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Pope Francis: Why This ‘Exodus’ From Church?

Pope Francis put the smackdown in Brazil today. From Reuters: Pope Francis, in a stunningly candid assessment of the state of the Catholic Church, said on Saturday it should look in the mirror and ask why so many people are leaving the faith of their fathers. On the penultimate day of his trip to Brazil, Francis […]

Pope Francis put the smackdown in Brazil today. From Reuters:

Pope Francis, in a stunningly candid assessment of the state of the Catholic Church, said on Saturday it should look in the mirror and ask why so many people are leaving the faith of their fathers.

On the penultimate day of his trip to Brazil, Francis delivered a long address to the country’s bishops in which he suggested elements of what could become a blueprint for stopping what he called an “exodus.”

“I would like all of us to ask ourselves today: are we still a Church capable of warming hearts?” he said in a speech remarkable for its frankness about the hemorrhaging of the Church in many countries.

The Argentine pope, who is in Rio for a Catholic international jamboree known as World Youth Day, referred to what he called “the mystery of those who leave the Church” because they think it “can no longer offer them anything meaningful or important.”

The Church has been losing members throughout the world to secularism and to other religions, including in Latin America, where evangelical groups have won over many converts.

He acknowledged that many people see the Church as a “relic of the past,” too caught up in itself, and a “prisoner of its own rigid formulas.”

While he said the Church “must remain faithful” to its religious doctrine, it had to be closer to the people and their real problems.

“Today, we need a Church capable of walking at people’s side, of doing more than simply listening to them,” he said.

“At times we lose people because they don’t understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity and import an intellectualism foreign to our people,” he said.

It’s a question all Christians in the West — Catholic or not, liberal or conservative — should ask ourselves. People are falling away. We know that. I don’t think it’s entirely the fault of the churches; we know from Scripture that some people are more receptive to the Gospel than others, and we know that secular modernity offers unique philosophical challenges to hearing the Gospel. The Christian Church isn’t in need of lectures about what it ought to be doing from people who have absolutely no interest in taking anything it has to say seriously in the first place, and who wouldn’t bother showing up even if the Church did everything it demanded. It is in the Church’s interest to listen to people who are in principle open to the Church’s message, but for whatever reasons find it hard to accept.

Still, I’m not sure what the Pope means when he talks about the Church being so hung up on doctrines that it doesn’t relate to the real life of its people. As an American Catholic, I found myself wanting more doctrine from priests, and for doctrine to be more a part of the Catholic ethos. It rarely ever was. In my experience — and granted, North America is not the whole world — the idea that the Church’s priests were so caught up in doctrine and legalism that they were not in touch with the needs of the people is questionable. The Pope is right to say that the faith is not only about doctrine and legalism — but is that really what troubles the Church in our country? Isn’t it more the case that believers lack for leadership presents that doctrine in a way that makes it accessible and relevant to real life — if it bothers to teach it at all? It’s a false choice to say that either one has a rigid, cold intellectualism, or a doctrine-free, Church-Of-What’s-Happening-Now emotionalism.

Now, I don’t think the Pope is suggesting that that is the only choice, and besides, he was speaking in Latin America, which for all I know faces different pastoral challenges than North America does. But what do the Pope’s words mean for North American Catholics? What do the Pope’s words mean for other Christians? Talk to me.

UPDATE: Note this comment on the thread from J_A:

As a Latin American who moved into the US in the late 90s (when I was in my late 30s), I can tell you that I see very little in common between the issues the Catholic church confronts and engages here and there.

In Latin America, the Church focus is -or is expected to be- on social issues: poverty, economic exclusion, political oppression, education, health. The cultural wars that obsess us in the US take second place to more urgent challenges.

Historically,probably until V2, the Latin American Catholic church was seen as a bastion of privilege and reaction, a supporter of the local oligarchies. By the time I was growing up, the Church had shifted its position, and became a voice for the economically and politically powerless. The popularity of and the respect accorded to the Church as an institution soared.

However, both in the old times of a reactionary church, and in the new era of a socially conscious church, Catholicism has always been mainly cultural. It was/is something you had to do on Sundays, but religion was not something you LIVED on your daily the way you, Rod, and others here seem to understand it. In exchange for God’s basic protection, you fulfilled certain duties, but your obligations towards God were understood to be limited, and mostly relegated to women and children. Men weren’t really required to attend

Nowadays, I think modernity is coming to the slums of Latin America. Some people -most of them- don’t see any particular presence of God in their daily life. They are happy with the Church’s social work, but don’t see much the point of religion.

And for the (quite large) minority that really long for more religion, they seem to find it elsewhere in sincretic cults like santeria in its many variations all over the continent, or in evangelical churches with more than a whiff of prosperity gospel. Again, what most of this people look for is not a religion of the telos, but a source of spiritual power that they can channel to solve their problems in the physical world (get a job, get laid, get cured, get your enemies fired from work or sick). This spirituality, for which there is plenty of demand, the Church cannot cater to.



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