Thursday 7 March 2013

Crisis, what crisis?

Much talk of crises in the Church. I wonder why?

In a Church of over a billion people, where events that scarcely cause a blink in other institutions are trumpeted loudly across front pages, it's easy to feel dispirited (if you're a Catholic) or cheered (if you're a New Atheist). As I've noted before, this sort of emotional reaction, particularly where attachment to a leader is involved, is natural. But when it comes to making decisions about what action to take, we need to steady our nerves and think hard before doing anything.

The interest -particularly of the Scottish media- in Cardinal O'Brien is perfectly natural. You can't be a major -the major- religious leader in a small country and expect to pass unnoticed when accused of sexual impropriety. Indeed, the attention generally paid to the Church in the media is a tribute (even if often a backhanded one) to its remaining influence. Couple this widespread publicity with the Pope's retirement, various rumours about Vatican corruption, and ongoing issues such as the declining numbers of priests, and its easy to feel that there's a crisis and something must be done.

So what is the crisis? Cardinal O'Brien's case, though distressing for all involved, is a side issue. All institutions, particularly educational ones, suffer from the possibility of an illicit combination of sexual importuning and abuse of power. It won't go away although there may be minor structural changes that would help such as a clear method outside the normal hierarchical structure for reporting concerns. The resignation of the Pope, though unusual, is part of the normal rhythm of life and departure: Popes come and go. The Church goes on.

Stripping away the noise, it can be soon be seen that some of the nostrums that are being offered in solution are, in principle, flawed. Firstly, they are flawed because they are nostrums: quick fix solutions for complicated problems. Changing rules on clerical celibacy won't stop the difficulties of reconciling eros and power. It might be a partial solution to falling numbers of priests or to a (putative) culture of homosexuality within seminaries, but it won't be a quick or sure one, and it will undoubtedly bring other problems in its wake. Secondly, and most importantly, they won't solve the main problem -if there is a main problem- which is that of the challenge of secularization.

Secularization theory comes in many shapes and forms, but the central claim is that there is something about modernity which is inimical to traditional forms of religion. This claim (in view of some evidence that religion elsewhere in the world is resistant to secularization in modernity) can be confined to Western Europe: that there is something structural about modern Western European societies that drives out religion. Now it certainly isn't clear that secularization theory is correct or why it is correct (if it is). But the figures on Church attendance and belief in Western Europe do seem to show a steady decline (take your pick from when!).

Is that the crisis? If secularization theory is true, none of the solutions offered in popular discussions will work. Why should clerical celibacy change this trend when it hasn't for the Protestant churches? Why should changing teaching on birth control work either? Moreover, particular stories about declines in church attendance and belief (eg) in Ireland become part, not of a specific reaction to a specific event (child abuse) but a variation upon that common theme of the irresistible decline of religion in Western Europe, a decline only delayed by the peculiar circumstances of Irish society and cultural defence (the linking of culture and religion in a culture under attack from a more dominant culture).

The most plausible candidate for the crisis of modern Catholicism is this conflict between religion and modernity, and the (claimed) inevitable decline of religion. Before Catholics start proposing this or that solution for 'the crisis', they need to come to a decision about whether or not there is some deep incompatibility between traditional Christianity and modernity. If they think there is, then we have two choices: either we accept that Catholicism will have as much difficulty in surviving in modernity as a life of contemplative prayer in a brothel, and concentrate on creating defences for those declining numbers who want to carry on this heroic struggle. (And 'popular' solutions such as changing the Church's teaching on sex will be at best irrelevant, and at worst actually part of that secularization process.) Or we have to adapt Catholicism to survive -and here again, the well known  'popular' solutions won't work either because they've been tried by other religions and have failed.

Alternatively, we reject secularization theory and regard problems with numbers of Catholics not as a structural incompatibility between modernity and religion, but as a specific outcome of a specific Catholic problem. (So, eg, a response to the 'Spirit of Vatican II' and one to be solved by rejecting that Spirit. Or that we have a problem with our attitude to homosexuality that we need to deal with.) One issue with such diagnoses is that they don't directly account for the decline in other religions. But quite apart from that, again 'popular' solutions don't seem plausible. Why should Catholicism do any better 'listening' to the laity, than the Church of England has?

Focusing on the Scottish situation for the moment, rumours abound. On the internet, in the wake of Cardinal O'Brien's resignation, I have come across claims that the Church in one Scottish city is dominated by a homosexual mafia, and that a senior (named) cleric is a 'friend of Dorothy'. Are these true? Who knows? I certainly don't. But any solution to problems in the Scottish Church depends on a clear diagnosis of what those problems are. (One obvious problem is a reduction in the number of priests in the not too distant future and the consequent need for some re-organization as a result.) Until that happens -and of course, diagnosing problems in a large and complex organization such as the Church is rarely as straightforward and clearcut as diagnosing measles- solutions free float in search of a problem to solve.

Frankly, I don't quite know what conclusion to come to myself. Is there a crisis in the Church as a whole or even within just the Scottish Church? Or are there just lots of little difficulties which need lots of little improvements? (So better administration in the Vatican, better catechesis etc. But none of this done with the expectation that it will solve the big crisis, because there isn't one.) On the other hand, if there is a big crisis in the Church, the only plausible one is that of secularization, and nothing that (say) the Tabletista wing is suggesting could remotely deal with that. For what it's worth, I lean to the 'no crisis, but let's just make things better in a piecemeal way' school of thought. But for those who disagree with me, I'd like to see a clearer diagnosis of what they think the crisis is, why their solution will solve it, and how that solution is related to the overall issue of secularization.


  1. This is an incredibly good post - and the Tabletistas are part of the seculrisation problem, I suspect.

  2. Lazarus,
    You might like 'The Sense of the Supernatural' by Jean Borella (T&T Clark 1998) which follows the theological line of Henri de Lubac and John Henry Newman. Borella offers a clear diagnosis of the crisis in the Church today and proposes a solution. A paraphrase of his thesis would fail to do it justice. I'd encourage you to read it for yourself (unfortunately it is out of print and existing copies are like gold dust, but I've heard that there is an electronic version on

    1. Thanks for the recommendation. He's not a writer I'm familiar with, but there's seems to be a useful website (in French) which collects many shorter pieces by him, including an interview which covers his general view:

      As I say, I don't know enough really to pass comment. But to the extent that he seems to emphasize Plato at the expense of Aristotle, and urges a ressourcement to the 'original' Aquinas rather than the 'distortions' of later Thomists, I'm a bit suspicious! (Although that may simply be my ignorance.) Caveat lector.

  3. Interesting post, thank you. I agree with you, the Catholic Church in Scotland is in disarray, but there is no crisis. Why should there be, the Church was founded by Christ, and it is Christ and His teachings that faithful Catholics follow. One man's weakness and temporary fall from grace does not signal the demise of the Church in Scotland. The prophets of doom seem singularly lacking in faith!