In the last commentary, Brian Coyne ended by suggesting there are three principal tools in communication that someone needs to be aware of if a message is to be successfully transmitted. He begins today with a re-capitulation of those principles before exploring where we (the institution is presently falling short) before concluding with some thoughts on the future character of the Church.
The Three Principal Tools of communication...
There are three principal tools any communicator or salesperson needs to employ to "get their message across" or "close a sale". They are:
To take this back to more churchy language:
Before moving on to explore how these principles might be implemented to create a more responsive Church of the future, it is worth pausing briefly to examine where the present structure seems to be failing in its communications when measured against these principles.
Where we are presently failing...
I would suggest there are failings in all three domains that help explain why such a massive proportion of the baptised have become disenchanted across the face of the Western world. I would argue though the greatest failure at present stems from a failure in the first domain. A powerful minority has risen to a position of influence where they effectively dictate to all what are the acceptable emotional tools one is allowed to use liturgically to worship and communicate the "good news" of Jesus Christ. They sincerely seem to believe they know God's will in these matters and unless others conform to the rules they lay down as to how liturgy is celebrated they will kick up a storm of protest. The end result has been these "thought police" and "temple police" forever running around reporting priests and communities to bishops, archbishops and the Vatican. The end result is that everybody has become afraid to do or say anything that might upset this small minority — even at the cost of watching the vast majority of the congregation disappear out the door. Woe betide anyone who dares to cross the views of people who populate websites like Cooes from the Cloister as to what is considered to be "acceptable liturgical norms". You will be shamed — as they have been endeavouring to do to numerous parishes in diverse dioceses across Australia in recent weeks (See: this entry on their blog and the many similar for other dioceses).
Unfortunately this dictation by a small minority, which seems to start over issues of liturgical norms, spills over into the other two principles I have outlined above. Priests and teachers today are afraid to speak openly about what they really believe. Homilies have become pathetic and largely confined to areas of what might be dubbed "safe Catholic controversy" — you can always safely give a homily on abortion without upsetting the thought police. There are now a myriad of issues, which the population at large hunger for spiritual guidance about, which are simply "off the agenda" and pastoral, middle-of-the-road priests and bishops never go anywhere near for fear of upsetting the tiny minority who think they know the mind of God with indelible certitude.
While one can point to many places in schools, tertiary institutions and adult faith education and pastoral outreach programs where "good stuff is happening" — i.e. there are programs and liturgies which do attempt to speak in language accessible to the emotions and intellectual sensibilities of the vast majority — these largely have to be conducted "behind closed doors" and not "shouted from the rooftops" for fear of upsetting the "thought police". The vast majority of the population are not "dumb and stupid". They long ago figured out who gets support at the highest levels in the institution. They long ago figured out that it isn't them. They long ago figured out that while they can find private places to explore their spirituality in ways that are anathema to the "thought police" that out in the public church it is the minority who exclusively hold sway. That's why so manyhave given up. Today they are not even the beneficaries for a few "crumbs for table" that might quench their parched thirst for meaningful liturgies and faith education programs. In desperation they are increasingly turning now to what I have described as "secular liturgies" provided by governments, lottery commissions, the large corporate sports endeavours, the secular media and their community at large. The growth in sales of media exploring the broad subject of spirituality has been phenomenal in recent decades.
My experience now, after nearly a decade exploring the potentials of the internet as an instrument of social communication, is that the majority in society simply cannot have a reasonable, intelligent conversation with the minority. Their attitude is: "you've got to accept my point of view or there is nothing to discuss". I have little doubt that if Almighty God himself put in a personal appearance to them, they'd argue the toss with him about what is "liturgically correct" or how our deepest beliefs and spiritual aspirations have to be expressed.
A way forward...
As I have argued previously I am increasingly pessimistic of any prospects for a change of attitude at the very top. Those who control the institutional agenda today seem to sincerely believe they can re-evangelise the Church by programs that cater exclusively for the emotional and intellectual needs of a tiny minority in the population. They, like those they seem only capable of preaching to, sincerely believe they know God's mind better than God knows his own mind and not even the prospect of hell that they might be misguided is going to change their point of view. They literally will drag the institution into remnant status, even into hell, and when they get there they will still be arguing that they have exclusive access to "God's Truth" and "God's Mind". They couldn't give a toss about the needs, spiritual or otherwise, of anybody else on earth other than those who give them emotional comfort and intellectual certitude.
Some thoughts on the future character of our Church...
One would need to be a prophet to predict what is to happen. The reasonable prediction we can make based on the mounting statistical evidence is that within a generation or two the institution, in a nation like Australia, will simply be unable to provide a sufficient pool of priests to administer the Sacraments, provide spiritual guidance across large regions of this nation, and administer the parish physical infrastructure. A small remnant Church will remain in pockets. One of the big, presently unanswerable questions, is whether our governments and the taxpayers are going to allow them to dictate the agenda through the enormous educational, health care and social welfare infrastructure the institution presently administers on behalf of the population at large. I suspect the answer is "no" and we are already seeing signs that the ways in which taxpayer funds are handed out are changing to reflect the new realities. That can be expected to accelerate in the future. If the Church believes it is somehow insulated against the dreaded "market forces" that increasingly drive all side of modern politics all it has to do is "do nothing" to find out.
I do expect the remnant to grow, at least slightly, given the forces of economic, environmental and social uncertainty abroad in society at this point in time. That growth, in the bigger picture, will be marginal though. I think there will be a significant increase in the development of "secular liturgies" to fill the void vacated by institutional religion. The recent "National Day of Mourning" for the Victorian bushfire victims probably points the way. Rather tha government inviting the institutional religions to mount such events "on behalf of the nation" increasingly we'll see government mounting the initiatives "on behalf of the nation" and inviting the institutional religions, and many other community groups, to add their contribution.
Where I do remain optimistic and hopeful is that I sincerely believe in the Divine promise, given through Jesus Christ, that the Spirit would remain with us until "the end of time". Who is the promise extended to though: the Pope, the magisterium, the remnant or "the Body of Christ"? How this will manifest itself though is in the realms of guessing or prophecy. I simply am not game to predict much at this stage.
I do think what does emerge will have to pay heed to the principles of communication with which I began this commentary...
This commentary concludes this series.
What are your thoughts on this commentary?