My friend George Weigel has written a prescient article over at First Things predicting a bad year for Catholics.
With those sobering but consoling thoughts in mind, I offer a few speculations about 2019, by way of cautions about the rough waters ahead.
There will be further revelations of clerical sexual abuse from decades ago, and the false narrative that there is a rape culture in the Catholic Church today will be reinforced.
More awful details about the behavior of Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington, will come to light.
At least one U.S. bishop, and possibly several, will resign after revelations of malfeasance and worse in handling reports of sexually abusive clergy under their authority.
Rome and certain sectors of the American Church will continue to ignore or misinterpret empirical evidence about the exceptionally high percentage of adolescent boys and young men who have been victims of clerical sexual abuse.
The February meeting in Rome to discuss the abuse crisis in a global context will disappoint many U.S. Catholics, who mistakenly imagined that it would produce a global plan for reform.
Too many senior officials of the Roman Curia will continue to insist that the U.S. reaction to clerical sexual abuse and episcopal malfeasance is exaggerated, media-driven, and somehow “Protestant.”
He continues is a similarly pessimistic tone about the China deal, poor George Pell in Australia, corruption in the Vatican etc. etc. I can’t disagree with any of his assessments, and it does look like bigger and darker storm clouds are on the horizon, but there is cause for great joy in all this.
Here’s why: The vine is being pruned.
People are waking up and realizing that being a Catholic is more of a roller coaster ride than a walk in the park.
Catholics are hearing those words of Jesus Christ about the world hating them as it hated him. They’re also looking at a church they trust and realizing that her leadership has betrayed them. Good. They shouldn’t have trusted the human institutions of the church quite so much. Love Christ’s body the Church with all your heart, but don’t idolize the structures and the men who run them.
Read church history (or listen to my podcast series Triumphs and Tragedies) and you’ll see that every 500 years the Holy Spirit takes the church into a time of reform, reduction and renewal, and when it does, hoo boy, get ready for the roller coaster ride.
After the first 500 years the Roman Empire crumbled and all was chaos. Then the Eastern Church split away. Then at the Protestant Revolution the whole church was torn apart. The riches, property and power were stripped away and the Catholic Church was left naked. Out of that came the Counter Reformation and a huge surge forward.
At this time in church history we are facing a similar upheaval, and let me tell you a couple of things that are definitely NOT the answer to the crisis.
- Turning back the clock. No. I’m sorry. The Latin Mass is not the answer. It may help bolster the faith of a few and it may contribute to a proper return to reverence in the liturgy and three cheers for that, but on its own a return to the Latin Mass is not going to do the trick.
- Clinging to property, power and wealth. The establishment will cling to all those old buildings, property and money like misers with their pennies. But all the wealth in the world will not bring renewal to the church. It will do the opposite. Throw the lumber overboard.
- Trendy media gimmicks for “the new evangelization” with smiling priests and razor sharp apologists will not solve the problem (especially if they are semi universalists.) Well funded media productions will only be band aid on cancer–making believers feel smug but winning few converts.
- Militant angry self righteous websites are not the answer. All the fiery Savonarolas will only feed people’s rage. More heat than light I’m afraid.
- Conferences, retreats and smart statements from bishops, archbishops and the Vatican Press Office will not solve the problem. When it comes to the sex abuse problem watch, for example, how they will continue to deflect and talk about “keeping our children safe” and “caring for the victims”. This is very nice, but its really skirting around the real problem: prosecuting theose guilty of the cover ups.
- Well funded programs by self chosen groups of “National Church Leaders”. Nah. That will just be another talking shop. They’ll gather at a hotel somewhere and hear speeches about what’s wrong with few ideas of what to do about it.
- Peace and Justice and Ecology and Gay Rights and Help the Immigrants and Save the Whales and Build More Schools and whatever else good causes you can think of. All that–like the other good works are just that: Good Works.
The answer is what it has always been: the fearless proclamation of the old, old story of a human race lost in the wilderness of selfishness and sin and the once for all sacrifice of God’s Son for the world’s redemption. No more. No less. It is the preaching of Christ and him crucified and the powerful re-presentation of that sacrifice on the altar of millions of ordinary churches.
The reason I’m facing 2019 as a joyful Catholic priest is because I can see all the good things God is doing at the local level. Ordinary Catholics love their faith and live their faith right here where I am. They pray for one another and support the needy. They participate in traditional worship with their large families. They turn up. The get involved in the food pantry, the pro life cause, the school, the youth work, the choir and the fellowship groups. They express their anger about the problems in the church, but then they roll up their sleeves and get on with being ordinary Catholic Christians alive in the world today.
Are there storm clouds on the 2019 horizon? Is it going to be a rocky road for the Catholic Church this year?
So what? Bumps in the road wake up lazy travelers. Turbulence makes the folks in the airplane nervous and gets them reaching for their rosaries.
So buckle up. The roller coaster’s climbing the first hill.
“The vine is being pruned” will be my watch-phrase for the year. Your article has helped me begin 2019 on a more optimistic note. I’ll just cinch my seatbelt a bit tighter during the turbulence (and pull out the rosary) because I am confident we’ll land just fine.