Which of these two scenarios Dr Anthony Lowes has posed yesterday and today is going to be closer to the picture in another 50 years time? There is, of course, a possible third scenario and that is from some triumphant return of 19th Century Catholicism with its Index of Forbidden Books and 90% participation rates of the adult baptized. But we leave that out, don't we, because even the present pope doesn't see that as likely but instead predicts a "smaller, purer Church". What Tony Lowes presents today is the bleak, dystopian scenario of that "smaller, purer Church" increasingly unable even to provide for its long suffering clergy in their old age.
Attempting to read the future of the church...
Remember the movie "Sliding Doors"? The alternative courses of a couple's lives were traced from the pivotal moment when one of them arrives in time to enter the carriage of a train, in one scenario; in the second, it is too late—the sliding doors have already closed.
I came upon a 2006 issue of The Australian Magazine, in which attempts were made to foretell the quality of life that could very well be experienced in 2026. One of these attempts comprised two parallel columns: one headed Utopia, the other Dystopia. They focused upon projected alternative health scenarios for that year which would depend largely upon the pivotal events and decisions that would transpire in the then near future. After the manner of Sliding Doors.
I thought it might be worthwhile to attempt the same exercise in regard to the state of the church, the church as we might well experience it, not in the brief span of twenty years but perhaps, drawing a longer bow, to 2060. Much will depend upon events and decisions which transpire (or not) in the future which looms urgently before us.
This second, largely interior, dialogue takes place in a diocesan church office. It is a curiously fortress-like building with only open access to Reception. Beyond that, all doors and lifts are secured with impregnable electronically coded pads.
"Just what am I expected to do and how proceed?" Archbishop Delacroix, Australian to the core despite his French ancestry, stood in front of his Chancellor's desk, holding the most recent sociological survey of the church in Australia—one of the regular updates of the 2011 McKinnon Report. He threw it down dejectedly. And sat heavily on one of three chairs against the wall facing her.
"Bad news anticipated, now confirmed?" Dr Kristy Anne Curtin raised a quizzical eyebrow, coolly.
She felt for this good man whom she had witnessed so often caught been a rock and a hard place, an unyieldingly conservative papacy and curia and the wasteland of a decimated Archdiocese with only a skeleton staff of ordained clergy. (She almost mentally uttered the word 'skeletal' to herself as she pictured them, so frail and so few—the several who were filled with residual energy seemed to her to have little of the milk of human kindness, unyielding and inflexible ecclesiastical zealots, most from ultra-conservative institutes. In fact, what flitted through her mind were the lines from Yeats' 'Second Coming': The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity).
And there were the diminishing laity: some utterly dispirited, some angrily fractious and critical, some self-righteously and corrosively exclusive in their piety and belligerently dogmatic in their convictions (the last also belonging in the main to the aforesaid movements). Most however were simply wearily indifferent. And then there was the almost complete dearth of youth.
"Anticipated and confirmed," the Archbishop sighed. He lurched out of the chair favouring his right knee which was now quite arthritic, picked up the survey and limped back to his office.
Like a wounded animal padding to its lair, he mused sourly.
He had a cautious temperament, but he was a pastor and could see clearly that clinging in a sort of paralysis to the ways of the past through a craven and excessive backward-looking Christocentricity, instead of being open to the newness of the impelling Spirit, was the path to certain institutional death.
Perhaps it was a good thing that the church had silenced its vaunt about being a 'Great Church' and had embraced the concept of being a remnant in order to purify its faith and its raft of moral values. Perhaps it was virtuous to face the indifference and quicksilver relativity of the secular world and the 'gravely deficient' Christian communions and other faiths, with a bold challenge.
But deep in his soul there lay an unease which he found difficult to verbalise.
It could be the tone of the bishops' conference he attended several weeks earlier in which agendas were heavily vetted by Rome, where discussion was curtailed and lone voices expressing dissenting opinions were smothered by a baying, truculent majority.
There was also a curious ostracism inflicted silently and secretly on those who broke ranks, even for what they considered to be just pastoral reasons. Some who had in the earlier part of the century and in the previous century occupied archiepiscopal sees were transferred to Rome and oblivion, and some who were suffragan or coadjutor bishops were strangely overlooked and inevitably suffered no further-advancement.
