Catholic crisis is not political but psychological

Opinion Piece submitted under the name Tom Scott to The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.

Your columnist, Alan Anderson, challenged the views I had published in The Age last week [LINK] that the Catholic Church has experienced a massive crisis in participation during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II.

In your paper (11/04/05 [http://www.smh.com.au/news/Opinion/A-conservative-Pope-ahead-of-his-time/2005/04/10/1113071851390.html]) he wrote "liberal Catholics should not delude themselves that their church will survive as a liberal institution; as Catholic Lite. The church's appeal lies in its uncompromising values system. Scott argues that a less prescriptive approach would "have a better chance of re-evangelising the world than anything that the cardinal [Pell] or the Pope have done". That would have been news to the man whose papacy saw the church increase its flock by more than 40 per cent, from 757 million to 1.09 billion."

I would challenge Mr Anderson on two counts. Firstly he ought to get his maths correct. Secondly I challenge the core of his entire argument that the challenge facing the Catholic Church is political in nature and can be solved by his very political solutions.

Let's take the maths first. What Mr Anderson conveniently forgets to mention is that the figures he uses are compiled from government census. These are the base figures the number of practising Catholics is always measured against. Yes, the total number of people claiming themselves as Catholic has increased dramatically in the world in recent decades.

But the reason the Church has a little crisis on its hands is because the number of them who are actually practising and following the teachings of the Church has been plummeting. The average participation rate of those 1.09 billion Catholics across the length and breadth of the Western world today is around 15% (slightly lower in Australia, a bit higher in the United States and dramatically lower across Europe.) Prior to Vatican II it had been around 50% and at the beginning of Pope John Paul's pontificate it was around 30%.

Now let's look at Mr Anderson's broader argument that the Catholic Church needs a conservative political solution in the next Pope.

It was Pope John Paul himself, in conversation with his biographer, George Weigel, the acclaimed American neo-conservative thinker, who argued that religion and spirituality needs to be lifted out of the realm of politics. I fully endorse Pope John Paul and Weigel in their call.

Mr Anderson attempts to label myself as a "liberal". My proposals have nothing whatsoever to do with politics if Mr Anderson had only looked a little more closely.

So, what is the way forward?

I do not believe the fundamental choice is between some conservative and some liberal political choice. I believe the fundamental choice is across two almost incompatible visions of what the spiritual quest is about.

One presents the spiritual quest as some sort of business of knowing, and being able to repeat, the Ten Commandments and that those commandments can never be broken under any circumstances whatsoever

The alternative presents it as a process of discerning how to apply the Ten Commandments to answer the particular moral dilemmas of life. In the process of discerning the particular and correct moral solutions this does involve those commandments having to be broken, bent or at times particular facets having to be ignored.

The moral truths we are looking for in life are contained both within codes of conduct like the Ten Commandments but, as much, they are contained in the difficult moral choices as to how those laws are applied when they happen to be in conflict which is not rarely, but often. The recent Terri Schiavo case in America is a classic case of this with the dilemmas written on an international canvas. Christ himself models for us how to break the rules in morally legitimate ways in many of his parables.

In the first alternative the business of salvation is perceived of as a process of demonstrating faithfulness to a set of rules. It is the process of demonstrating loyalty to an authority figure and obedience to, and knowledge of the rules, sanctioned by that authority which demonstrates holiness. That is fundamentally a quest to fulfil a psychological need but is dressed up by the likes of Mr Anderson as some political solution. As Sydney Archbishop, Dr Pell said last week, it is the quest for security that many Catholics seek.

In the alternative view the business of salvation is perceived of as a process of discerning how to apply the rules to arrive at particular moral truth. It is this process of discernment and application that actually grows a person in holiness, sanctity and nobility. It is not at all connected with a person's politics. It does involve a completely different emotional and intellectual frame of reference.

We are invited under this alternative proposal "to think and act our way to salvation" rather than perceive it as some kind of kindergarten level exercise where we suck our way into heaven by obsequiousness to authority figures and trying to prove that we know the Ten Commandments. That is a grown up's version of the kindergarten playground game of "Nerny, nerny, I'm the king of the castle and you're the dirty rascal!"

We will not get to heaven by being able to show St Peter how many elephant stamps and glitter stars we've been awarded by a Cardinal or even a Pope. We merit salvation by how well we have learned to apply moral absolutes in the often conflicting challenges of day-to-day life where rules need to be broken but in the morally legitimate ways that Christ modelled.

The million dollar question facing Catholics is will the conclave throw up a new visionary who can articulate a new understanding of "the Way" of thinking and acting like Christ that will renew the Church across both sides of the divide I have explained?

©2005Tom Scott/Brian Coyne/Vias Tuas Communications
Written: 22Mar2005

Tom Scott

"In spite of all that might be said against our age,
what a moment it is to be alive in!" James McAuley