A version of this piece was originally published as “An Updated Assessment of the State of the Church” in the May 2012 edition of Today’s American Catholic. It has been revised and expanded by the author—Ed.
When I consider the church today, I think of the parable of the mustard seed “which is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it grows up, it becomes a tree in which the birds of the air build their nests.” I think of the church as being the pusillus grex, a “little flock,” which becomes a welcoming sign of God’s forgiving presence in the midst of a diverse and dangerous world. I think of the church in relative rather than absolute terms; that is, a community of equal disciples, none of whom is God. I think of the church as a place wherein anyone bearing the marks of a finite, limited, and mortal humanity can find kindred spirits and feel at home. In all, I think of the church as a creation of God that is profoundly vital and influential within the world when it lives and acts as a nonviolent sign of contradiction to the many inhumanities and injustices around it and within it.
The mission of the church is not to dominate or even attempt to “convert” others by will or force or fear. Its primary mission is to be an example, a “sign” of the kingdom of God, but not the kingdom. Its mission is to commit itself, not others, to live the values of the gospel and not be become overly attached to the results or outcomes of that commitment. That part of the church’s mission needs to be left to the providential designs of God, whose ways are above our ways as far as the heavens are above the earth.
In this respect, then, I believe the church needs to learn how to be less anxious and more humble in its efforts to bring the good news of God’s affection for humanity to a world hungering for “an encouraging word.” The church needs to learn how to let be and how to let go in its relationships with the “others” who do not share its own beliefs and convictions. The church was never intended to be a theocracy. It was never intended to be a Christendom. It was never intended to dominate other cultures alien to its own. Rather, it was called to be a light shining in the darkness of alienating and dehumanizing forces. It was, to put it simply, intended to be like its founder as it goes about its business of proclaiming the gospel of forgiveness and peace.
The church is being compelled to reassess the manner in which it speaks and acts and relates to a bewildering and bewildered world. It is time for the church to recognize that “human spirituality does not mean access to another world but a new intimacy with this one,” and that “in this human life everything is involved, including God” (Robert Johann, Building the Human).
The church in the 21st century continues to suffer from a schizophrenic vision of life that splits the hearts and souls of the members in two. It advocates a way of life that never quite satisfies the longings of its faithful for a sense of wholeness and integration. It continues to speak of the flesh warring against the spirit and the spirit warring against the flesh. It holds up as an ideal a kind of commitment to living a “half life” which can embrace with enthusiasm neither the longings of the human heart nor the depths of the soul.
It is dangerous to ask people to live a half life. Such a vision dishonors its creator who repeatedly declared his creation to be good, and man and woman to be very good. For too long—centuries, in fact—the message of the church has proclaimed human bodily life as a kind of “springboard for the spirit to get off the ground somewhere between space and time, where we really belong,” in Robert Johann’s words. Such a two-tiered model of humanity represents a terrible distortion and contradiction to a religion whose core belief claims that “the Word became flesh,” and that its founder is God incarnate, Emmanuel.
To embrace this profoundly incarnational view of life will require a major conversion, a metanoia, within the heart of the church and the message it proclaims. This change of heart will revolutionize the way the church sees itself and its mission in the world. It will necessitate that the church change its style and manner of thinking and acting and the way in which it presents itself to its own membership and to an ever more complex and pluralistic society. This conversion will be a painful process: much of it will involve a divestment of numerous manmade traditions while deepening a commitment to the church’s ever ancient, ever new, living, capital-T Tradition.
In 2012, it was reported that Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia ordered aides to shred a 1994 memo that identified 35 priests suspected of sexually abusing children. A feature on the evening news showed pictures of the cardinal, who was then recently deceased. He was an elderly, stern-looking man dressed in a chasuble, carrying his crozier and wearing his bishop’s mitre. I remember thinking that the cardinal did not look like a very happy man. In fact, my impression was that he appeared to be rather dour, almost angry.
The whole scene and story began to symbolize to me a church whose ecclesiastical leadership had very little, if any, real connection to the daily lives and struggles of its own people, not to mention the wider population of the community at large. The cardinal struck me as a man from a former age, one that had been surpassed. In fairness to him, he also struck me as a man who had spent much of his life being loyal to the mandate of his office: to uphold with strictness and conviction the teachings of the church as he understood them.
Even apart from the alleged destruction of potentially damaging evidence of clerical pedophilia, there was something very troubling about this story. Its imagery graphically conveyed a division between the world of the clergy and the world of the laity. The cardinal’s regal garments reminded me of other scenes of bishops and clergy gathered for religious celebrations. Tim Unsworth, former writer at the National Catholic Reporter, used to refer to these kinds of gatherings as “the guys in the pointy hats” or “the long gray line.”
These kinds of scenes point to a major problem hindering the church of the 21st century, and that is clerical culture. Until that culture, so deeply instilled in the church’s psyche, is exorcized from the minds and hearts of both clergy and laity alike, the health of the church’s future will remain in jeopardy. Somehow or other this great divide between priest and parishioner must yield to a different culture, one of communion and solidarity that consciously recognizes the common bond that exists among all of its members, a covenant that does not allow for a hierarchy of holiness or a division and separation of life into higher and lower orders of humanity. I might offer the following recommendations as ways to begin to formulate this new culture and create flourishing parishes throughout the country:
- Pastors should be comfortable having genuine conversations with their parishioners
- Pastors should invite their parishioners’ opinions regarding parish needs
- Active and engaged parish councils should speak honestly and respectfully about their concerns
- Pastors should produce thoughtful homilies that address and challenge the experiences of the congregation
- Parishes should strive to create rich musical programs that involve congregational singing
- Pastors and parishioners alike should cultivate a welcoming, inclusive spirit
- Churches should develop a liturgy that conveys the sense of God’s presence within the whole community
The tie that binds the members of the church together and empowers them to offer fitting worship to God is their common baptism to the risen body of Christ. It is this baptism that is the wellspring of all else the church is and does. When we begin to realize this in our hearts and minds and souls, the church will start to make a lot more sense—to thrive, even, and to become the effective sign of God’s saving and forgiving presence for a troubled humanity that it is called to be.
Ed Burns is a licensed marital and family therapist living in Litchfield, Connecticut, where he maintains a private practice treating individuals, couples, and families.