Patheos is hosting a symposium on “The Future of Faith in America” and you can read the Catholic highlights at Elizabeth Scalia’s place. I don’t do predictions, but I do like strategy, so let’s talk about that.
We Have Everything Going For Us
If we want it, the Catholic faith could be on the verge of a renewal to knock the socks off all the other renewals. In our favor:
- Being Catholic today is weird and countercultural. It’s not something you do out of habit or convention.
- Young Catholics don’t have the prudish hang-ups of previous generations. We’re ready to deal with difficult topics head-on, and not faint on our couches at the sight of a tattoo or a transvestite in the pews.
- We have loads of young priests and religious who are on fire for God.
- Evangelical and Orthodox Christians are ever increasingly bearing towards reunification.
The 21st century could be a time when the Church comes alive with saints to give St. Lawrence a run for his money. Could be big. It’s ours to lose.
But Lose It We Might
That said, sin is a prowling lion, seeking to devour. We have all kinds of opportunities to screw this one up:
1. Schism Mania On one side we have sincere-but-flagging Catholics who find the faith trying and are attracted by the notion easing off a bit on the hard teachings. On the other side, we have fervent-but-frustrated Catholics who are tempted just over the edges of orthodoxy, where at least someone’s listening and taking action. Both groups risk peeling off into their respective fringe movements, in a combination of formal schism and smoldering, parish-wrecking dissent.
2. Death by Diplomacy The Church has spent so many years trying to get along and go along and only be as Catholic as Absolutely Necessary, and sooner or later we might just drown in our own niceness. The hierarchy selects for priests who don’t make a fuss and are good at smoothing over. Daily life in an anti-Christian culture is much easier if you don’t make waves. There will be a lot of pressure for the Church to become the Late Western Civilization Patriotic Association.
If you wonder whether it’s really possible for the leadership of the Church to be engulfed by pleasant heresies, google “Arianism.” Wouldn’t be the first time we took the nose dive.
3. Too Little Too Late
The fact that we have a solid core of young, faithful, culturally-astute Catholics ready to lead the Church into full blown renewal doesn’t mean the odds are in our favor. The Church has spent half a century mucking about; the fruits of our mythical pre-Vatican II “golden age” turned out to be bland at best, moldy-to-poisonous at worst. (Ha. Don’t you love a cheerful evangelist?)
Because Catholic Brand (TM) has worked so hard to assure everyone we don’t really believe all that crazy stuff, the martyrs of tomorrow might not be dying so much for the following the faith as for failing to follow the lukewarm, watery mush America has been trained to believe is the Catholic faith.
Even if every single Catholic leader from this day forward is all seven saint Theresa’s combined, faithful Catholics might find themselves isolated and persecuted specifically because legacy-Church has done such a good job of making itself indistinguishable from the wider culture. The wider culture might not approve of our reformed selves.
The Game That’s Ours to Lose
The challenge we face is remembering to keep Jesus Christ at our center. The future of the Church belongs to bad Catholics, just like it always has. If we are the kind of bad Catholics who forget the mercy of God, we’re sunk. What has maimed the Church generation after generation is an unwavering faith in our own goodness: If a sin is persistent, we decide it’s not really a sin. We may be tempted to love our errors so well we let them own us.
But if we keep Christ, not us, as our target, we’ll be just fine. We won’t be perfect, but we’ll steadily nudge and kick and cajole each other closer to perfection. We won’t be infalliably holy, but we’ll be holier than we were.
If we hold to that course, Christ ahead, behind, and beside, it won’t matter what the wider world is doing or how it decides to respond to us. The Christian threat is the Christian promise, and people want that promise as if every cell of their being was made to want it. The game is ours for Christ to win.