July 27, 2016

Can the Catholic Church die?

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *
St. Peter's Square by Dennis Jarvis via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
St. Peter's Square by Dennis Jarvis via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In the first three hundred years of Christianity, it was entirely possible for the fledgling Christian religion to be killed off, for it was this religion under constant threat of persecution. It was inconceivable that a stray minority could or would overcome paganism.  

Why was Christianity so special?  Christians were convinced that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead.  Preaching dignity for all, he was the Messiah, the hope of the nations.  Jesus Christ was the answer to the universal question: What is the meaning of life?

In the early fourth century, 90 percent of the population followed one god or another.  People  shopped around for a god just as today one would shop for food stuffs in a supermarket.  But the Christians would not follow the crowd. They refused to worship or sacrifice to the gods.  For this, they were made scapegoats when natural disaster struck. It was a high crime to profess being a Christian, and the punishment for it?  Cruel death. Yet, the Jesus Movement spread across the Roman Empire with pagans themselves embracing Christianity.  The theologian Tertullian (2nd to 3rd century) could declare: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church; it is certain because it is impossible.”

From the Acts of the Apostles to the Present

In the Acts of the Apostles it is written: “For if this council or this work be of men, it will come to nought.  But if it be of God, you cannot overthrow it, lest perhaps you be found even to fight against God” (Acts 5:38).  From apostolic times to the present, the demise of Catholic Christianity has been predicted with certitude and anticipated with relish. Civilizations have come and gone, cultures have been overthrown; they have corrupted from within.  Novel philosophies and cults have risen and fallen.  Despite ongoing difficulties, from within and without, Catholic Christianity has stood, ever proposing and professing its unity, holiness, fullness of faith, and apostolic ministry.  Still, all is not well.

Fast forward. Of the 44 percent of Americans who have left the religious tradition of their youth, about 10.1 percent are former Roman Catholics. Their return to the Church is unlikely any time in the near future, according to the findings of the Pew Research Center.  

Every year during the Easter Triduum, the Church welcomes thousands into full communion with the Body of Christ.  In contrast, large numbers walk out of the Church each year.  Some of those who left years ago are prominent figures in public service today and currently in the news: Vice-president hopeful Mike Pence, Gov. John Kasich, Congresswoman Mia Love, and FBI Director James Comey.

“The church in America must face the fact,” writes Fr. William J. Byron, S.J., “that it has failed to communicate the Good News cheerfully and effectively to a population adrift on a sea of materialism and under constant attack from the forces of secularism, not to mention the diabolical powers that are at work in our world” (“On Their Way Out,” America Magazine (January 2, 2011).

Former Catholics may not be able to put their finger on the exact reason for leaving the Church, but it may boil down to a few phrases:  

“I don’t get anything out of weekly Mass. Homilies are like dry straw.”

“The Catholic Church is all about dos and don’ts.”

“The clergy abuse scandal and its cover-up have driven me away.”

As if to underscore the sad phenomenon of plummeting numbers, Cardinal Timothy Dolan addressed it in 2011 when he addressed the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:  “Perhaps our most pressing pastoral challenge today is to reclaim that truth, to restore the luster, the credibility, the beauty of the Church, ‘ever ancient, ever new,’ renewing her as the face of Jesus, just as He is the face of God.  Maybe our most urgent priority is to lead our people to see, meet, and hear anew Jesus in and through His Church.”  “Urgent” is the key word.

If the Catholic Church were a business, its leadership would seek every possible means to reverse these untenable losses. And immediately. 

The “new evangelization,” beginning with our youth, seeks to reverse course.

The Church Compared to a Symphony Orchestra

The secret of Catholic Christianity lies not so much in the “the outer walls of the Catholic cathedral, with their cracks and crevices and their weather-beaten masonry” but in “the wondrous artistic beauty of the interior hidden from the outer structure” in the mystery of its internal life. (Karl Adam, The Spirit of Catholicism, 13). 

The splendor of the Church’s dogmas of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Mystical Body of Christ, the beauty of venerating Mary and the saints, and the beauty of the instructions of the Church Fathers on prayer, contemplation, mysticism and morality, on the Church’s effective social teaching—all these expressions of Catholic Christianity can plant the seeds of faith as well as strengthen one’s faith in their beauty. 

At its best, Catholic Christianity is a splendid symphony orchestra, an inherently beautiful work of art to behold.   The mission of the Church, like a symphony orchestra, is to attract the audience with its deep and expressive beauty.  An orchestra without that uplifting spirit and joi de vivre is bound to disappoint its audience. Such an orchestra dies if it ceases to attract through its beauty. And what of the Church?

The Prognosis?

 Can the Church die from within or be destroyed from without?  Given the revolving door of converts coming in and cradle Catholics going out, can today’s Church grow and speak as a beautifully persuasive voice? 

Didn’t Jesus assure Peter, the rock on which he built the Church, that the powers of death would not prevail against it (Mt 16:18)? Still, the human element, of itself, can become deformed and disfigured. Prayerlessness, the drive for power, worldliness and loss of fervor provide fertile ground for critics eager to brand the Church as corrupt.  

We need more apostles like Mary Magdalene who first proclaimed the Lord’s resurrection to the disciples.  She ran to them in haste and was beside herself with joy to announce the good news. 

This then is a Church that promises much and assures eternal happiness.  The Church’s vocation is to proclaim its beautiful truth and to do so beautifully.

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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