Carrie Gress has a doctorate from the Catholic University of America and is a philosophy professor at Pontifex University. She is the author of several books, including The Marian Option: God’s Solution to a Civilization in Crisis. Carrie is the co-author with George Weigel of City of Saints: A Pilgrims Guide to John Paul II’s Krakow. A homeschooling mother of four, she and her family live in Virginia. Visit her blog at www.carriegress.com. (Photo by Renata Grzan Wierczorek, RenataPhotography.com)
Learning the Catholic faith in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and much of the 90s was a tough business in the United States. Few Catholic schools and areas of parish life were left unaffected by the chaos that ensued after Vatican II. Since many members of the clergy, religious life, and educators felt liberated from the constraints of the old Church, the consensus seemed to be that new ideas of one’s own design would really make the Church relevant in the modern world.
The catechetical low-points swung anywhere on the pendulum between sleep-inducing biblical interpretation explaining away miracles to eye-rolling emotional meditations on what it is like be a rock in a river, followed by journaling on the “experience” of being said rock. Lots of class discussions involving feelings about hot-button issues and plenty of soft folksy music were practically a requirement. Precious little attention was paid to anything that might smack of Latin, litanies and incense (unless it was patchouli incense).
And moral teaching? Well, that was all for another age and didn’t really apply to us anymore. The Catholic Church is no longer a relic, but is finally getting with the times of sexual freedom—or so the logic went. And yet ask most graduates of such “innovative” programs today if the faith is still relevant in their lives? Not so much. These students of Catholic education who spent years, sometimes decades, subjected to theological drivel still can’t tell you with any certitude if Christ is truly present in the Eucharist.
As I discuss in my book, Nudging Conversions, sadly, these students who endured an ersatz education are perhaps the hardest to nudge back into the Church because they think they already know what it means to be Catholic. Instead of understanding that what they got was at best second rate, many cradle Catholics live with the false impression that the best the Church has to offer is kumbaya, sappy sermons, and felt banners decorated with wheat and grapes. It is heartbreaking to see their parents, who sacrificed much for their kids to get a good Catholic education, struggle to understand what went wrong.
How did all of this relevance become irrelevant? Because the faith at its heart is only relevant when it supplies the ways and means to be in a true and fruitful relationship with God. When those are snipped because of fad or fancy, it is guaranteed that the Catholic Church will look passé.
On the flipside, when the faith is promoted in its fullness, even with the outmoded realities like mortal sin, the essential role of suffering, and the prohibition against women priests, suddenly, it becomes relevant again in the lives of the faithful. As the last twenty or so years have shown the dioceses that are growing, the orders that are brimming with vocations, and the Catholic colleges and schools that are flourishing are doing so precisely because they are promoting the full truth of the faith without cutting corners.
Sadly, not all parishes and pockets of the Church have woken up to the reality that it is the cancer of relevance that has eaten away once dynamic and faithful parishes, communities and colleges. Take away the tools people need to come to know God and no matter how beautiful the church or the campus, it will slide into an existence on par with a museum – a nice place to visit for aesthetic purposes, but no place to meet and worship God (unless it is bad 70s architecture, and then there is really no reason to go).
And while things may be improving in large sections of the Church in the U.S., there are still vast expanses of Europe that have not figured out that their efforts to become relevant – that is, to capitulate with the culture -- are behind their declining numbers. Mass attendance in Europe is somewhere around 15%. With record low numbers of church attendance, empty seminaries and flaccid community life, it is clear that something must be done to shore up the Church.
The Vatican Synod of the Family is currently grappling with how best to handle the issues related to the family in the world today. One group that is straining toward dramatic changes in Church teaching are the members of the St. Gallen “mafia”. This group, the archbishop emeritus of Brussels Cardinal Godfried Danneels recently confessed, was established to bring together high ranking clergy in order to undermine the theological work of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI—essentially to bring radical change to the Church. Their argument, St. Gallen member German Cardinal Walter Kasper has made clear, is that if the Church redefines marriage, divorce and embraces more of the LGTB agenda, then the pews will be full again.
What the St. Gallenites don’t get, however, is that their recommended cure is simply more of the same toxin that is killing the patient. A quick glance at most European dioceses doesn’t produce evidence that the St. Gallenites and others have tried to feed their sheep the authentic food of the faith: robust, life-giving, straight-talking Catholic teaching. Rather, they are pushing the same old tired and toxic rhetoric that it is the Church that must change to stay up with the times.
The Church is supposed to be the light of the world; those who want radical change have made the world the light of the Church. And if that is the light that anyone hopes will stem the tide, there’s only one thing left to say: “Will the last person out please remember to turn the lights out?”