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Voices Online Edition -- Vol. XXII, No. 2
Pentecost 2007

When the Church is Under Fire

“Gay rights”, the Catholic view of marriage, possible adoption of children by homosexual couples ... recently, I have spent a good deal of time in TV or radio studios, talking about all these things, usually amid a barrage of criticism and attacks. And it doesn’t look as though this will cease any time soon. This is in its way an exciting time to be a Catholic journalist. But, my goodness, it makes one feel vulnerable at times.

And I detect a certain weariness among those of us who are battle-hardened, but still trying to speak up for the Church’s right to be there in the public sphere, to be running schools and social welfare projects, engaging in public debate, lobbying lawmakers on crucial decisions. Across the Western world, the right of the Church to be part of public life, on its own terms and without having to adopt a politically correct agenda, is being questioned.

But we need to resist attempts to silence us or squeeze us into some catacombs.

Some years before he announced his conversion to the Catholic faith, veteran journalist Malcolm Muggeridge wrote that our civilization was born of Christianity, is nourished by Christianity “and will most certainly perish without it”.

Today, we are seeing attempts to destroy the link between our common life — our laws, community activities, official and semi-official organizations — and our Christian traditions. We are also seeing — and this is much more worrying — a combination of inertia and embarrassment within the Church when faced with this challenge.

The inertia is most often to be found among older people and is understandable, if extremely irritating. “Well, I say to myself” one devout but rather smug soul told me, to nods of agreement from others, at a recent Catholic event “I’m glad I’m not young. The Church will be around here long enough to see me out, and that’s all that matters”. Frankly, a more selfish or self-oriented form of spiritual complacency would be hard to find. It is one utterly opposed to Christ’s instruction to spread the Gospel to the nations and His call to “let the children come” too. The Catholic Faith is not a private club into which a few fortunate beings are baptized at birth who can then demand various services throughout their lives: it is God’s saving message for all men, with an urgency about it.

The embarrassment comes among a much wider variety of people and is much more worrying. It is compounded of many things.

It includes awkwardness about the Church’s record (clerical abuse, and — here in Britain in particular — the conditions in Catholic orphanages and Ireland’s “Magdalen laundries” in the 1950s…)

It covers awareness of personal inadequacy — it seems all wrong to be demanding a public role for the Church when it might be more relevant to concentrate on improving one’s own sanctity/neighborliness/care for the poor/prayer life/whatever.

It involves trying not to appear too critical of Church organizations or groups that may or may not have been doing their best. And above all it is centered on an awareness that with often dreary liturgy and appalling music, and with poor teaching in too many Catholic schools, the Church is weaker than she ought to be.

But none of this means we can’t or shouldn’t speak up for ourselves. Paradoxically, I have found that many anti-Catholic campaigners have a curious affinity with the “inertia” types mentioned above: there is a sense in which both combine to suggest that the proper role for today’s Catholics is safely inside a building engaging in rituals that affirm personal beliefs but are unconnected, except in a theoretical sense, to any wider vision.

This won’t do for the post-Vatican II Catholic. We are committed to the idea — rooted in Catholic tradition and unchanged, but very considerably enhanced, at the Second Vatican Council —that the Church has a place in the public domain. Christians should be right out here, showing that a God who took human flesh has a great deal to say about the ways of men and women and the principles of justice and kindness by which they should order their lives.

Now, to concrete matters. Of course it’s a truism to state that “all the Church ever seems to talk about is sex”. The reality is that our bishops — including the Bishop of Rome — speak and preach on a wide variety of topics, but the mass media tends to focus on sexual issues. And these are indeed major issues for our times.

We don’t always choose the battlegrounds on which we fight. In the past, Catholics in England must have been mortified to discover that they were being denounced as traitors to the Monarch. Today, we are mortified to find that we have to talk a lot about sex. But, as with the martyrs of Elizabethan days, we have to be witnesses — and I suppose, if necessary, heroes — in a time and place not of our choosing.

But if the battleground is not of our choosing, the need to stand for what is right is still a necessity. We must uphold the right of Catholic organizations — and Catholic schools, and Catholic youth groups meeting on publicly-funded premises — to teach Catholic sexual morality, including the bits of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that relate to (for example) homosexuality, or abortion, or embryo research, that others find not to their liking.

We must defend the principle that Catholicism is not a small private group that simply asks to celebrate certain rituals in private. The Church exists for everyone, and seeks to do a whole range of things, including alleviating ignorance and poverty, and explaining profound truths, through actions based on Catholic principles. So our church halls and community centers must be allowed to flourish — not forced to choose between entirely private use and announcing that they are available for homosexual “civil unions”.

The future doesn’t look good in Britain. While the Church flourishes in Africa, while baptisms increase substantially in Russia and soar in China, here on this smallish island off North-Western Europe, things look bleak. They are also bleak for our immediate neighbors — although less so for our North American cousins. Numbers for baptisms, for Mass attendance, for Confirmations, for Catholic marriages, have all been dropping steadily since the 1970s.

But things are beginning to even out a little, especially in the matter of vocations to the priesthood. Some of the so-called “New Movements” (such as Communion and Liberation, Opus Dei, Focolare) are a sign of life and of hope, however awkward they may be from some episcopal viewpoints, for they do not fit very easily into formalized structures and bypass diocesan and other bureaucracy. The mood — liturgically, catechetically — is no longer what it was in the 1970s and the “John Paul II generation” shows itself decidedly enthusiastic about many vigorously Catholic things.

The revival of serious interest in liturgy — in part due to the recent release of the new Missale Romanum and the translations of the Missal and Lectionary now underway; also (whether one likes it or not, and I’m not a particular campaigner on this issue), renewed interest in the “Tridentine” rite — is likely to be a healthy support for all who know that over-folksy liturgical style has been a major turn-off for many Catholics.

So it is time to be assertive. Life in a post-Christian Britain is already only too visible in many respects: a soaring crime rate, disintegrating relationships replacing strong family ties, a lack of any richly creative culture, contempt for the frail elderly, bombastic attempts to revive national feelings instead of a genuine love of heritage and common purpose. Affirming the right of the Church to celebrate and teach the message of a loving and merciful God — and to do it in accordance with its own style, authenticity, and abilities — is a contribution to the common good, and one that will live after us.

To lose Christianity from our common life is to ensure that our civilization loses its heart. We know that the Church will survive somewhere, and we can be confident that even a catacomb existence will serve God’s purposes. But to accept this out of inertia or embarrassment is fools’ work. It’s not what the Church has ever done, and it’s not what we should do.

Joanna Bogle, a contributing editor of Voices, writes from London. She is a well-known author and journalist, who writes and lectures on issues of the Catholic faith, and appears frequently on the radio.

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