I recently read an article by Damon Linker in The Week entitled Why Churches Should Brace for a Mass Exodus of the Faithful. And while the article presents a kind of doomsday scenario, the actual experience of the Catholic Church would be better described as a steady erosion in terms of weekly attendance. The prospect, in the light of this experience suggests more of the same, rather than a “bottom dropping out” scenario.
Nevertheless, the concerns are real, and we have not failed to discuss them on this blog. The reasons for the declining practice of the faith are complex but most fully rooted in a growing secularism that the Church struggles to address effectively.
Damon Linker has ideas of his own that, to my mind, oversimplify what is a sociologically complex matter. Frankly, most people don’t walk away in the angry dismay he describes. Rather, most just drift away in the tide of secularism that inculcates a kind of boredom and indifference to spiritual things.
But Mr. Linker also manifests a fundamentally flawed notion of what the Church is and what her main goal and mission are. And prior to looking at some of his views, we do well to review his flawed ecclesiology which is also the flawed premise of many modern critiques of the Church.
We have frequently discussed on this blog many fundamental misunderstandings about the nature and purpose of the Church. The most common problems currently center on a rather populist notion of the Church. For those who entertain this error, the mission and role of the Church is to reflect the views that are popular and common today among the people. Thus, the Church should read the signs of the times, perhaps take a few polls, and do a form of marketing wherein she seeks to appeal to the largest number by adapting her teachings.
A mitigated form of this populism is to insist that at the very least the Church should reflect the views of her own members. And thus the idea that the Church should go on proclaiming teachings that the majority of her members neither follow nor agree with, seems strange, even sinful and unjust to these populists.
Somehow, according to this populist view, the Church needs to accept the political saying Vox Populi, Vox Dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God). From the populist ecclesiology, there comes a kind of moral imperative for the Church to change her teachings on things such as the male-only priesthood, contraception, fornication, cohabitation, abortion, homosexual acts, and euthanasia. To this mindset, the Church is not simply out of touch, we are somehow sinfully wrong and unjust in refusing to conform ourselves to reflect the views of the world, or at least those of our members.
But of course, all of this is based on the false premise that the mission of the Church is to reflect the views of her members; it is not. Rather, it is the mission of the Church to reflect the views of her Head and Founder, Jesus Christ, as revealed in the Sacred Writings and in Sacred Tradition.
A second and related error is the notion that the Church should have, as a main goal, large numbers in the pews. And while it is true that the Lord Jesus did tell us to go unto all the nations and to seek to make disciples of them, he also insisted that making disciples meant teaching whatsoever he commanded (cf Mat 28:20).
Further, according to the words of Jesus himself, (and in many other places in Scripture) it is clearly stated that:
- Many would reject him (e.g. Luke 17:25)
- And that while many were called, only a few were chosen (Matt 22:14).
- Jesus sadly stated that many prefer the wide road that leads to destruction, rather than the narrow road (of the cross) the leads to salvation. Jesus remarks sadly how few there are who would find salvation (Matt 7:13)
- St. Paul tells Timothy to preach the Gospel whether in season or out of season, that is, whether popular or unpopular. He went on to warn of the days when people would not tolerate sound doctrine, but would surround themselves with teachers who would tickle their ears. (2 Tim 4:1-3)
So looking for majorities and large numbers of adherents as a measure of success seems more appropriate for a politician than for a disciple of the crucified Lord Jesus.
Thus, many modern critics of the Church fall prey to fundamental errors about her nature and purpose as described above.
I’d like now to review excerpts of the article mentioned above by Damon Linker. For throughout the article, he manifests both of these errors. And while I do not reject all of his conclusions, nor all the warnings he issues, I nevertheless have a little prediction to make: the Church will be here long after this current age and its views have come and gone (cf Matt 16:18).
So let’s look at some excerpts. Damon Linker writes (and my comments are in red),
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the sweeping acceptance of gay marriage in recent years is owed in large part to Christianity. Rejecting the rigidly hierarchical and stratified societies of the ancient world, Jesus Christ taught the equal dignity of all persons, proclaimed that the meek shall inherit the earth, and declared that the last shall be first and the first shall be last.
It is nice to receive a little acknowledgment, namely that Christianity has had a salutary effect on the world by proclaiming the dignity of the human person. For some claim that the Christian faith has had either no effect, or even a negative effect on the world. At least Mr. Linker does acknowledge this essential and unique contribution of Christianity.
But of course asserting the dignity of the individual is not to be equated with approving whatever the individual chooses to do. Our essential dignity as human beings is that we were made by God to know the truth, the truth which he proclaims in his Word, in Sacred Tradition, and the in book of creation through Natural Law.
It is odd to me that Mr. Linker should so easily attribute meekness to many proponents of the modern liberal social revolution, or to the views they espouse. To this reader, and from my vantage point, most of the social liberals are more like iconoclasts who delight in smashing and ridiculing traditional norms, and who do not hesitate for a moment to assign some of the most loathsome labels to their opponents (such as me): intolerant, bigoted, homophobic, sexist, misogynistic, unjust, etc. And they have little hesitancy in seeking to impose through the legal system any number of odious penalties upon the likes of me and others who will not comply with their new vision. Crosses, crèches, and all manner and form of religious symbolism must be immediately removed. Legal penalties must accrue to those who do not wish to engage in business transactions contradictory to their moral beliefs, and to those who refuse to be involved in the purchasing of the “healthcare” that is part of the modern liberal social agenda. Yes, according to them we must be heavily penalized, marginalized, and even criminalized. None of this bespeaks of “meekness” to me if I do say so myself.
