OPINION

It's not just about marketing though...

An article for CathNews discussion board proposing what the Church needs to do if it is to turn around the crisis it is facing in the Western world where 85% of baptised Catholics no longer support their Church.

Charles, Thank you for your reflection. I do not believe the Church is simply going to be turned around through marketing. For at least thirty years "down under" we have been hearing of these "fabulous" growth figures that the evangelical and fringe Protestant churches are demonstrating. The fact is, that for all her own catastrophic decline, the Catholic Church each Sunday today still caters for way more souls than those people do.

This used to confuse me for a long time. The reality is that people are attracted to all the "bells and whistles, multi-media projectors, hi-tech lighting and megawatt sounds systems" for a while. The exit rate of these spiritual competitors is almost as steep as the entrance rate. People do seem to stay for a few years but then they drift back out into the anonymity of suburbia again. I believe the following are the key elements if the Catholic Church is going to successfully re-evangelise itself:

(i) OUR FIRST PRIORITY HAS TO CONTINUE TO BE THE NUMBER ONE ORGANISATION IN THE WORLD SEEKING TO FIND "TRUTH". This is not simply "Truth" in biblical rules and canon law statutes. Above all it is "the Truth" in this simple question: "What is God (=This Mystery at the heart of each life and ALL Life) asking of me/us in this particular situation we are facing — what is "The Truth" of this situation?"

This needs to be expanded. "The Truth" is not simply what satisfies our egos and emotions. And that applies as much to a Pope or Mother Angelica as it does to some teenager who's getting their rocks off on Michael Jackson. "The Truth" is "what are 'The Truths' of Revelation in this matter (whatever it happens to be) but ALSO what are 'The Truths' that God is revealing to us through modern scholarship and science." Science is not the enemy of Religion and Faith. Science is not some invention of mammon. Science is the principle means through which the human family uncovers the mind of God and the laws he created that explain our world in ways that we can better understand it (man did NOT create the laws of science, he/she merely uncovers them)". We do not want to go down some pathway of biblical literalism like the evangelicals. We want "The Truth" about evolution, birth control and these difficult questions in genetics as to how far humankind is invited by God into altering, or participating in, the Divine plan of Creation.

(ii) WE NEED TO FIND THE LANGUAGE IN WHICH TO EXPRESS THE TIMELESS TRUTHS OF BOTH DIVINE AND HUMAN WISDOM THAT THE CHURCH HELPS UNEARTH AND PROTECT DOWN THROUGH THE AGES. WE ALSO NEED TO FIND THE LANGUAGE IN WHICH TO EXPRESS ALL THESE NEW INSIGHTS THAT INTERACT WITH THE TIMELESS TRUTHS.

This is not "language" in terms of "Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Spanish, English or Swahili". It is "language" in terms of the popular understanding and usage of the meaning of words. It's "tuning into" the "thinking paradigm" within which people try to make sense of the world about them. This paradigm is constantly in flux adapting itself to the new challenges people face. It's about providing an EWTN to the 5% of the population who are into that sort of thing but also being able to recognise that an EWTN is also chasing 20% of the population away from the Church at the same time as it is attracting that 5%. It's about developing the alternative channels of communications that will reverse that sort of thing: they'll be appealing to 20% of the population and a turn-off factor for only 5%. And it's about developing the communication channels that speak in language that is understood by all those other demographic sectors in the other 75% of the population.

(iii) OUR LITURGIES TODAY ARE ACTUALLY VERY GOOD. THE PROBLEM IS NOT THE LACK OF APPEAL OF CATHOLIC LITURGIES. IT IS WHAT THEY HAVE TO COMPETE WITH THAT IS THE PROBLEM. THERE WAS NO COMPETITION IN THE PAST. THE CHURCH WAS THE NUMBER ONE COMMUNICATOR IN SOCIETY. SHE WAS THE GREAT PATRON OF THE ARTS AND MUSIC. OTHERS DO THAT TODAY. SHE DOES COMPETE WITH COCA-COLA CORPORATION, MacDONALDS, NIKE, RUPERT MURDOCH AND SONY. THEY'RE THE ONE'S WHO NOW 'FORM OUR CULTURE'. THE CHURCH GAVE UP SPONSORING THE ARTS AND THOSE WHO UNEARTH TRUTH THROUGH MUSIC AND VISUAL MEDIA WHEN THE TALKING PICTURE WAS INVENTED. IT IS TOO EXPENSIVE TODAY TO NOW REDRESS THAT HORRIBLE MISTAKE THAT WAS MADE IN THE 1920s. WE DO HAVE TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT THOUGH — AND URGENTLY.

Western Society today is super-saturated with "liturgy". Most of it is "secular Liturgy". It's the stuff pouring out of our television sets and dvd players and computers 24 hours a day and produced at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars a second. The Church cannot compete with that with a ten cent photocopied Sunday bulletin, hymns pasted up on a wall with an out-of-focus overhead projector, and a sound system that sounds as if it is about to croak.

At the same time it is fatal simply to try and mimic Rupert Murdoch and Twentieth Century Fox. The Church simply does not have the capital today to compete with that, particularly when so much of her capital today is consumed paying for the mistakes of the past seventy years.

