The State of Catholicism

The question before the Church is whether she will become a part of the emerging global technocratic order, or insist on her ancient independence, authority, and vision.

The Catholic church is a huge global enterprise embracing saints, sinners, sluggards, wise men, fools, and careerists. In the United States alone she has 70 million members, and carries on her life with the aid of institutions that aggregate a million employees and a budget of about $100 billion.

So she resists summary. By and large, though, she doesn’t seem well. Since the Second Vatican Council belief and practice have plummeted in most of the Catholic world. Visible advances have been chiefly in Africa, where the Church like other faiths has benefited from population growth and local rejection of traditional tribal religions.

In the once-Christian West—including Latin America—people leave the Church much faster than they enter her. Priests and religious die, retire, or abandon their vocations and are not replaced. Lay people stop attending Mass, going to confession, marrying in the Church, and bringing their children in for baptism. And those who remain abandon basic Catholic beliefs. At least in America, most of the laity follow secular trends rather than Church teaching on moral issues, and reject the foundational Catholic view of the Mass, that it effects Christ’s true presence in the bread and wine.

The basic problem is the relation between the Church and the modern world. The Second Vatican Council was intended to revitalize the Church and her witness under new and challenging conditions. It dreamed of bringing Christ into the world by eliminating barriers and entering fully into its life. But instead it brought the world into the Church.

In what Catholics call her human element, the Church had evidently bitten off more than she could chew. The Council said that she “carries the responsibility of reading the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.” Catholic functionaries responded by seeing a movement of the Holy Spirit in every secular trend. That was the path of least resistance, since it let them ingratiate themselves with secular powers while wrapping themselves in the flattering mantle of prophecy. So they took it.

But the problem was not only human weakness. A basic question raised by the failure of the post-Vatican II opening to the modern world is whether aspects of that world, for example the emphasis on technological ways of thinking, are fundamentally at odds with Catholicism. The concrete issue coming out of that question is whether the Church should become basically a component of the all-embracing technocratic order that now seems to be emerging globally as the end-point of modernity, or insist instead on her independence, authority, and vision, as she did in antiquity and the Middle Ages.

John Paul II and Benedict accepted the Vatican II thesis of reconciliation with the modern world, but maintained critical distance, and with it—at least at the papal level—the integrity of Catholic doctrine and practical teaching. Francis to all appearances has abandoned the effort and thrown in his lot with the secular powers that seem most likely to dominate the future. That is the significance of his campaign to drop family and abortion in favor of inclusion and the environment as signature Catholic issues: capitulation to those whom Catholics have come to view as their betters.

Should the Church become basically a component of the all-embracing technocratic order that now seems to be emerging globally as the end-point of modernity, or insist instead on her independence, authority, and vision, as she did in antiquity and the Middle Ages?

Francis is a puzzling man. He seems to like to unsettle things to see where they will go, a tendency that likely reflects his personal willfulness and impatience of restraint as well as philosophical attraction to the idea of historical development. However that may be, his actions, including his appointments, his informal or ambiguous statements, and his failure to respond to obvious problems, often point away from settled doctrine. That applies to moral issues, but also to others, including questions such as the status of other religions that bear on the very nature of the Church.

He speaks of going to the margins, and is attached to aspects of folk and popular religion. At the same time he is inclined to align with power, and look for ways to join with those who dominate the emerging world order. He is fond of staging synods—meetings of bishops that now include lower clergy and laity as well—that are evidently intended to present his goals as the demand of the whole Church and indeed (it is claimed) of the Holy Spirit. These appeal rhetorically to the need to listen, and to reach out to the excluded and marginalized, but speak in bureaucratic ambiguities, and manipulate procedures and membership to promote the result desired. The current “Synod on Synodality,” which will formally assemble in October, which seems to be mostly about welcoming sexual nonconformity into the Church, is the most recent and elaborate of these.

Many consider him a bad pope. Some popes have used their powers outrageously, and Honorius I (reigned 625-638) was condemned as a heretic by later saints, popes, and ecumenical councils, so such things are possible. However that may be, it is evident that the practical effect of his pontificate is disarray in the Church, with support for those who favor assimilation to secular perspectives, and cardinals and bishops openly opposing each other.

