BEFORE READING WHAT follows you would do well to listen first to that to which I am responding, namely Damian Thompson’s Spectator podcast, Holy Smoke. You can find it through your podcast apps or go to the online version here. It is about 38 minutes in length. He is joined by the ex-Anglican cleric Gavin Ashenden, and they reflect on both the Catholic Church and Anglican and other Protestant denominations. A number of interesting points are raised about the crisis in the Church precipitated by Covid. It is provocative, and not just of thoughts, and it merits an attentive hearing.
That word crisis figures early on in the podcast. In general English usage it tends to mean a moment of heightened tension or instability, the climax of a dramatic episode, a turning point. Ashenden rightly points out that the Greek word from which we take our word, κρίσις, has additional, and perhaps primary, meaning in Greek: not just a turning point, but a moment of judgment and decision. So coronamania represents a moment of crisis for the Church in that it represents a turning point, a moment when judgments must be made, and also the active decisions that flow from those judgments. Thompson’s opening declaration that this moment of crisis and the response of the bishops to it made him feel that “it’s all over” is a useful reminder that there is something apocalyptic about this crisis, again in the sense of the Greek origin of that word, ἀποκάλυψις, an uncovering or revelation. For Thompson their response to the Covid crisis reveals something about the bishops, both Catholic and Anglican. In fact, it reveals something about contemporary Christianity in general.
The discussion Thompson and Ashenden have on the response of the bishops, as a body more than as individuals, is just such a provocative moment, whether you agree or not with them. Their claim is that the crisis has exposed the episcopal corps to be little more than an arm of the state, either in fact (Anglicans) or in aspiration (Catholics). Thompson’s most powerful argument for this, which he has outlined in earlier podcasts, is that the bishops’ conference asked the government to close the churches; the government’s original intention was not to close churches completely. Moreover, it is hard to deny that both Anglican and Catholic bishops have manifested remarkable agreement in accommodating the closure of our churches, and now the continuing restrictions on their functioning. It reflects the reduction of our churches to community centres rather than houses of God in which we offer the worship which is our duty and receive the sacraments that bring us God’s saving grace. To adopt a cliché, we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
Thompson out this down, in part and on one level, to an excessive zeal for the health and safety culture. It is, he feels, as if the bishops have become administrators and enforcers of a secular, material priority above and beyond their fundamental priority, the salvation of souls. There is no denying that there is an almost hysterical concern for physical health. Thompson strongly implies that this far exceeds any concern for saving the souls of men and women for eternal life, and instead their focus is on this life, in its physical dimension. On that analysis, it certainly would seem that the Catholic bishops seem to be competing with the bishops of the state church to please both the government and the media.
There is indeed a phenomenon, which perhaps came to full force under Cardinal Hume, of the Catholic Church in England, not least in its hierarchy, whereby it seeks to be accepted back into the Establishment. Having been for so long a persecuted minority in post-Reformation Britain, it is as if Catholics had an urgent need in the second half of last century to belong, to fit in, to be accepted as as British as the Protestants. It is a version of Australia’s Cultural Cringe, which was the obsession of Australians to know what the rest of the civilised world, especially Britain, thought of them; to be accepted as a member by the civilised world, on its terms; to devalue and dismantle its own cultural heritage in order to embrace that of the world of which we were desperate to be accepted as a part.
There is in Britain, especially England, a Catholic Cultural Cringe.
However this desire to fit in to contemporary society, no longer to be outsiders or fringe-dwellers, has more than just socio-historical roots. Ashenden identifies another cause. It is the palpable loss of supernatural faith among so many Christians, including (especially?) clergy. Clerical abuse is a case in point: how could so many clergy have abused children and vulnerable adults, and the bishops and ecclesiastical bureaucracy often do so little to deal with it, if they had a lively faith in God, the supernatural, divine judgment and the real possibility of eternal damnation? If one were to argue that they do have supernatural faith, but other factors and weaknesses undermine their ability to deal with the crisis honestly and fruitfully in both secular and spiritual terms, then the only reasonable alternative view is that we have a majority of clergy who are unfit for service in the apostolic, ordained ministry. It is not a reassuring alternative, though perhaps it would be more easily remedied.
However, a rational analysis of the Church in recent decades would reveal that indeed supernatural faith has been withering on the vine, under-nourished by those whose ministry is precisely to nourish it. The evidence may seem largely anecdotal but it is no less true for that. How often do you hear judgment, and hell, in Catholic preaching or teaching? How often is heroic courage in matters of morality, especially those issues to do with life and sexuality, advocated as a Christian duty? Does the celebration of Mass reflect a real and lively faith in Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist? Does the manner of receiving Communion reflect a clear and conscious faith that is Christ himself being received?
It is very easy to focus on the liturgy wars as a cause of the current malaise in the Church. Really, they are a symptom of a deeper and more disturbing problem: the reduction of the Church to a merely earthly community, a social construct that must adapt to, and reflect, the society in which it finds itself. It is a bitter irony that while we are tripping over ourselves to please secular society, Catholics in China are resisting, with little help from Catholics elsewhere, the imposition of socio-political conformity on them by the Chinese government. The government does not need to do it here; we will gladly submit to the state on the flimsiest of pretexts.
Not that it is all about the state. Ashenden and Thompson raise the fallacy modern claim by socially-focused Christians that they must speak the truth to power. In practice it is largely the speaking of secular truths to an emasculated government. The real power lies not with politicians. They too bow before a greater power, that of the media and the mob it serves, what we might call the Twittersphere. If a word is inaptly used, even in manifest innocence of intent, the Twitterstorm that ensues is enough to bring down the career of the mis-speaker. And the Church is desperate not to be the target of the Twittermob, not even on fundamental truths such as the sanctity of life and the right living out of our sexuality. Everyone is allowed their own “truth,” except the Church which must shut up about the Truth. We are so used to keeping silence on the Truth that we are beginning to forget its existence.
Thompson raises the possibility that what is needed is an underground Church, underground not in the sense of secret or hidden, but which exists largely outside the direct control of bishops and the ecclesiastical bureaucracy. He posits a type of Catholic congregationalism, which would stand aloof from the institutional Church in order to save the Faith. Ashenden resists that conclusion to some degree, reminding us of Christian history, and its previous moments of…crisis. At those times individuals and small groups arose in response to the crisis, professing and living a more radical, faithful and fruitful expression of the Faith and its truths, not standing aloof from the Church but remaining squarely within it. St Benedict is an example; so is St Ignatius.
In other words, when the going gets tough, the tough get going—not going away from the Church, but going to work within Her to make her truer to Herself. This is the mark of authentic Christian reform. It always is focused on God, not man.
Perhaps all this explains my aversion to the modern description of the Church as “the people of God.” The focus is all wrong. The Church does not begin with people, but with Christ calling people to Himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life, and the supreme principle by which we direct our living. When we define the Church first in horizontal terms, we end up with ourselves as the measure of our activity, and reduce the Church to the NGO that Pope Francis warned us not to be. When we define the Church first in vertical terms, our upward call in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:14), then God becomes the measure of our activity, and we see society, governments and all the human constructs of our existence not as things to conform to, but the creatures of a fallen world in need of the redemption only Christ can give.
What we need is not congregationalism but a radically Christian individualism anchored in the Church but seeing the self as the first battleground in the campaign to answer the universal call to holiness.
We must know our faith, and then we must live it.
Anyway, do listen to the podcast. It provokes the sort of critical thinking of which we need much, much more.