Wanted: A Vibrant, Living Christianity by Gene Ciarlo

“The only real proof that the state has disappeared is that people stop acting as if it exists.” So writes Jonah Goldberg in Suicide of the West. My thesis for this piece begins to reveal itself when you substitute “religion” for “state” in the first line of that quote.

The vast throng of citizens revolting against the government in Myanmar is trying desperately to prove that the military junta that has seized power there does not lawfully exist. They do this by acting as if it has no control over them, which means revolt and rebellion—not with firepower, but with sheer numbers of people who no longer recognize the military takeover as legitimate. It is the power of powerlessness demonstrated by popular anarchy and chaos.

It cannot go on forever. Either the rebels succeed or the military forcibly imposes its authoritarian rule through death and destruction. In order for a social body to exist and carry out its mission there must be order which is established by an affirming and willing corporate body as well as a philosophy and sociology of organization with statutes and ordinances to put the theory into practice.

The same prerequisites for order and strength can be said about religious institutions and, more specifically, the Catholic Church. There are rules of conduct as well as dogmatic teachings, a philosophy and theology of life that must be accepted and observed for the sake of order. If they are not accepted and observed by a willing community, not only will there be dysfunction, but the society will gradually disintegrate. People will stop acting as if the church exists.

There is a vast difference, however, between church and state. In the matter of religion, namely in the Catholic Church, ignoring the rules does not mean retribution and even death, since the time of the Inquisition is over and done with forever. The church doesn’t have that kind of power anymore. Now it is a moral authority, a moral power, if you will. There is no bloodshed when moral authority is flouted. The result is a quiet disregard, a silent ignoring-to-death.

The question is, does the moral authority of the church in the so-called Christian West still exist, or are we living in an age of moral subjectivism and the ignoring of Judeo-Christian principles and values? Is religion failing in one of its primary tasks, to set standards for moral living over the whole of humanity?  

The institution of the church can and will disintegrate into a hollow shell if it no longer speaks and lives with moral authority, or any other kind of authority, that will retain people as active participants in its beliefs and practices. If people don’t commit themselves to following the rules of an institution, after a while, in silence and stealth, there no longer is a body of belonging. Sociologically speaking, it self-destructs. To organize is to put order into something. All organizations have a mission statement, a reason for being, engaging a corpus of faithful believers who observe essential precepts for the sake of the organization’s sound functioning as well as to ensure and promote its continuance.  

I believe that religion all over the Western world, which is primarily Christian, is falling apart. I get this impression because a great many people, statistically speaking, no longer acknowledge nor consciously observe the lifestyle, beliefs, and practices necessary for the sake of order, permanency, and, hopefully, growth. They can no longer say, nor do they wish to say, “I belong.” The baptized members of the Body of Christ may not consciously and intentionally flout the rules; they simply act as if they no longer belong. They scoff at what once were the structures and norms for living a moral and spiritual life. It is an age of moral subjectivism. Society and the body politic make the rules in our secular society, and the crowds, baptized Christians or not, are just swept along in the tide.  

As just one example, take the sacrament of reconciliation, more commonly known as confession. At one time in the history of the Catholic Church, this was perhaps the most popular sacrament. People feared sin and damnation. The singular power that the church had to keep people faithful was to instill in them a modicum of fear, the fear of divine retribution. That power today hardly exists, and so neither does the popularity of the sacrament.

We humans, generally speaking in this 21st century, are so convinced of our invincibility, our progress, our ability to do anything that we set out to achieve, that religion and matters of the spirit are relegated to the museum of the archaic, obsolete, outmoded. Today science and technology have answers to the questions that, at one time, only religion could respond to.  

Human ingenuity, our can-do spirit, is the new religion. The Enlightenment had its day in the sun; the Romantic period brought an awareness of our human dignity and a loftiness to the human condition, but it too transitioned into realism in art, literature, and politics. Under the guise of moral righteousness, the secular state began and continues to serve its own interests. Religion is seen as quaint. It was nice; it kept people in line. Now the secular state posits that it can do as much for the progress and development and even the moral rectitude of humankind. God, if God at all exists, is faceless, mysterious, remote, and out of touch with humankind and what we might still refer to as creation. That is deism at its best, alive and well in the 21st century.

