restrict myself to describing cases that have been extremely thoroughly covered in the press.

  • Jonathan West

    Please see my comment a little higher up in the thread with references to the Catholic Culture website. I meant to place it here.

  • Jonathan West

    I think you are getting me mixed up with Jon Brownridge, whose comment you replied to.

    And I don’t argue in favour of the idea that celibacy the sexual scandal is closely related to celibacy. In my view celibacy has only a very minor indirect effect on the issue. First, if you look at child sex abuse outside the church, you find that there are child sex abusers who are married or in a long-term relationship. They come from all sexual orientations and all social classes and all ethnic backgrounds. There is no profile by which a likely abuser can be recognised.

    So to that extent, celibacy is entirely irrelevant to the sexual scandal in the church.

    The only way in which celibacy could be regarded as indirectly linked is if people who have a sexual attraction towards children (whether or not they are in addition homosexually or heterosexually attracted to adults) may choose to enter the priesthood to try and escape from their sexuality in the hope and belief that by virtue of becoming a priest their unacceptable sexual urges will by the grace of God be cured.

    But as we have seen, it doesn’t really work that way. In addition, there may be a small number of people who quite calculatedly enter the priesthood with the deliberate intention of using it as a mask of respectability that will make it easier for them to obtain and control victims.

    But neither of these motivations would be more than marginally affected by removing the requirement for clerical celibacy. After all, the Church of England has a married clergy, and they have had their share of child sex abuse scandals as well, such as has recently come to light in the diocese of Chichester.

  • Sister S

    you will not find it stated in any official documents.
    http://vox-nova.com/2009/05/08/what-‘openness-to-life’-does-not-mean/

  • Jonathan West

    Have you tried actually reading that article? It starts by repeating
    the description of church teaching that I summarised above, and the
    consequences therefore. It then claim that this is a misunderstanding.
    Then it simply repeats precisely the same teaching over again, but
    carefully omitting to follow through to the logical consequences of the
    teaching.

    For them to say that they key point is that “the sex act is unaltered” and this is what distinguishes NFP from other methods is
    fallacious. With NFP, if the woman has determined she is in the
    infertile part of her cycle, the sex act is altered by virtue of the
    knowledge that pregnancy almost certainly cannot be a consequence of the act.