There’s a common thread among many traditional Catholics (and some left-wingers too) that “the Church has gone down the tubes.” This seems to be a basic set point in too many conversations, and if one runs too far afield from this view they are “one of them” or are “off message.”
But I want to say to all the negative ones: the Church is a Bride, not a widow.
I have, in twenty-five years as a priest, found a great deal of affinity with traditional Catholics. I love the Traditional Latin Mass (and have celebrated it since 1989), chant, polyphony, traditional churches, stained glass, and I toe a line in rather strict conformity to the Church’s teachings and Scripture’s admonitions. I preached Hell and Purgatory even when it wasn’t cool.
But in recent years I have found my relationship to many (not all or even most) traditional Catholics tested and strained. I say “tested” because I have found that if I do not adhere to a rather strict, and I would say “narrow” line, I am relegated to be thrown out of the feast, and there in the “outer darkness” to wail and grind my teeth.
It would seem that for some, I am required to bash bishops, lament that the Church has “never been in worse shape,” and that every single solitary problem in the Church today is “due to Vatican II” and the “Novus Ordo” Mass. Stray too far from this, either by omission or commission, and I am in the hurt locker, the penalty box, and relegated to being no better than one of “them.”
Last week on the blog was especially hurtful. All I did was quote what I thought was an interesting statistic, that the average number of priests per parish in 1950 was “1″ and that in 2013, the average number of priests per parish is also “1″. There are many interesting questions that can be raised about this number. Perhaps there were more ethnic parishes then, perhaps church closings now are a factor, perhaps many of us remember the Northeastern Urban experience, but knew little of the rural experience back then which balanced our reality. Yes, there have been closings and declines of late, but overall there are 17K parishes nationwide today, slightly more than in 1950, and double the number of putative Catholics. And at the end of the day, the number averages out to “1″ priest per parish. More here:  and here: 
Anyway, while one may dispute how helpful or illuminating the statistic is, the real grief came to me with just how hostile and even nasty some comments (many of which I had to delete) were. There were personal accusations against me, there was a bevy of bishop-bashing, and Pope-bashing statements, and any number and variety of venomous attacks against perfectly legitimate Church realities, liturgical forms, and the Second Vatican Council itself.
Wowza! What a hornet’s nest. And all over a simple statistic that I found interesting. But it would seem that many found the statistic troubling, and generally seemed to find it, (and me) “off message.” It didn’t fit into, or help the narrative that some wish to cling to that the “the Church has gone down the tubes.” It got so bad and wearying in the combox that I finally had to shut it down. I was having to delete more comments than I approved.
It was even more discouraging since I have never shied away from talking about the need for reform and what does trouble the Church today. We have covered quite a lot of the “what ails the Church” territory here at the ADW Blog. I am no cheerleader for the Church of Wonderful. There are problems, and we discuss them.
But that said, the Church has not gone down the tubes, and things were not all wonderful (or all bad) before 1965. And frankly, we have NO WAY of knowing if the Second Vatican Council “ruined things” or saved things from being even worse. Those who say they do know, are just speculating, and some are also engaging in a post hoc-propter hoc fallacy. The fact is, we are where we are today, and we need to live now, and move forward. All the blame, bickering and murmuring generates more heat than light.
I was pleased to read an article by Jeff Mirus over at Catholic Culture.org because he says well what I have tried to say here, namely, that we are not without problems, but things are getting better, and there is a lot to be excited about today. Here are excerpts from what Mr Mirus writes:
A few of our readers seem intent on rebuking me for not taking every possible opportunity to condemn bishops for their weak leadership, as if my job is to be a whistle blower. Of course, I’ve offered my fair share of criticism, and that is unlikely to end any time soon. But it is probably true that I was quicker to criticize when I was younger…..
I suppose most readers are familiar with the tale of woe which haunted the Church, especially in the rapidly declining West, after the call for renewal in the 1960s was distorted to justify a neo-Modernist accommodation with rampant secularism. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, we rapidly lost our Catholic institutions—religious communities, dioceses, parishes, schools, social services—to a false and highly accommodated vision of the Faith….But that is simply untrue today…..The institutional Church, in the West generally and in the United States without question, is substantially healthier now than thirty years ago….
Today the institutional effort at genuine renewal is palpable. There are notorious holdouts—especially among women religious, the Jesuits and the universities they influence (along with others like them), wide swaths of academic theologians, and some sectors of Catholic health and social services. But most dioceses have better leadership now than then, the seminaries have been largely reformed, the priesthood substantially revitalized, and the push for both the recovery of lost territory and a new evangelization is both very real and very strong. Happily, this is no longer your father’s Church. 
Well said! I remember how awful it was back in the 70s and 80s. Things are so much better today. I am sorry if this insight is “off message” but I am quite convinced it is true.
Mr. Mirus goes on in his article to cite a particular case of the Dominicans, and how reform has blessed them. And to his focal instance I can add that there are great new seminarians here, and younger priests overall who love the Church and are solidly formed. The seminaries are in better shape, and many new and reformed religious orders of men and women are coming alive and and making their mark.
Add to this many great new lay movements, publications, EWTN, and its nationwide radio affiliates, Catholic Answers, and some great new and reformed Catholic Colleges. I am humbled too, and gratefully pleased at the wonderful caliber of converts from the Evangelical denominations who bring with them love for Jesus and the Scriptures, and are so enriching us with a zeal for the faith, and who make up a great percentage of our most effective apologists.
Every day I also meet many younger adults who are alive, focused and enthusiastic about the faith, and who do not want to make the same mistakes that their parent’s generation made. Some are turning to traditional forms, other to more contemporary worship, but either way, they are alive and eager for the truth and to spread it.
I have little doubt that our overall numbers may continue to drop in the Church for a while more. But the reform is in place, underway, and deepening. And the Holy Spirit is accomplishing this in many varied ways. We’re getting our “mojo” back and I am happy to see it.
Again, sorry if this is “off message” for some. But I speak to what I see and experience and I don’t think I am wrong. I walk in the wide Church and see a lot of variety, and what I see looks better every day.
All of us ought to be careful about ingesting too much of a steady diet of negativity. It tends to make us negative, even hostile to the good and surprising work of the Holy Spirit.
Rejoice with me! We’ve been through a lot, and there are sure to be more troubles (for there always are), especially as our culture has not recovered in many ways. But God is faithful and his Church is ever young. Great reforms are underway and seem destined to continue, perhaps in spite of us!
Again I say, rejoice! The Church is a Bride, not a widow!
Photo Credit: JLM Weddings – St Francis Church