The Future of Catholicism

Epiphanies aren’t supposed to occur in Chicago hotel rooms. Desert roads, foxholes, emergency wards, yes, but not Chicago hotel rooms. But it was in the Windy City that a different wind blew three years ago, in the form of a telephone call from a senior editor at Random House. I was on a publicity tour for my book Why Catholics Are Right. “Some news about your book,” explained the vehemently non-Catholic publisher, “We’ve had to reprint immediately, it’s on the best-seller list, and could you write another book on the same subject?”

Of course I agreed, but the epiphany was the realization that if a book about the Church is approachable and not too pompous, legions of people will be eager to read it. 50,000 so far with the last book, and I can only hope and pray – I’ve four hungry kids! – that the new one does as well.

The Future of Catholicism was commissioned specifically to respond to the hysteria that greeted the election of Pope Francis. The moment the conclave ended, numerous journalists approached me for interviews – desperately so, since there are so few Catholics in media in Canada. The questions repeated themselves with a dulling predictability: will the new pope change Church teaching on same-sex marriage; will he ordain women; will he allow abortion and birth control? After the fourth or fifth such interview I responded with, “Yes, and he’s going to become a Muslim too!”

A bit of advice: Don’t use satire or sarcasm on a journalist.

The premise of the new book is simple: to explain to Catholics and non-Catholics alike where the Church may and perhaps should change, and where it cannot and will not do so. After an introductory essay outlining absolute truth, permanent things, the deposit of faith, and fundamental beliefs and teachings, I devote the first full chapter to same-sex marriage. The reason, of course, is that this is so frequently the subject that is used to attack the Church.

Frankly, we’ve done an awful job explaining why we hold traditional marriage so dear, but then we’re seldom given a chance beyond a hurried sound bite. Marriage is a child-centered institution, the procreative norm is at the core of marriage, natural law informs all of Catholic moral thought, and sexuality has to be linked to creation for it to be Godly.

In many ways the issue is actually not about homosexuality at all, but about the defense of marriage. The majority community opened the door to decay when it cheapened marriage via easy divorce and casual sex. And it’s hardly surprising that gay activists took advantage of the situation. The Church may change its outreach to the gay community, may refresh the communication of the truth, but the truth itself is rock.

The book continues with chapters concerning abortion, contraception, female ordination, papal authority and other crucial aspects of belief where the tradition, from ancient Scripture to contemporary belief, is uninterrupted and uninterruptable.

Which brings us to where the future of Catholicism may be different. We have to develop a new form of evangelization. The term “New Evangelization” is partly misleading. There is good and bad evangelization, but not really new evangelization. Nothing exemplifies this better than when Rome invited a collection of safe, mainstream Catholic bloggers with small on-line audiences to a media conference, deliberately ignoring the more robustly conservative – and potentially challenging – bloggers with massive followings.

            The future may well be more ecumenical, but let’s qualify that. It’s easy to play nice with Jewish leaders, Orthodox patriarchs, and even some liberal Protestants with moribund churches. Much more challenging, however, is to hold out the hand to Islam, knowing that it might be cut off rather than grasped in friendship. Islam is becoming less and not more tolerant and pluralistic. And it’s imperative that we insist the persecution and slaughter of Christians stop before we can build genuine relationships.

There is also a chapter on Pope Francis himself. This was a difficult one, because the Holy Father makes a fascinating statement every second week. If I have a criticism it is that he says too much, enabling those who wish to exploit his statements. This has been especially unfortunate when it has been used to cause acute pain to courageous (especially pro-life) Catholics who have sacrificed and suffered ignominy – often at the hands of liberal coreligionists.

True, Francis has spoken of evil, Satan, and sin more than any Catholic leader I can recall; he has fiercely criticized ostensibly Catholic politicians who promote abortion; and he stood firmly and bravely against same-sex marriage and abortion in Argentina. Yet he has also made statements that seem to lack subtlety and sensitivity, and have confused rather than provoked.

He is a lion in his defense of the poor, the abused, the marginalized, and the Church. There is no contradiction in that list, but if the truly faithful feel ostracized (and some certainly do), their angst must not be ignored. I also predict, by the way, that his honeymoon with the media will not last.     

We are Catholics not to be loved but to love. That love is not always one that the world understands, and is certainly not a spasm-like approval of everything and anything that the culture demands. As any parent will tell you, love sometimes means saying no. The Future of Catholicism says yes, but it also says no. As such, I doubt it will ever get me an invitation to appear on the Stephen Colbert Show.


  • Heresy - Thursday, May 17, 2012