Bishops as well as clergy were alike under siege. Precocious laity were only too conscious that complaints to the Apostolic Delegate were given ready credence in Rome, with censures forthcoming that were not able to be met transparently by a personal defence. He cringed inwardly at the memory of unjust process afforded bishops like the dismissed Bishop Morris who had died in the first year of his own ordination as bishop.
As far as theology was concerned, the climate was as dire as in the days of Pius X and the anti-Modernist witch-hunt. The schools of theology in capital cities other than Melbourne and Sydney had been closed. An edict had been issued from Rome to the effect that only those who had done post-graduate study in Rome could be admitted to academic tenure in seminaries and theological schools. Further, ecumenical theological establishments were summarily disbanded.
This rigour had been initiated towards the end of the slightly and surprisingly mitigating reign of Benedict XVI. Ironically, it had stirred the frustration of the conservative cardinals who had elected him with the expectation that he would further the unyielding papal stance of his Polish predecessor.
But they found that he temporised and had begun a slow reform of the curia with the appointment of what seemed to them, at least at first, personally loyal moderates. There had been quite unabashed curial manoeuvring, lobbying, pressuring, even a scandal of documents leaked to the press—aided, abetted and orchestrated to involve clandestine complaint from right wing institutes and communities, religious and lay.
Benedict's successor, Pius XIII, had distinguished himself as a cardinal in his uncompromising (though not successful) opposition to the secularist, socialist government in his own country. The Council that he called followed the carefully prepared agenda by the Curia to a tee; there was no throwing out of the prepared drafts and starting afresh, as in Vatican II.
By then, few visionary and authoritative theologians remained to serve as advisors to participating bishops. Pius' emphatic aim (a development of his predecessor's) was to restore a balance between the emphases of Vatican I and Vatican II, which was code for neutering many of the gains of the latter.
"What befell after Vatican II, though not the intention of the fathers of the council," he stressed in his opening address, "in the words of my sainted predecessor, was regrettably a theology and program of revolution rather than of continuity. Guided by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, who founded the holy Church in all her splendour, we must clutch to our breast as a sacred trust all the treasure that tradition has engendered over the centuries. We must build carefully and respectfully on the foundation of Jesus Christ and the Apostles."
Archbishop Delacroix was not a brilliant scholar and not a proud man, but he felt the pain of the shrinking church community deeply and was tempted to resent the cross, which in his heart of hearts, he felt that the pope, curia and council had inflicted upon God's people unnecessarily.
What harm would there have been in experimenting with an ordained clergy composed of married men as well as celibates? He remembered a tattered volume which he had found in his own predecessor's library written by a retired Australian bishop by the name of Heaps in which he observed that the vocation to celibacy and that to the priesthood were in fact two distinct vocations. Who could accuse those who had resigned from the priesthood of infidelity, who felt a strong call to serve the church through the priesthood, but found they did not have the charism of celibacy?
He remembered thinking, as he had read the book, that the situation in the Western church was the very reverse of the gospel adage: it was a case of many being chosen but few called.
Had Rome been less intransigent, the schismatic community led by Bishop Ngyo of Zambia would not have taken root and grown in both developed countries such as the US and in developing countries such as Africa, where the notion of celibacy was so counter-cultural and so often abused by clergy and bishops who at the very least turned a blind eye.
But it seems that it was always the way, he thought. Take the Reformation. Could it not have been avoided if a more conciliatory, more humble stance had been taken by Rome in regard to the abuses against which Luther and co. railed? Was it necessary to wait until the 20th Century for a rapprochement to be arrived at with regard to an understanding of Justification?
He thought of the irony involved in the pastoral impasse dioceses like his own found themselves in. Rome had constricted since Vatican II (especially in the early years of the 21st Century) regulations regarding the exclusive role of ordained priests and deacons in the celebration of the eucharist.
Yet the reality on the ground was that fewer and fewer eucharists were being celebrated and more and more rites of the Word (and sometimes Holy Communion). Catholicism, fast becoming a remnant church in developed countries, was losing what it most treasured, its central ecclesial act: the Eucharist. It was resembling more and more the Protestant and Evangelical communities all about it.