And far from being “last,” most proponents of the progressive social agenda, and subgroups like the homosexual lobby, are actually among the “first” in modern culture. They are well funded, often personally wealthy, and very politically powerful.
Such as these are neither meek nor last in any sense.
Mr. Linker adds,
But what (of churches)…that resist this reform…with ecclesiastical authorities enforcing male-centered dogma and doctrine. That’s mainly the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons)….I think it’s likely that over the coming years these churches are going to confront a stark choice: Reform themselves in light of equality or watch their parishioners opt for the exits. In droves.
Linker qualifies himself saying, I’m not talking about all of the churches. I mean those that have resisted reforming themselves in light of women’s equality….
Actually, the current answer to Mr. Linker’s question is that churches that hold to traditional doctrine (what he terms “male-centered dogma”) are actually doing better in terms of the number of adherents than those denominations that have adopted his stated “reform” agenda. Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians (PCUSA), and Unitarians are all in steep and serious decline. However, Catholics, Mormons, conservative Pentecostal denominations, and many of the more traditional branches of the Lutherans (Missouri Synod) and the Presbyterians (non-PCUSA) are holding their own, and even growing.
So, to use his logic, the LAST thing the Church should do is embrace his “reform” agenda since people are heading for the exits even faster.
It is also interesting that Mr. Linker should seek to focus especially on the issue of women’s ordination. Really, this is rather an old issue in the Church. It is been debated for many decades. When this major exodus will suddenly start to happen seems unclear. If anything, radical feminism is on the decline as a popular movement, and most Catholic women do not seem particularly adamant about the issue.
But even if it were the case that many members were getting ready to leave or were already being lost, as has already been stated above this could not of itself cause the Church to change a practice we received from Christ himself.
To his credit, Mr. Linker acknowledges that the Church is unlikely, even unable, to change many of her teachings, and he even does a pretty good job of summarizing why the Church, in her own estimation, has no power to ordain women.
But the bottom line is that Linker does not really advert to the actual data, which show that in fact traditional Churches retain a higher number of adherents. Instead, he makes dire, a priori predictions that the bottom is about to fall out of churches that don’t hew closely to his “reform” agenda. The data say otherwise.
Mr. Linker goes on to make to other prognostications. One is that though Pope Francis enjoys wide popularity now, he predicts,
It isn’t going to last. As I’ve argued at length, there is no indication that anything of doctrinal substance is going to change under the new pope.
To this, I would agree. One day the world is going to have to wake up from its dreamy version of Pope Francis and discover that he is a Roman Catholic Bishop, a successor to the Apostles, and the successor to Peter. He will not and cannot set aside either defined moral or doctrinal teaching. In fact, as a believing Catholic, I will go further and say that he’s prevented from doing so by the Holy Spirit.
Mr. Linker opines,
I think it likely that over the coming years these churches [the traditional ones] are going to confront a stark choice: reform themselves in the light of equality or watch their parishioners opt for the exits in droves.
To some degree, this has already been happening for decades in all Churches, even more so in the “equality-based” churches he salutes. In the Catholic Church, though our number of claimed adherents has been rising, the percentage of those who actually attend Mass or believe in any substantial way has been steadily eroding. I have little doubt that this number will continue to drop, at least as a percentage, in the years ahead.
The world is becoming more secular and that trend does not seem to be changing anytime soon. But here too, we must insist on what was said above: that simply looking for large numbers is not the mission of the Church. The mission of the Church is to hand on the sacred teachings that the Lord Jesus Christ has entrusted to us, and to hand them on intact.
It’s nice to be wildly popular, but as the life of Jesus shows, the crowds are fickle. On a certain Sunday in Jerusalem, they shouted Hosanna to the Son of David! By Friday, they were shouting Crucify him! We have no king but Caesar.
Indeed, on Good Friday the Church got very small for a moment. All the Apostles, the early bishops, except John had fled. Only John was there at the Cross with Jesus, along with Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and several other women. Yes, the Church got very small on that day.
But Jesus didn’t look down and say, “Oh this isn’t working. Let’s call the whole thing off and develop a different approach apart from the Cross.” Interestingly, the Church got two converts that day: the good thief, and the centurion; not too bad, when you’re down to only five or six members. And of course, the Church since then has grown quite dramatically. But there have been many ups and downs too numerous to detail here.
At the end of the day, Mr. Linker’s concerns rest on two flawed assumptions. First, that the Church is wrong to resist the testimony of the majority, of the populace. Second, that our goal should be large numbers, and that we should fret because our numbers are somehow declining.
Even if they are, and that point is debatable, numbers cannot be a preoccupation, nor can popularity. We serve the Lord, who was crucified outside the city gate. As the Book of Hebrews says Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore (Heb 13:13).
It is not that our goal is to be contrarian. Our goal is to remain faithful, whether popular or unpopular. Jesus rather sadly wondered: When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth? (Luke 18:8). Scripture also says of him: He is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against (Lk 2:34).
This the lot of the Church, the Body of Christ: to be often vilified, hated, and persecuted, to fulfill the difficult mission of being the voice of Jesus Christ in the world today. The voice of the real Jesus, not some fake, abridged or amended Jesus, but the real Jesus who spoke quite unambiguously about most of the moral issues confronting the world today, whether in his own words or through the apostles he commissioned to speak in his name.
All this leads to the conclusion that Mr. Linker’s article is fundamentally beside the point for the Church, who serves a crucified yet risen Lord and who told us If you were of the world the world would love you as its own, but because you are not of the world, because I have called you out of the world, therefore the world will hate you (Jn 15:19).
Yes, such is our lot. We can do no other; we can be no other. St. Paul said,
We do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor 4:2)
This Colbert skit demonstrates the absurdity of merely fashioning the Church to suit whims.