A “Secularized” West – Or a Secularized Church?

Pope Benedict has created a new Vatican office to “re-evangelize” the West, aiming to combat it’s “secularization”. My immediate reaction on reading this was to wonder if by “secularization”, he is truly concerned about a loss of faith, or the precipitous decline of the Catholic Church in Europe? At USA Today, Cathy Lynn Grossman asks the same question: “Is it God or the Catholic Church facing ‘eclipse’ in the West?“.

There is no doubt at all that in Europe at least, loyal adherence to the teaching of Catholic Church is in free fall. Belgium is one dramatic example: once universally Catholic, it is now one of the most secularized countries in Europe. Only 7% attend weekly Mass, half of babies are not baptized, and three quarters of couples do not marry in church). In Austria, the number of people formally leaving the church annually, now at over 80 000, has doubled over the past two years – and this is a measure of formal resignation, not just of a gradual drift. A similar process of a steadily increasing rate of formal resignations, is similarly under way in Germany. In Ireland, which was once widely described as “priest-ridden”, many Catholics hold the institutional Church in open contempt.

Much of this is attributable to the record on sexual abuse and the inadequate response by the Vatican and the bishops, but there is more to it than that. The process of disaffection was well-established even before issues of sexual abuse became a major concern in Europe, and there are many more indicators of the problem than mere membership figures. In Italy, where open criticism of the Church remains rare, the complete disregard for Church teaching on contraception has been obvious for decades in the population growth rate – or lack of it. (One can assume that the lack of Italian babies is not down to Italian men suddenly starting to practice sexual abstinence). Belgium, Spain and Portugal have all legalised same sex marriage, Austria and France offer strong civil unions, Ireland will follow soon. Divorce is legal and common in all “Catholic” countries. Artificial contraception is routinely available right across Europe, some form of provision for abortion is available everywhere except Ireland and Poland. Even the possibility of legal euthanasia is coming increasingly under discussion.

Is this a sign of “secularization”? It certainly seems to be part of what the Vatican means. However, the process is also affecting the Church’s own clergy. It is widely recognized that a significant proportion of Catholic priests today are to some degree sexually active. In Italy, a group of priests’ mistresses recently wrote to the Pope, asking for an end to compulsory celibacy so that they could the secrecy of their lives in a clerical closet. In Austria, a poll this month has found that 79% of priests want an end to the celibacy rule (“Eight in ten Austrian priests want an end to celibacy“). Does this mean that the clergy too are turning away from faith and becoming “secularized”?

Of course it doesn’t. What it means, rather, is that people are resisting the attempts of the Catholic Church to exercise control over their lives, and ignoring church rules that have nothing to do with religious faith.

Obviously, the sexual issues I discussed above are moral issues, and need to be considered in the context of religious faith. But is the rejection of Church rules a sign that people are rejecting religion, or are rejecting the validity of the Church rules? A few days ago, while checking Vatican documents on one issue, I stumbled upon the Vatican document  “Some Comments on the NOTIFICATION regarding certain writings of FR. MARCIANO VIDAL, C.Ss.R”, discussing the steps taken to restrict the writings of a moral theologian who had fallen foul of Vatican guidelines. What struck me most about this document, and the original notification which led to it, was a ringing statement in the middle that

First among these is the centrality of the person of Christ in Catholic moral theology. The value of recta ratio in arriving at a knowledge of the human person is certainly recognized. At the same time, however, it is Christ who is the indispensable and definitive reference point for a complete knowledge of the human person; this is the basis for integrated moral acting, in which there is no dichotomy between that which depends on the human and that which comes from faith.

The extraordinary thing about official teaching on sexuality though, is how little it has to do with Christ, and how much depends on the Church’s own invention and attempts at control. Clerical celibacy, same-sex relationships, cohabitation and pre-marital sex, masturbation are all issues which Vatican teaching rejects out of hand – but on which Christ said nothing at all.

I fully accept that in some respects, Europe is clearly becoming a secular, post-Christian culture. This is most clearly demonstrated in an extraordinary obsession with material gain, and visible displays of wealth.  The Church has been critical of this, just as it has been of the greater sexual freedom, and I welcome this. Some of the increased personal freedom has itself been corrupted to sexual licence and an unhealthy obsession with a search for perfect bodies, and increasingly exotic physical indulgence in drugs, alcohol and the like. But on the other hand, there have also been signs that many people are increasingly interested in spirituality, whether inside or outside the Church.

Personally, I wonder if part of the problem has not been that “Europe” has been secularized, but that the Catholic Church itself has been. Instead of helping the peoples of Europe to find the means to develop their personal spirituality and integrate it into their lives,  there has been an obsession with power, control and political influence – very secular concerns indeed.

In arguing for a greater Church emphasis on spirituality, I emphatically do not propose that Catholics should thereby abandon all concerns for the material world in some kind of 24/7 mysticism. This is not either/or. Rather, I think of the Jesuit dictum, “contemplatives in action”. By teaching us how to grow in spirituality, how to achieve that personal connection with the divine and the discernment of spirits that can guide us in our daily lives in the world, the Church could be showing us how to integrate the sacred and the secular. Instead, by emphasising instead simple obedience to artificial moral rules, the Church forced many people into an unnecessary choice – and partly secularized itself.


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