Once, the church was led exclusively by a male pastoral clerical class. Now, it was being virtually pastorally administered by women.
He smiled inwardly. He felt very comfortable with the thought of women being ordained, though after what had happened to outspoken bishops in the past he dared not give voice to his thoughts—and further he could feel for the pain that this would cause the more illiberal-minded. As far as he could see, all reasons adduced in favour of preventing women from being ordained were mere culturally conditioned rationalisations.
Perhaps he should do a Luther or a Spong and write a book enshrining his more radical (though God knows there could not be a more moderate radical than himself) views, entitled Here I Stand. Though he would have to write it after retirement, like Heaps, or else he would spend the rest of his days warming a seat in some obscure dicastery in Rome or be more drastically exiled in early retirement and isolated by his fellow bishops at Rome's behest.
Thinking of Heaps made him glum once again; though retired and therefore beyond the reach of direct retribution from Rome for writing as he did, Heaps too was effectively ostracised by his fellow bishops who, as a final snub, stayed away in droves from his funeral.
And then there was all the kerfuffle with Robinson—his ground-breaking book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church and his controversial tour of America in the face of American episcopal and Roman curial opposition. It had been heroic of the man to retire in protest at having too little support from Rome for his work with abuse cases. And then to write and speak so honestly and forthrightly.
The darkness of Delacroix's mood shifted focus. His passion in his youthful years as a priest had been ecumenism. He remembered the emphasis (despite some confusing signals) that Benedict XVI had laid on ecumenism, at least with the Orthodox. It had even seemed for one brief moment that Cardinal Kasper had all but cemented re-union with the Orthodox.
He appeared to be making effective headway with the conservative wing of the Anglican communion after the schism which had riven that church. And as well as this with the Lutherans, the main body of whom were extending the Episcopal structure throughout and who, like the Orthodox, were prepared to recognize a minimalist Papacy.
But Benedict XVI had died suddenly on the eve of the reunion and with Pius' accession a general wave of revisionism engulfed the Roman Catholic church and brought to a tragic halt all momentum towards ecumenism.
The last state now was worse than the first. The separated brethren felt betrayed, with so much promise after Vatican II which had perhaps forgivably cooled under John Paul II and then been resuscitated to a degree of new vitality (after a few mixed signals) under Benedict, only to be bludgeoned into a comatose paralysis under Pius.
Sitting at his desk, Archbishop Delacroix skimmed through the two reports that had been placed there by his chancellor. The one was financial, the other sociological: each interfaced with and reinforced the other. The radical restructuring that had been forced upon him and his leadership team seemed to be reaping the whirlwind. It had become a vicious downward spiral.
Having to merge parishes into larger and larger ecclesiastical units, with cuts in mass times and clerical services generally, meant a catastrophic diminishment in church attendance and income. The ageing of the churchgoing population had got to the point where the majority had retired and were unable to maintain their previous levels of giving.
For a time the financial implications of this spiral were masked by a extended sale of properties, but now that was at an end and it was clear that clergy beyond retiring age (all but a few) would have to survive on the age pension with minimal health insurance.
The diocesan leadership had talked for a time about strategic plans and 'exciting' opportunities for renewal and an expansion in the exercise of lay ministry. There was a burgeoning but transient vision of building several mega-churches in greater city area, to group and focus the most able liturgists among the still functional clergy. But all planning had increasingly yielded to futility as the miasma of discouragement, fuelled by the bleak reality of the situation, took possession.
One of his favourite poems was a short one by Dylan Thomas, an exhortation to Thomas' dying father not to go quietly into the maw of death. He loved the line Rage, rage against the dying of the light. It was at once pathetic and heroically courageous. He wished now he could summon such a fierce protest in the face of the ruin he seemed to be presiding over.
Oh, his believing self-acknowledged that the central and ultimate mythos of Christianity was resurrection and the promise of the pentecostal Spirit, yet his feeling self could not now get beyond the dark garden and the tortured words upon the cross.
©2012Dr Anthony Lowes