First Things editor Rusty Reno continues our exchange over Cardinal O’Brien’s resignation. He thinks I’m far too given over to melodrama in talking about the “collapse” of Catholicism, and Christianity in general. Excerpt:
There’s an odd atmosphere of collapse, a kind of apocalyptic anxiety. Rod speaks of declining (collapsing!) Church attendance in Britain, which he merges with evocations and warnings about still more depravities to be uncovered. In his mind it adds up to a crisis of Catholicism akin to the traumas of the Reformation. He can’t understand why I’m not outraged, or mad, or in some way properly agitated by what he sees as the evident signs of a world-historical threat to the Christian witness.
Maybe I’m blind. Maybe I’m morally obtuse. Maybe I’m spiritually deluded. But then again maybe Christian faith and the Church have enough spiritual range, as it were, to cover bad situations like the current clerical abuse crisis, or larger trends such as secularism.
Well, a correction: I can’t understand why the editor of First Things is not outraged, mad, or properly agitated by the spectacle of yet another senior figure in the Church going down amid sexual misconduct allegations. I understand that there is a such thing as outrage fatigue, but really, a cardinal resigning over accusations that he sexually harassed or compromised priests and seminarians is a big deal.
And to refresh Rusty’s memory, I pointed out that Catholicism — and Christianity itself — has collapsed in Britain. How is this even debatable? Look at the numbers and the trends. The story is similar all across Europe. If this isn’t collapse, then what would collapse look like?
It’s not just a collapse of attendance, but a severe decline in authority to shape the larger culture. Damian Thompson, the conservative Catholic blogger and columnist at the Telegraph, calls the O’Brien takedown a “hit job,” but lays out the broader consequences of O’Brien’s fall in this blog post, and this follow-up. Excerpt:
If the charges against O’Brien have any substance to them, then the public credibility of the Scottish Catholic Church will collapse. And the rejoicing of the enemies of conservative Catholicism, who are especially vocal in Scotland, will be deafening. …
This country is in the middle of a debate about gay marriage in which, given the support of politicians and the media for the innovation, there is a shortage of public figures prepared to speak for the 50 per cent of voters unhappy with the measure. Until now, the Catholic Church has been given a respectful hearing. But today, with its senior clergyman accused of touching up young men after drink-fuelled “counselling”? We do not, it should be stressed, know that the behaviour actually occurred. What we do know is that, thanks to this grubby scandal, gay marriage seems even more of an inevitability – and the Catholic Church’s freedom to oppose it is suddenly looking more fragile.
We have even seen the practice of the Catholic faith in Ireland — Ireland! — severely eroded by the terrible sex scandals in the Church there.
This matters. This matters a lot. I would submit that the loss of Europe and the UK to Christianity is a calamity of the first magnitude.
We are in much better shape in the US, but that’s a relative judgment. As Putnam & Campbell reported in American Grace, Catholicism in the US is declining among Anglos as fast as mainline Protestantism is; if not for Hispanic immigration, the picture would look very different. Besides, the rise of the Nones — people, mostly under 35, who don’t claim any church — has been a huge religion story of late. There has never been a generation of Americans like this one, in terms of the falling-away from religious practice. Plus, Christian Smith’s great sociological work on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has shown how American Christians across the church spectrum fail to understand even the most basic truths of Christianity. Absent some sort of revival, can we be far behind Europe and the UK?
I know that I’m partial to an apocalyptic sense, but I really don’t understand Rusty’s quietism in this moment. I don’t worry about Christianity, Catholic or otherwise, in the Global South. But I don’t live in the Global South. I live here. Jesus Christ said the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church, but he didn’t say the gates of Hell wouldn’t prevail against it in Europe and North America. More from Rusty’s blog:
But I can’t participate in his odd sense that somehow the Church is on the verge of collapse. No longer at the center of Western culture, no longer influential, no longer the obvious option for morally sensitive upper-middle-class people? Yes, quite possible, and in many ways already all too actual. But the collapse of the cultural dominance of Christianity is not at all the same thing as a spiritual, theological collapse. From where I sit, when it comes to the interior lives of Catholics and of the Church, things have gotten better, not worse, in the last two decades.
The world must look different from the offices of First Things. According to social science survey’s, Christianity is actually more of an option for morally sensitive upper middle class people than it is for the working class, among whom family structure is starting to fall apart. I agree that a religion’s cultural dominance is not the same thing as spiritual and theological health, but I would be curious to know exactly how one would judge that the interior lives of Catholics and of the Church has gotten better, not worse, in the last two decades. I mean, I hope it’s true, but how would one know that sort of thing?
A decade ago, a Catholic priest friend in New York sketched out a view of the future in the archdiocese, and said that ordinary Catholics had no real idea how bad things were going to get for them as a result of the vocations crisis. When I lived in Philadelphia, a Catholic layman friend — a man very active in archdiocesan affairs, and certainly well-informed — said sadly that the rapid decay of Catholic institutions there was so pronounced that he wondered what there would be for his children to inherit. Neither one of these men are apocalyptic types. They’re working on the front lines of the faith. And they are not cheered by what they see.
UPDATE: This in the comments thread, from a reader. I know about the cardinal of whom he speaks. This is true, and it is no secret to the Vatican, and wasn’t a secret to the Vatican before they gave this creep the red hat:
“From where I sit, when it comes to the interior lives of Catholics and of the Church, things have gotten better, not worse, in the last two decades”
A few years ago, I went to Ash Wednesday Mass in a major UC city celebrated by the recently retired Cardinal Archbishop. He preached a very good homily (unlike the mushy, unchallenging sermons favored by so many Catholic pastors I’ve experienced). Later, while reading legal documents from a lawsuit (I’m a lawyer), I discovered that this Cardinal Archbishop had repeatedly seduced young seminarians and even maintained several apartments where he took his victims. This is a man who rose as high as a cleric can rise; the elementary school my parents attended in his home diocese was renamed after him.
Does Reno understand how many Catholics perceive every priest, every bishop as a potential monster; how many of us simply can’t extend filial trust to the clergy because the strain of that trust being so often betrayed has been too heavy? Yes, the Church could easily survive Cardinal O’Brien being revealed to have habitually broken his vows to God. But what about so many bishops and priests being similarly compromised that it is no longer possible to assume that any given diocese is not harboring the same secrets?
I can only speak to my own interior life, but I can say that a dozen years ago, I didn’t feel like I was trying to follow Christ with no substantial help from the clergy; I didn’t feel like a lay sucker, trying to live the Catholic faith while our sacramental ministers broke the laws of God and man and cheerfully said Mass the next day. I didn’t feel spritually alone despite belonging to the largest church in the world.
The worst of all this is that after the gut-punch of revelation, comes always the minimizing and covering from whichever side of the politico-religious left/right divide the figure in question was admired by.