How different is life in the world today, with the growing sophistication of humankind that gives the lie to what once was reasonable and proper: acquiescing to near total dependence upon the power of the Almighty. Our social and cultural climate today is instead almost entirely dependent on our own ability to use the earth and all that it contains to mold our future. We have become, for all intents and purposes, exclusively reliant upon ourselves to recreate the world in our image and likeness. That is the crux of the matter. We can manage this life, and we have conceded that with or without God we are not going to be spared its pains. We have chosen to power through life with all of its joys and sorrows, rightfully independent of a father-figure God.

As a result of a secular and earthbound sense of right and wrong, good and evil, the number of Catholics who profess and live with fidelity and devotion to their religion and its principles has declined considerably over the past 20 years. The statistics say that there are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world today. But what does that number really mean? Practically speaking, churches are closing almost on a daily basis. There are too few Catholics attending worship on a regular basis to keep so many churches functioning, and too few men (for we are still a patriarchal society) being ordained to the priesthood to serve their needs. The pandemic that began last year has only exacerbated the situation.

National conferences of bishops, particularly in the United States, seem to carry on as if everything is just as it was 50 years ago when the church was in its heyday. A sense of urgency is missing. The Vatican, with its numerous offices and dicasteries, takes an apparently laissez-faire attitude, attempting to function as it did in the 1960s and the glory days of the church. If there are changes made over the years, they are simply cosmetic and hardly transformational. The grand cathedrals and churches of Europe are largely museums, and those who go in to visit are either there as tourists to admire and wonder at the glory of the past or nostalgists who are saddened as they remember and reminisce about what used to be.

In other words, it may safely be concluded that humankind has outgrown religion. Yuval Noah Harari, an historian and professor who has written several popular books, dismisses religion in just a few words. It is, he says, “a collection of stories we tell ourselves.”

But look at the “stories” that we are throwing away. Have we forgotten that Christianity, above all, kept people together with a common purpose and goal for centuries and was the force behind our modern civilization? Religion created order. Religion helped people to live a moral life in harmony with creation. Religion was the backbone of society. Roman Catholicism dominated the European scene for hundreds of years to create a vibrant culture that is still with us. Cast aside, we, the faithful remnant, complain and wring our hands. But as we complain we still remain, weak but not defeated. Must we live only in nostalgia?

Here is what noted physicist, confessed atheist, and author of a recent bestseller Until the End of Time, Brian Green, says about religion, extolling its value:

There’s a tendency, certainly among some scientists I know, to judge religion by whether or not it gives us factual information about an objective reality. That’s not the right yardstick. There are many others who recognize that the value of religion is found in its capacity to provide a sense of community, to allow us to see our lives within a larger contest, to connect us through ritual to our forebears, to alleviate anxiety in the face of mortality, among other thoroughly subjective benefits. When I’m looking to understand myself as a human, and how I fit in to the long chain of human culture that reaches back thousands of years, religion is a deeply valuable part of that story.

I, a theist, could not have said it better. The days of Catholicism, Christianity, and other forms of religious expression are not over. It is not time to throw in the towel and give in to despair. “Hope springs eternal in the human heart,” wrote Alexander Pope in “An Essay on Man.”

How did we devolve into the situation in which we find ourselves? Apart from the evolving condition of humanity-in-the-world and our growing sophistication as the populators of planet earth, religious leadership has failed us. The authoritarian Roman Catholic Church has intentionally created a subservient and ill-informed body of faithful sheep. It was purposeful, lest a well-informed laity disturb the status quo and the infallible authority of the hierarchy. As a result, most of our people, not only Catholics but Christians in general, know very little about the deeper meaning of scripture, about the primacy of being disciples of Christ, about what is means to truly live a Christian life.