In America these issues are playing out in a national church that is generally more conservative if historically less inspired—less blessed with saints, poets, and thinkers—than some others in the West. People are a mixture, but speaking crudely that church includes progressive, conservative, and traditionalist factions, along with a majority that is disengaged from disputes within the Church and often from Catholic concerns in general.

Progressives include many academics and functionaries. They emphasize what they consider the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, and downplay the Church’s distinctive traditional teaching and practice in favor of the contemporary secular version of social justice. Whatever the intentions of its adherents, the latter corresponds to the idealized self-presentation of a global ruling order that claims inspiration from a vision of comprehensive social rationality.

As such, it emphasizes uniform standards and procedures that apply to all aspects of life (“fairness”), rational development and deployment of human resources (“equal opportunity”), an attempt to satisfy preferences as much and equally as possible (“kindness and compassion”), and elimination of distinctions relating to sex, culture, ancestry, and religion (“inclusiveness”). These last are basic to traditional social arrangements such as family, inherited culture, and local community, but have no connection to the global markets, transnational bureaucracies, electoral mechanisms, and arbitrary personal choices that are now considered the sole rational ways to organize society. They are thus considered irrational, oppressive, and hateful. Catholic progressives effectively accept this view, thus aligning their social and moral vision with that held by secular progressives and secular powers generally.

Conservatives include most bishops and Catholic commentators who are not specifically progressive. They emphasize loyalty to the Church, which is indeed a Catholic virtue. For that reason, they downplay intra-Church conflicts, emphasize continuities before and after the Council, and carry forward the conciliar dream of securing to the Church a respected seat at the table and voice for the Faith in modern secular society.

They reached the height of their influence under John Paul II, whom they admired enormously, but find themselves increasingly at odds with social and political trends, and are often troubled by Francis’s actions. For these reasons their position has become harder to maintain, and they passively resist many of Francis’s initiatives, such as his efforts to suppress the traditional Latin Mass, or interpret them in a minimalist way. So they show a tendency to assimilate to the traditionalists, although a few have turned sharply toward the progressives because of their conception of loyalty to the Pope.

The traditionalists provide the most determined opposition to the progressives, and attract attention far beyond their numbers and institutional influence. They are strongly attached to the traditional teachings and practices of the Church, especially the classical Roman form of the Mass. They mostly view Vatican II as a pastoral (and therefore mainly advisory) council that failed in its purpose and has become increasingly irrelevant, and are unimpressed by initiatives such as ecumenism and liturgical modernization that came out of it. They generally feel at odds with aspects of today’s society, notably the trend toward a uniform radically secular global order, and often dream of building once again a more traditional, locally diverse, and distinctly Catholic society. Francis and the progressives dislike them intensely, and the feeling is often reciprocated.

Their numbers grew substantially after Pope Benedict gave general permission to celebrate the traditional Latin Mass, and even more after Francis began to provoke alarm among conservatives about the direction of the Church, and traditionalist priests impressed churchgoers with their readiness to keep the sacraments available during the COVID lockdowns. Their adherents now include many young people, large families, and new and growing religious orders. Even so, they remain a small and often embattled minority: some estimate that only about 1 percent of Mass-going American Catholics attend the traditional Mass, although many more have traditionalist sympathies.

And then there are the ordinary laity. These include many of the most devoted Catholics, but decades of lackluster leadership have made the majority lukewarm and uninformed. Their general condition is suggested by a recent Pew survey showing that on average they find belief in God no more essential to their faith than fighting racism and sexism. (When asked whether belief in God, fighting racism, and fighting sexism are essential to their faith, about 70 percent of U.S. Catholics answered in the affirmative to each category.)

As elsewhere, the specific disputes in the American church relate to fundamental choices regarding her future direction. Should she emphasize “horizontal” concerns like social welfare or “vertical” concerns like right worship—as modeled, for example, by the traditional Latin Mass? Should she emphasize “solidarity” (centralized, bureaucratic management of social life) or “subsidiarity” (local, informal, and private management of social life)? Should she promote diversity of thought and acceptance of modern lifestyles, or should she promote traditional morality, nuclear families, and the restoration of the culture of the past? And most topically, should she downplay—effectively drop—or reaffirm her currently unpopular teachings on divorce, contraception, abortion, and homosexuality?

