Wanted: An American Missionary Church – Soon

Pope Francis is shaking up the Catholic Church – that much is clear. But to what end? Opinions differ: To make it a Church of the poor and the marginalized; a Church more of mercy and perhaps less of law. A Church in which collegiality is a fundamental principle of governance.

These are indeed things Francis hopes to accomplish. But he also has another aim in view, embracing the rest: to reshape the Catholic Church as a Missionary Church. He said as much in the first chapter of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, which set out the program of the pontificate, under the heading “A Church Which Goes Forth”:

All of us are called to take part in this new missionary “going forth.” Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the “peripheries in need of the light of the Gospel.” [20]

This should be taken seriously. Yet much of the enthusiasm for Francis reflects the idea that his papacy is reducible to lightening burdens, binding up wounds, and forgiving faults. Truly taking up the challenge of being a Missionary Church would be a far more demanding – and exhilarating – project than this one-dimensional version of Francis and the Church.

Taking him seriously also could be a matter of survival, or something close to it. Certainly, unless American Catholicism remakes itself as a Missionary Church, actively engaged in outreach to the world, it could soon become a rapidly, and irreversibly, shrinking ecclesiastical entity.

The alternatives to a Missionary Church for American Catholics are two and only two: the Assimilated Church and the Fortress Church.

In the Assimilated Church, most Catholics will have been homogenized into the values of American secular culture and become parts of it. Indeed, many American Catholics already have chosen this option, making it the unanticipated outcome of the Americanization project that guided the development of Catholicism in America during the last two centuries.

The Fortress Church is fundamentally different. If this is to be the future,  Catholics will have largely withdrawn – psychologically, spiritually, and even physically – from contact with secular culture, raising the ecclesiastical ramparts against its influence as they retreat. The Fortress Church is already disturbingly evident in some elements of the new Catholic subculture that’s begun to emerge. It is a survival tactic born of desperation.

      “Become a Missionary Church.”

By contrast, while American Catholicism as Missionary Church will also be committed to opposing secular values incompatible with the faith, it will work hard to preach the Gospel, attract adherents, and, where possible, evangelize the culture itself.

Taking up Pope Francis’ challenge will require once and for all getting rid of clericalism – the clericalism of the laity as well as the clergy – inasmuch as clericalism is  major source of the notorious passivity and non-involvement of so many Catholic lay people: “All the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization.” [Evangelii Gaudium 120] 

Thus a plan of action designed for execution only or mainly by Church professionals won’t do the job. Unfortunately, this is what we are all too likely to get from the clericalized cadres of today’s American Catholicism, indoctrinated as they are in the merits of lay ministry and cut off from the experience of a robust lay apostolate directed to engagement with the world.

Francis relates structural reform to evangelization: “I dream of a ‘missionary option, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than her self-preservation. The renewal of structures. . .can only be understood in this light” [EG 27]

And he specifies the particular Church, the diocese, as the “primary subject” of evangelization: “Each particular Church, as a portion of the Catholic Church under the leadership of its bishop, is. . .called to missionary conversion.” [EG 30]

These aren’t boom times for American religion generally; many churches and religious bodies are in numerical and institutional decline. But the Catholic numbers are strikingly bad. In 2008, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life pointed out that one out of every three Americans who’d been raised Catholic – 22 million – had left the Church, usually in their early twenties. “This record makes the percentage of bad loans and mortgages leading to the financial meltdown look absolutely stellar,” old-line liberal Catholic Peter Steinfels remarked.

It gets worse. According to the Official Catholic Directory, from 1998 to 2013 the annual number of Catholic marriages dropped from 289,000 to 164,000; infant baptisms from just over 1 million to 763,000; enrollment in Catholic elementary and secondary schools from 2.7 million to barely 2 million; and enrollment in non-school religious education from 4.3 million to 3.4 million. This means that essential components of the process by which one generation of Catholics transmits the faith to the next shrank dramatically in the United States in these fifteen years.

If that continues, no matter what the ecclesial model, the future of the Church in America will be bleak. Thus the first priority for a Missionary Church in America should be a major effort to encourage Catholics who’ve drifted away, many into a state of religious non-affiliation, to return.

Francis is expected to come to America next year for an international family congress in Philadelphia.  His message to American Catholics is already clear: “Become a Missionary Church. Your continued vitality – indeed, your very survival as an ecclesial community – depends on it. As does so very much else.”

Russell Shaw is a former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently (with David Byers) Revitalizing Catholicism in America: Nine Tasks for Every Catholic.