Sunday 17 February 2013

All change

I have been quite astonished at the world's interest at the abdication of Pope Benedict. When Rowan Williams announced his retirement there was some polite notice taken, but it tended to be of the five-minutes-second-item sort on the main television news. Tim Stanley has written a post on the subject which has deservedly attracted much attention; he understandably expresses concern and annoyance at some journalists' efforts to dictate to the Church just what sort of Pope ought to be elected. They wouldn't do this to other faiths, he says.

And, of course, he is right. But it is interesting, isn't it, that somehow the world genuinely feels that it has some sort of a stake in the man who will become the next successor of St Peter? Gordon Brown, towards the end of his premiership (and possibly in an effort to curry favour with the Catholic vote) described the Catholic Church as the 'conscience of the nation' or something like that. This impression was reinforced at the visit of Pope Benedict in 2010; David Cameron said to the Holy Father that he had 'made us sit up and think'; I expect Mr Cameron did sit up and think—perhaps for as long as half an hour—before reverting to type. For some reason the world is mighty keen to bring the Catholic Church on side. Which I think we ought to take as (as Ronald Knox said of Arnold Lunn) 'a compliment of sorts, like the crocodile pursuing Captain Hook'.

What I am trying to say is that the walls of the ghetto have truly been torn down now, and this has both good and bad consequences. Walls make good protection; it is possible to escape notice entirely with a good wall around one. But walls also prevent any contact with people outside. Though not the case on the continent, the Church in this country had become very used to its walls and a near-complete separation of our faith from the doings of the world. Some might say that there was something Catharistic about it.

As I said, on the continent, it was not so; from the time of Clovis the French have had a very close, almost incestuous, relationship of throne and altar. Italy too has a long tradition of close engagement, which was what rendered the 'non expedit' of Pius IX and Leo XIII such a problem for the Italian state and paved the way for the Lateran Treaty of 1929. Other (though not all) states have had similar arrangements, though since the American and French revolutions there has been a growing tendency to desire a clear separation of Church and State, something very hard to achieve unless one is going to deprive every communicant of their citizenship, for members of churches also vote and pay taxes and therefore have a right to exercise as much influence on government as any secularist.

By the twentieth century, even in countries that engaged with government there was some sort of ghetto mentality. Perhaps this was partly due to the wave of revolutions in the mid to late nineteenth century, mostly of the socialist/masonic/agnostic type, which caused the Church to retreat from the modern world as from something which fundamentally threatened her existence. Perhaps it did and does. The Syllabus of Errors, even the Anti-Modernist Oath, reinforced this sense of suspicion of the modern world which, it seemed, would never understand unless it submitted to the grace of God.

Was this retreat from the world good? I think that as an unrepentant traddy I'm supposed to say yes. But I don't think I can entirely, because the world continued to develop in its own way, and that was increasingly at variance with the Christian foundations of those very societies themselves. The Church may have protected herself against the world, but at the same time she diminished her ability to influence that world for good.

Pope John XXIII, when a papal diplomat, engaged with a lot of people who were not religious, and found that generally they were nice people. But then he was the sort of person who got on with others anyway. And I think that he saw clearly that the Church was becoming increasingly meaningless to an awful lot of people: the book France; a Missionary Country? was published during his time as Nuncio in Paris. To him, perhaps the Church needed to come down off her dignity a bit and try to re-engage with a world that was rapidly becoming more and more secular.

To many this came as a great breath of fresh air. To others, it did not. As one priest put it to me, 'to "throw open the windows of the Church to the world and let in fresh air" implies that the air outside is better than the air inside!'

Vatican II firmly brought the walls tumbling down. The difficulty is that, precisely, it was the worldly media which interpreted Vatican II to the world. There were two councils; one of bishops in the aula, and the other, far more influential council, of 'experts' (ecclesiastically or self-appointed) and journalists in the bars outside. Inevitably, it is not the council documents that made the headlines, but the comments of the 'experts', who created the expectation of vast change that swept the Church. Bishops returned to their sees from the Council amazed to hear that they had voted for a completely vernacular Mass, for instance—as Cardinal Heenan commented, that wasn't what they thought they had done. But the newspapers had brought the news ahead of them, and created a climate of expectation of more and more radical change on just about every subject. The bishops simply had to get on board the bandwagon or be left standing.

Probably the most damaging thing was not the changes made to the liturgy, but what has been called the catechetical revolution. It robbed two generations (at least) of the ability to articulate and understand their faith. It took from them a standpoint from which to assess the assertions of the newspapers, and made them prey, like everyone else, to the murky world of 'feelings' without understanding. 'Securus judicat orbis terrarum' has always been a motto that made sense in the Catholic context—it was the thing that changed Newman's life. And now, having had the wind sown for us, we are reaping the whirlwind.

The walls of the ghetto are indeed down; Catholics have been permitted to rejoin the human race, but they have been deprived of the very means of preserving their faith against the world which is now staring in and making rude observations, long and loud, about what they see.

Siobhan McDonald MP (a practising Catholic) ridiculed Archbishop Peter Smith over his suggestion that people would leave the Church over this Gay Marriage thing. But the Archbishop was perfectly right; people have left, and continue to leave. I can think of three or four in this parish alone; one of them came to tell me, in a perfectly friendly but firm manner, that she was going, and why. There are probably many more of whom I am not aware. This is not entirely their fault; they have never been given the necessary information to help them make a proper assessment of the situation. I have tried, and continue to try, but all their mental formation has been in a secular context, and their religious formation has been so impoverished that I feel sometimes as if I am speaking Chinese to them. It isn't that they won't understand, they can't. To them, I, and the Church, are simply homophobic bigots and bullying autocrats without an ounce of compassion or genuine faith.

So what now? Yes, we are under fire, but I am not convinced that this is entirely a bad thing right now. The world continues to be intensely interested in the Catholic Church because, I think, it has a sneaking suspicion that we might be on to something. Otherwise it would dismiss us as irrelevant. It may call us irrelevant, but its actions belie this. As long as we continue to stand, if necessary to the last man, then we continue to preach the Gospel which challenges them, and some will listen.

And this is a challenge to us. We need to prepare our young people adequately for the road ahead. Finally, I think that this particular message is getting home; the years ahead will be interesting.

1 comment:

Delia said...

Excellent post, Father.