In each case progressives favor the first choice, which lines up with broader social trends toward secular technological universalism, and traditionalists the second, which resists that trend in favor of a vision of human life that includes perspectives based on history, tradition, human nature, and transcendent realities. Conservatives generally try to thread a middle course, but hold firm on the last issue, where specific doctrine is at stake.

So where will all this go? After a third of a century of frustration under John Paul II and Benedict, the progressives who have dominated Church institutions ever since the Council are riding high. Theologians, journalists, and educators continue to pump out materials intended to show that progressives are the true servants of the Gospel, adherents of Catholic tradition, opponents of self-seeking power, and defenders of life, Catholic morality, and the family. Conservatives and traditionalists argue energetically to the contrary, but with less institutional backing, and more dependence on nontraditional media, such as online sites and social media.

The most vocal progressives share with their secular brothers a conviction that conservatism and traditionalism are simply a matter of hatred, greed, willful ignorance, and psychological disorder. Progressive views follow from the liberal and technocratic understanding of reason and morality on which public discussion is based today. For apparatchiks and careerists, no other understanding is possible, so they see no excuse for disagreement. For their part, traditionalists often see something apocalyptic in recent progressive advances that seem to point toward the self-
demolition of the Church.

Francis, exercising his usual combination of willfulness and partisanship, has chosen most of the College of Cardinals that will choose his successor, so the next pope may continue to support the trends he has favored. And American Catholic progressives have the advantage of alliance with institutional intellectual and social tendencies that have long been carrying everything before them.

But Catholic tradition and polity make it at least very difficult—Catholics say impossible—actually to change doctrine. Francis has unsettled things, but the actual achievements of his pontificate have so far been a disappointment to progressives. And there are considerations that tell against them. For all their domination of the academic world, they have run through their intellectual resources. A notable feature of the current situation in the Church, as in secular society, is the stupidity of official pronouncements.

Progressivism is losing connection with reality and the traditions for which it claims to speak, and as it does so it ultimately weakens its grip on power. The decline in the importance of mainstream Protestant Christianity provides a striking example. In a global Church that ultimately depends on the support of the faithful, who need something solid because they have to deal with issues that are not First World problems, such considerations must ultimately tell. The Church is losing Latin America to Protestants who seem to offer a closer connection to God and more demanding and productive standards for living. Progressive Catholicism won’t help with that kind of problem, so in the future it is likely to find it harder and harder to maintain credit. 

The future belongs to those who show up, and younger priests and seminarians skew conservative or traditionalist. That is certainly so in America and in France, where traditionalism is stronger than elsewhere. After all, why become a priest in a developed country unless you believe there is something extraordinarily distinctive and important about the Church and priesthood? And why should laymen adhere to the Church through thick and thin unless she offers a teaching that is not already available in the editorial pages of The New York Times? So a winnowing seems likely as the indifferent drop out and the committed stay. To some extent that is already happening.

The Church, with her doctrine and traditional practices, has shown astounding durability, coming back again and again from conditions that often seemed hopeless. Anything so enduring must be well-founded, so it seems likely that after current adversities she will once again return to type.

But time will tell. Catholics cannot go off on their own, and there is a limit to what laymen can do in a hierarchical Church. The eschatological passages in the Gospels present a dark view of the likely historical evolution of human society, including the Church in her human aspect. They also tell us it is a mistake to read too much into what seem the signs of the times, and that we should always keep on doing our best to love God and neighbor. At present that includes prayer and the sacraments, keeping the Faith, living rightly, supporting whatever trends and initiatives seem positive, and doing everything we can to oppose obvious falsehood and stupidity, in the Church as elsewhere.

However all this may ultimately sort out, Catholics are assured by their faith that the Church will ultimately prevail, and in the meantime all things will work together for good for those who love God. That confidence has often kept Catholics going in discouraging times. For a sufficient number it is likely to do so again today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.