Irish television’s current affairs flagship, Prime Time, is turning its attention this week (Tuesday 10th of December) to ‘The Current State of The Catholic Church’ and its future. It is posing the question as to whether the Church is “heading to a more purist congregation or is the leadership of Pope Francis opening up its doors to a more diverse range of beliefs?”
While the awkward phrasing of that question in itself betrays a degree of confusion about the nature of the phenomenon being looked at it, the very posing of the question once again underlines the shock and awe aroused in the secular media – and it doesn’t get much more secular than Irish television these days – by the new man on the Chair of Peter.
What the question betrays is the simple ignorance of the fact that constant development is part of the DNA of the Catholic Church. The past 30 years have seen an incredible development and clarification of its teaching under the guidance of two incredible popes. We now have what looks like another extraordinary man setting out an explicitly missionary stall, defining the very nature of the church in those terms but also very explicitly building that mission on all the sacramental and moral principles which have been taught, developed and clarified by his predecessors over two millennia.
The church’s business is and always has been helping us find our way from this world, through this world, to the next. That is sometimes a messy business. It can be messy for internal and external reasons. It was internally messy for weak-kneed Peter, doubting Thomas, Augustine, overchaqrged with testosterone, and countless others. It was externally messy for its Founder and countless others of his followers down to even an hour ago. People are put to death every day for pursuing this business. For a lot more life is made very awkward because the take it all so seriously. But it has nothing to do with being rigid or purist – it is about the pursuit of the Good Life in the true meaning of both those words.
This is the stall now being set out by Pope Francis. I’d say, ‘just watch this space’.
We now enjoy far greater freedom from rigid social constraints than we did 50 years ago – although the new cultural phenomenon of ‘political correctness’ has put a number of new ones in the place of the so-called “taboos” we have got rid of. But freedom, while a very good thing, does not guarantee good judgment. At the heart of the Catholic Church is a teaching mission and the ultimate aim of that teaching is to guide us to right judgment. ‘How will they know if they are not taught’?
Many of the judgments we have made about ourselves and our condition which have now become enshrined in the modernist and post-modernist political and social consensus are totally at variance with the teaching of the Catholic Church. What the Church is now doing is finding the way to counter this alien consensus, as it has done for centuries – first, in the Roman Empire, later in the paganism of the barbarians, later still, in the many false, although often well-intentioned, cues of the protestant reformers, then in Marxist materialism and now in hedonistic materialism.
Pope Francis is now addressing the entire Catholic world in a letter (“Evangelii Gaudium”, Apostolic Exhortation, 24-XI-2013.) which is much more than a letter. It is a programme for missionary action, profoundly cognizant of human nature and profoundly supernatural, rooted in the essentials of Christian faith and morality. Here he is talking to the Church dispersed in particular churches throughout the world:
Each particular Church, as a portion of the Catholic Church under the leadership of its bishop, is…called to missionary conversion. It is the primary subject of evangelization, since it is the concrete manifestation of the one Church in one specific place, and in it “the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Christ is truly present and operative”. It is the Church incarnate in a certain place, equipped with all the means of salvation bestowed by Christ, but with local features. Its joy in communicating Jesus Christ is expressed both by a concern to preach him to areas in greater need and in constantly going forth to the outskirts of its own territory or towards new socio-cultural settings. Wherever the need for the light and the life of the Risen Christ is greatest, it will want to be there. To make this missionary impulse ever more focused, generous and fruitful, I encourage each particular Church to undertake a resolute process of discernment, purification and reform.”
Later he says:
If we attempt to put all things in a missionary key, this will also affect the way we communicate the message. In today’s world of instant communication and occasionally biased media coverage, the message we preach runs a greater risk of being distorted or reduced to some of its secondary aspects. In this way certain issues which are part of the Church’s moral teaching are taken out of the context which gives them their meaning. The biggest problem is when the message we preach then seems identified with those secondary aspects which, important as they are, do not in and of themselves convey the heart of Christ’s message. We need to be realistic and not assume that our audience understands the full background to what we are saying, or is capable of relating what we say to the very heart of the Gospel which gives it meaning, beauty and attractiveness.
As Rome Reports summed up this letter: “Pope to Christians: Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.”