We, professed and confessed Christians, have become victims of a hierarchical structure that has left us in the shadows of truth and right living. In that sense we are also a part of the problem of the gradual erosion of religious faith in the world. Religion has the right and power to be in the vanguard of the moral conscience of our society, but in order to do that we need to grow up, change radically, to look like and be something that fits into the 21st century and beyond.

We have been blindsided by authority. We have allowed Christianity to border on obsolescence because of ignorance about our religion, our laissez-faire attitude, our concessions to the whims and prodding of the world. We are incapable of arguing our worth. In the not-too-distant past, the preparation for the sacrament of confirmation, the sign of Christian maturity, was wasted memorizing formulas in order to become “a soldier of Jesus Christ.” These were meaningless formulas, more comparable to brainwashing than commitment to the spirit and message of the Christ.

For centuries, the church has been a socio-cultural phenomenon more than anything else, more inclined to control believers by offering them the promise of eternal bliss with God and the saints if only its faithful souls profess total dedication to its norms and principles. We have come to be satisfied with a maudlin, superficial piety. What can we do about this simple, uninformed, immature, and childlike piety that permeates our Catholic faithful? How can we shape the raw material for a new spirit and a revival of Christianity that is instrumental and influential in the world?

We must emphasize that these issues are not the fault of the people themselves. The Christian churches intentionally established a parent-child relationship between hierarchy and laity that most people today are not willing to accept. The hierarchy will argue that this approach was not wrong at the time, in a poorly educated society; considering the circumstances, it may have been appropriate to have a more authoritarian form of leadership. God was made to play the part of a port in a storm rather than a lifegiving source to whom, in gratitude, we owe our life, sustenance, and future.

The fact remains in our day and age that the religions of the world and the people who embody those religions are the only hope for a cohesive, universal morality, as Brian Green confesses in his paean to religion. A secular morality that we devise by simply trusting in the goodness of our human nature is not enough to keep the human family from spinning out of control toward self-destruction. I believe that the ideals of Christianity, and more specifically the Catholic Church, can be in the vanguard of setting standards and principles for good living that will insure mutual support, peace, and harmony among all peoples of the earth.

I would like to see the Catholic Church rid itself of excess baggage that projects to the world hollow, archaic structures characterized by clerical pomp, complex bureaucracy, and infallible, God-given dogmas as channels to the reign of God. Imagine if suddenly Pope Francis should appear in a black clerical suit with a Roman collar. Even that small sign would be a major step forward. Now imagine if he should one day appear in a suit and tie. Imagine if he should announce to all religious houses throughout the world that they might consider moving in among the people and living the lives that those people live. Imagine the impact that such radical moves would make to destroy the distance between those in authority in the church and those who have been the humble subjects of authority for centuries. It would be a desperate move on the part of a church that is desperate to be meaningful and to alter its perception in a world that considers it to be a quaint reminder of the past, an institution that is no longer capable of setting moral norms for society in general. What a witness to Jesus and his teaching that would be.

It is Jesus who is the exemplar of what a Christian religion should be all about. We have to admit that the dogmas and doctrines of the church were right, good, and true, and served their purpose for a certain day and age. But they are dated. What is timeless because it is human is the life and spirit of Jesus, the Christ, his message and his style of life. We can be proud and unabashed that we have not wasted our efforts over these many centuries, that the church of the past brought us to where we are today. But it has served its purpose. Now we need to go back, with a renewed awareness and a deeper, richer historical consciousness, to the basic message of Jesus in the testament that has been left to us. It is timeless.

Gene Ciarlo is a priest no longer active in the ministry. Ordained from the American College, University of Louvain, Belgium, he spent most of his ministry in parish life. After receiving a master’s degree in liturgical studies from Notre Dame University he returned to his alma mater in Louvain as director of liturgy and homiletics. Gene lives in Vermont, where everything is gracefully green when it is not solemnly white. 

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