Empty Pews: the Challengeof a Post-Christian world
A reader brought up a very interesting factor that complicates the tension significantly and to which I need to give serious consideration. According to this reader the Council attempted to consolidate its theological positions and move beyond the modernist crisis that had challenged it in the late 19th and early 20th century. You may recall that I had written that Leo XIII endorsed the Neo-Scholastic philosophical and theological systems because they seemed at the time to provide the best answers to the challenges of “modernism.” Modernist thinkers took a rational and scientific critique of religious doctrines and even of the Bible itself, often looking at the Biblical texts and the historic dogmas of the Christian faith in the context of their historical development and not considering any supernatural influence of “Revelation.” This method was responsible for the emergence of liberal Protestantism which Catholics usually looked on as vulnerable to a certain theological softness on the key issues of our faith. In fact it was the proponents of the Nouvelle Theologie who believed and demonstrated that a return to the Biblical and Patristic fundamentals, rooted in a rigorous scholarly and historical analysis, provided the best defense against modernism. Neo-Scholastic thought proved to be too much an intellectual closed circuit to answer credibly the modernist objections to historic Christianity and it was for this reason that the Church began under Pius XII to move away from Neo-Scholasticism and embrace the theological insights of the Patristic and Biblical Scholars. By the time the bishops gathered under John XXIII for the Second Vatican Council, the Neo-Scholastic faction would lose out to the Neo-Patristic figures such as Congar, Daniélou, von Balthasar, de Lubac and others. (It should be noted that the young Josef Ratzinger was a junior member of this set.) Let me say at this time that there were brilliant Neo-Scholastics, or more precisely neo-Thomists, who had influence at the Council especially Étienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain and the Council was not a rout of the Neo-Scholastics but rather a retreat from Neo-Scholasticism into a more historical use of the Ancient Christian Fathers to reshape the doctrines of the faith in a way consistent with the Church before the Schism of 1054 which divided Eastern and Western Christianity. The Eastern half of the Church had always retained the Fathers as the basis of theological discussion and this conciliar turn of methodologies opened up the common language for dialogue.
But to the point that my Anonymous reader made, the battles that empowered the Church to move beyond the modernist crisis were too little and too late. Modernism is long past and we are confronted with the Postmodern. I look around in Church on Sunday morning, and the millenials are conspicuous by their absence. Five hundred people at Mass and probably less than a dozen between the ages of 20 and 30. Yeah, yeah, I know—previous generations were light on Mass attendance at this age but came back when they had kids. But this has a different feel to it. The parish I go to: a thousand families. One wedding on the books for 2015. 35 baptisms in 2014 as opposed to 64 funerals. This is not an aging community; the public schools are filled to overflowing and the names are Italian and Irish and Polish. Where are they??? And speaking of Irish and Polish and Italian: I read the Death Notices in the local paper religiously. Why is there a “celebration of her life” for Deirdre O’Connell at the Harp and Bard and not as Mass at Saint Mary’s? And the corresponding question goes too for Rafaela Esposito and Stan Mikulski. Hey, these folks were Mass goers. Their spouses who pre-deceased them had a Church funeral. But their kids—they are in this new generation that is suspicious of organized religion or, at least, indifferent to it. So indifferent to it that they can’t even face a funeral Mass for a parent who was a practicing Catholic. What is the problem that we need to address?
When Pope John Paul died I was living in Rome and was hired by several news outlets as a technical advisor, and in some cases as a commentator. Four million people came to Rome for the funeral. 85% of them were under 35. I went up and down the Via della Conciliazione with a microphone and a cameraman. “Why did you come to Rome?” Person after Person: “he was my Pope.” “I loved him.” “He made me proud to be a Catholic.” “Looking at him was like seeing God.” Ok. “Do you agree with him about birth control?” “No, of course not.” “Do you agree with him about homosexuality?” “No, of course not.” “Do you agree with him about sex outside of marriage?” “He said something about sex outside of marriage?” . “Do you agree with him about in vitro fertilization?” “No.” “Do you agree that women cannot be priests?” “Of course not.”
The only area where there was large agreement—though not total consensus, was abortion. To be very frank, I think if most Catholics, at least Catholics in the developed world, understood Francis’ entire outlook, he would not be nearly as popular as he is. Like it or not, we live in an age in which people are not interested in theological points and in which they want to make their own decisions based on their own—and I dread to say it—feelings. We are in a time of great subjectivity where people make all sorts of decisions with a minimum amount of research or thinking things through. And in this world, despite the charm and popularity of a Pope Francis, people are not going to find the experience of Church, of regular worship in a normal parish community, in any way significant.
I need more input and I need more reflection before I can say much more about this situation but I think my reader is dead right on to something. I like the Neo-Patristic approach to Church that is written in the Decrees of Vatican II, but then I am of considerable years and see the world differently than most of the people among whom I live and work. This much though I think I do know. Pope Francis has not changed much in terms of rules or doctrines but that is not the interest of the 20 and 30 somethings. He has made some remarkable progress in changing the perception of the Church from a rigid and doctrinaire institution to a bunch of people who are open, inquisitive, and respectful of differences. That may not be the long-term answer, and it is not bringing people back into the pews, but in the short term it is staunching the growing alienation many people had been feeling from the Church of their youth. I don’t know that Pope Francis can turn things around, but the course we were on was only headed for greater disasters.The Neo-Scholastic Church is predicated on the predominance of a Christian culture to which there is a universal, or all but universal, consensus. It has a certain number of unchallenged first principles which must be accepted if it is to serve as the foundation for the theological constructs of a Christian world. There was a predominant Christian culture at the time of Saint Thomas. Though its unity was shaken by the Reformations of the 16th century there was still a Christian culture that defined Western Civilization until the Enlightenment. In fact, this Christian culture remained—or at least its illusion remained—right up through Dwight Eisenhower and Leave It To Beaver. In the last fifty years we have seen our Christian society become a post-Christian society. In this post-modern age in which we live there are a plethora of answers to every question; an excess of values for every decision. Somehow Christendom vanished. We are back at step one. The challenge is a New Evangelization. I think our Catholic heritage, both in its Neo-Scholastic and Neo-Patristic expressions, has much to contribute to the discussions of today’s world. I think that the Christian Gospel has the Truth and has it more completely than any other system of belief including the non-belief of atheism. But like Paul on the Areopagus, we will have to argue the Message convincingly to our contemporary world. And we will have to do it in contemporary language and with contemporary argument.