The other problem though is not to do with technology at all. Most surveys reveal that why people are leaving our liturgies is because they find them "boring". When you probe deeper though it is not actually the liturgy that is "boring" it is the homilies, the preaching and the explanations that are trying to bring the liturgy to life. All the pastors in the Church when they speak are looking over their shoulders trying to make sure they don't make a mistake that will get them reported to Rome, and they're deliberately trying to say as little that is meaningful as they can in case they provoke the Michael Webbs of this world and get themselves reported to their bishop or to Rome. Church communication today is directed ever upwards — and not in praise of God but in trying to make sure that Rome is not upset about anything. Our communication needs to be turned around and directed downwards and outwards.

I believe we need to scrap all the Sunday homilies. Most priests can't preach for nuts. Communication today is a highly skilled business. The Church is simply not recruiting the best communicators. They're off working in the film, television and new media industries and in advertising and corporate communications. Let us go back to having very simple and, initially at least, very short but elegant and high quality Sunday liturgies. The "invitation" we extend to people is not one of "duty" or "obligation" or of "being emotionally entertained" nor even of "being taught". The invitation we extend to the community is simply to spend half an hour with God — this Mystery at the heart of your life and of ALL Life. (and stay on and have a cup of tea with your friends. We're also collecting a few bucks for the tsunami victims [or whatever the current crisis in our street or the world happens to be])"

We need to run all our educational programs (ie Catchesis and all the stuff that is supposed to be being transmitted by the homily through new media — such as the internet and what this bunch of lay people have been doing voluntarily here on the CathNews discussion board for four years now.) There is more effective communication goes on on this discussion board in any single 24 hours period than goes on in even the best parishes in a whole year these days.

We do need to provide though the BIG emotional experiences of liturgy. This is the sort of stuff that people now give up a whole day to get a seat for when they attend things like the Australia Day Sky Show. Or when they spend months and hundreds of dollars to get a seat at the Opening or Closing Ceremony at the Olympics. These are "secular liturgies" — public events that "speak" to a community's "heart and soul and spirit".

As an objective I suggested to my Archbishop some years ago that in our area that we need to be providing, on average, at least one of these major emotional experiences to every one of the Catholics in this diocese at least once every few years. You do need a "mass" of people — like filling a sporting stadium — and staging these things is mighty expensive. But people think nothing of parting with $150 to spend a couple of hours with some pop star these days. We'll find ways to "market" not some pop star but the Son of God himself and before too long the money will flow to stage these events. I might as well have been talking to a brick wall as I don't think my Archbishop still understands what I was talking about — and he's actually the guy in charge of all of Catholic media in this nation!

We actually do do some of these "big" liturgies already. We had a spate of them in the Jubilee year. Sydney is holding another big one this year where all the people in that Archdiocese to be confirmed are going to be confirmed together. The religious orders staged some absolutely brilliant liturgies a few years ago when they were all celebrating their centenaries of arrival in Australia. They were at least as good as anything that Andrew Lloyd Webber and his "Really Useful Company" puts together. But staging them once every one hundred years? Come on, get real! We need to be doing this sort of thing every couple of years. I THINK A REALISTIC OBJECTIVE IS TO ENDEAVOUR TO GIVE EACH COMMUNICANT MEMBER OF THE CHURCH AT LEAST ONE EXPERIENCE OF MASS LITURGY (in both senses of the word "Mass") AT LEAST ONCE EVERY TWO YEARS.

So, in summary, this is what I propose:

  • Make Sunday liturgies more elegant, simpler, shorter, of the highest liturgical quality, and "cut the bullshit — cut the homily". The emphasis is on spending time with God=This Mystery, not "obligation or duty" and having a cup of tea afterwards to build a sense of community and attend to our social justice and social welfare responsibilities.

  • Move all the Catechesis and teaching responsibilities the Church has to "new media" and employ people who can communicate to do it not "the useful idiots company" who are looking over their shoulders all the time in case they make a mistake and upset His Holiness.

  • Set an objective of giving all people an experience of REAL liturgy and the "real" presence of Christ at least once every two years (and maybe we can even do better than that). Instead of worshiping "the Spirit of our Nation" though we are inviting them to worship "the Spirit of Creation itself!"

The other important point I'd make in all of this is this:

We need to go right back to basics and ask ourselves: "what is the point of all this?"

Are we simply trying to "feel good" about ourselves — "Be Happy"-like?

Are we simply trying to "love our neighbours" and be "nice", "charitable", or "just" to other people?

Or are we trying to lift ourselves, and the entire human family, up to being greater people – more understanding of our cosmos, our neighbours, ourselves; more loving people towards our neighbours, ourselves and our environment and the other creatures of Creation; more "balanced and stable" people able to endure times of challenge and times of triumph with equanimity and calm and learn what is to be learned in both types of experience; and a more spiritual or God-like people with the "Sophia" or Wisdom that God invites us into and to share?
In short, are we involved in some kindergarten level, hoop-jumping exercise of "trying to please our teacher or mummy", OR are we actually trying to grow ourselves in knowledge, and wisdom, and love and charity so that we are actually fit to sit in God's company?


I suggest we need an enormous sea-change in Catholicism as to what we project, to the world, and to ourselves, is the fundamental purpose of our endeavour.

Grahame, I haven't mentioned Jesus once in this post and I hope I won't get marked down because of that. LOL. In my series of theological post's yesterday though I did explain in considerable detail where I see the centrality of Jesus Christ in this fundamental objective. Christ is "The Way (of thinking and acting)" whom we need to follow!

©2005Tom Scott/Brian Coyne/Vias Tuas Communications
Written: 26Feb2005

Tom Scott

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