When He gave the keys to Simon Peter, Jesus promised that the gates of Hell won’t prevail against the Church. And we should never lose sight of that! Yet many have lost sight of it, and doubts about the future bedevil faithless and faithful alike. We all understand why. Because we do, I won’t waste time laying down yet another list of crises that have diminished Catholicism over the last half century.
But is the decline as bad as it seems? Well, that’s actually not the right question, especially since the probable answer is: yes, it’s that bad. The better question is: Can the decline be halted, even reversed?
Well of course it can, and there is ample evidence that the turnaround is well underway, which evidence is presented with authority by Anne Hendershott and Christopher White (The Catholic Thing contributors ) in their new book, Renewal: How a Generation of Faithful Priests and Bishops Is Revitalizing the Catholic Church .
Key in the story is the cadre of young men now entering the priesthood. Are they different from the generation that gave us the sex-abuse scandals and “the hermeneutic of rupture”? The authors of Renewal say they are, although that remains to be seen.
They cite a poll about hot-button issues that compares the responses of priests in their sixties (who came of age in the Sixties) to those of newly minted priests (thirty-five and younger), which may be measuring apples and oranges, so some caution is certainly advisable, especially given that among the first acts in the papacy of Benedict XVI was the issuance of new criteria for “Discernment of Vocations with regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in view of their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders .” Beginning in about 2006, that discernment began weeding out some who might have brought unorthodox attitudes into the priesthood. Certainly gay and liberal seminarians had done so in that earlier generation.
But what we can’t know now is how today’s 30-year-olds will view the priesthood three decades hence. Still, if the seeds fall on fertile ground . . .
The authors intend to test a thesis: that ordinations to the priesthood are – as a rule – more numerous now where there are orthodox and evangelical bishops; flat or down where bishops have embraced the progressive “spirit of Vatican II.” It’s a premise they have taken from Elden Curtiss, now retired Archbishop of Lincoln Omaha, Nebraska, who is convinced that religion is stronger when and where it imposes “significant costs in terms of sacrifice and even stigma” upon members.
In our time, the stigma is imposed upon believers by modernists (or Modernists, if you wish), although, like liberalism and conservatism, Modernism isn’t easy to define (although see Pascendi Dominici Gregis ). The modernists – advocates of same-sex “marriage,” women’s ordination, married priests, contraception, and even abortion – have lately been winning a lot of battles, successfully establishing sins and perversions as normative.
For half a century, this has resulted in pressure within the Church to adapt to what we may call the New Tolerance, which can be embraced only by rejecting the Magisterium. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis may be the honored dialectic of modernism, but for tradition-minded Catholics – for the Church herself – it’s a slippery slope to the pit of lost souls.
Hendershott and White are objective reporters about new trends within the Church that may ultimately have the effect of changing the angle of that aforementioned slope: not just making it level, but – paradoxically – aiming its trajectory upwards; making it more difficult, more an offense to a world rushing towards Hell. The authors are objective, but they are also advocates of the hoped-for renewal.
That renewal will involve building new seminaries, renewing old seminaries, harmonizing curricula with the Magisterium, and making better decisions about whom to admit. This “doctrinaire” approach, as progressives will call it, will likely attract more men than would some fanciful embrace of that hermeneutic of rupture.
We will also need exceptional bishops to steer the American Church along a truer course towards salvation. Hendershott and White name names. But, of course, who becomes a bishop is now largely in the hands of Pope Francis, whose episcopal appointments none of us is in a position to predict.
A chapter in Renewal is entitled “No Charisma without Creed.” That speaks for itself, and the chapter following calls for increased caution about “blurring the lines” between laity and clergy, which will also be immediately resonate with anybody who lives in a parish with proliferating “ministries.” (I do not.)
There are other strategies suggested by the authors, each as sound as the others, especially those already well underway, as in the Catholic counterinsurgency on college campuses.
In the end – and we came, appropriately, to the end of the Year of Faith last week – we are back facing the core mission of the Church: evangelization. Renewal details some of the hopeful signs, mostly witnesses for Christ operating in New Media.
And it’s all great; as long, that is, as what’s being proclaimed, from the pulpit or on the Internet, is the true Gospel and the true faith. If the New Evangelization preaches the Magisterium, we’re golden. But if what the New Media go on about is an Imagisterium, and if seminarians spend too much time on the ‘net, and (to beat my favorite dead horse) if bishops don’t impose some serious discipline on public dissenters, then the Church will have to go ancient: down again into some new catacombs.