Published October 7, 2021
There are few things less fashionable these days than optimism. People are tired of being told that things are going to be OK. People are tired of hearing that some great rejuvenation is just around the corner. Trust in our institutions, and those who lead our institutions, is low and continues to wane. People are tired of empty promises.
The overweening optimism that marked so much of the late 20th century has dissipated. In its place: anxiety, malaise, exhaustion. There are days when American culture seems to consist of little more than frenzied nostalgia on anti-depressants. It’s not just that things aren’t going so well; there is a palpable sense that things aren’t supposed to be this way. Things didn’t have to be this way.
A world running low on hope ought to be world in which the Gospel can find a foothold. The Church offers a kind of hope that the world cannot. The Church promises, not worldly comforts or security, but the sure hope of a Savior who has conquered even death. In short, she offers hope in something permanent, secure, steadfast to a world exhausted by its own transience.
Yet much the same sense of frustration and broken promises, to say nothing of exhausted transience, afflicts the Church. The “joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties” of the men of this age, as it turns out, really are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ – though certainly not in the way the Council Fathers had in mind when they wrote those words in Gaudium et spes. Rather than drawing a bruised and broken world to Christ, the Church in many places appears to be rushing off to join the world.
Am I being too gloomy? It’s true that, ever since that unfortunate episode in the Garden of Eden, human endeavors have been marked by a profound and abiding futility. Nothing new on that front. It’s also true that there are signs of life in the Church, in the United States and elsewhere. Such signs are not even that difficult to find if one knows where to look. In 2019, for example, something like 37,000 people joined the Catholic Church in the United States at the Easter Vigil. That’s remarkable, especially considering that the Church in America was in the midst of its worst wave of the sex-abuse crisis since 2002.
But a stream of people coming into the Church, even in the darkest of hours, can’t hide the flood of people – disproportionately young people – leaving or drifting away. We’d ought not ignore the signs of life and hope; but neither should these soothe us into complacency in the face of much larger failures.
The Archdiocese of Cincinnati just recently announced a plan to reduce its 208 parishes to 60 “families of parishes.” When one of the nation’s oldest archdioceses has little choice but to shutter almost 70 percent of its parishes, something is very seriously wrong. This is not the first time an American diocese has been forced to dramatically reduce and restructure its parishes to meet fiscal and demographic changes.
A recent article on this state of affairs from Terry Mattingly, drawing attention to this “elephant in the sanctuary,” quotes a young Joseph Ratzinger:
It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek. . . .And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals.
Keep in mind, the future Pope Benedict XVI was writing this in 1969. One of the divisions in the Church today is between those who think the “terrific upheavals” can yet be avoided and those who believe the only way toward renewal for the Church is “through.”
Whether renewal comes by avoiding catastrophe or by going through it, history tells us that renewal in the Church rarely trickles down from above. Renewal rarely begins with a grand strategy. It begins with discernment and the choice to trust radically in God’s Providence. It begins with a radical response to God’s call, a “fiat” that is given before, not after, we know where He’s leading us. What God does with this “fiat” is always new and surprising, but the fiat is always the same. Mary, of course, is the prime example of this among the saints.
It is one thing to see the clear hand of providence in the lives of those who generously respond to God’s call when we have the benefit of decades or centuries or millennia of hindsight. In the moment, however, saints-in-the-making are as likely to appear as eccentrics and holy fools as they are to appear as polished leaders with impeccable credentials.
The good news is that there are more holy fools out there than we recognize. And that, as in every age, they are the hope for the future flourishing of the Church: disciples answering the call to be leaven. However dark these days may be, and whether you think we are closer to the beginning or the end of these “terrific upheavals,” as Christians, we always have hope. It is not a hope for worldly success, or even that we will live to see the ecclesial (and social and political and cultural) renewal we hope will come. It is the hope that comes from knowing that however grim the battle, the war has already been won.
Let us be happy warriors.
Stephen P. White is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.