Kate, over at her blog Australia Incognita, has been publishing a hard-hitting if necessarily depressing series of posts (here is a link to her latest summary) about what ought be done to arrest the decline and fall of Catholicism in Australia, a series I have been following with interest if also with uncomfortable recognition of painful realities.
Here are some thoughts of mine on this topic, from notes I jotted down while walking...
Regarding both priests and laity, the collapse of the symbolic universe that was the Catholic Faith began at the time of the Council, when the world, and the Church also, were subjected to great cultural revolutions, the results of which are still being played out. In retrospect, one may wryly surmise, perhaps those who left at the outset of the changes (clergy and layfolk alike) were the most quick-witted: they saw the collapse of former verities and drew the appropriate conclusions!
The still-unfolding crisis relating to sexual abuse of children by priests is another bitter fruit of everything going haywire. Of course most priests are not pedophiles: but it would be simplistic to assume that the only moral failures among their ranks are criminal – for every one who deserves prison, there must, as statistics would suggest, be more who have arranged other compromises with carnality, whether concubinage or attendance at places of low repute.
Turning to matters spiritual instead, it is an open secret that many do not pray the Office; and given the low standard of preaching, they cannot spend too much time searching the Scriptures, let alone perusing the Fathers or approved authors. Doubtless weekend football has much to answer for; but as my mother once asked me, what do priests do all day? Laymen in professional careers attend meetings, as do those who are ordained; but here the analogy ends, for such laymen do in fact work full time, whereas even close contact with priests leaves me convinced that only a minority ever have.
The minority of Catholics who still practise their faith now see that their leaders and 'betters' were hypocrites and worse – we read daily in the news and see on our televisions unrebutted allegations of the utter moral turpitude of the very hierarchy Catholics once revered: we have the filth and wickedness of "men of God" paraded before our faces. No wonder non-Catholics fear and hate the Church! They have, alas, in all this mess good reason! After all, if some were moral monsters, that is bad enough; but to find out how hand-wringing, ineffectual faffing about, malign neglect and even winking at crime while covering it up was all too common is to discover how even priests and bishops have completely lost their moral compass.
Surely a man of common decency, upon learning of such abominations, would have stopped at nothing to have such evil ministers defrocked and excommunicated (as St Paul excommunicated the incestuous member of the church at Corinth; see I Cor. v, 1-5) – the commonsense deduction is that those who did little or nothing were completely indifferent. No doubt the purely passive virtues of jellylike uselessness and pretended compassion more for perpetrators than victims will be invoked by those who should have acted with manly vigour instead. What must be the judgement meted out to those prelates who have died with such matters on their conscience?
The symbolic universe of Catholicism has been destroyed. Without a coherent view of the natural and supernatural world, there is no future for Catholic belief – and such a coherent vision has been smashed. "My people is destroyed for lack of knowledge" says the Lord Almighty (Hosea 4:6). If only, say, a woman believing in her right to ordination held otherwise to orthodox belief; but it transpires that any and all doctrines are up for debate, the mere fact that such-and-such used to be a dogma almost guaranteeing that it will be mocked and rejected in favour of arrant nonsense. Religious sisters of a certain age and dress sense, and their lapses into strange novelties, are a case in point: out with the kneelers, in with the bean bags, coloured candles and amateur arts-and-crafts.
Of old, the Jansenists claimed that a general darkness and confusion had crept in and obscured the true doctrines of the Church (such as, they pretended, a neglect of the stricter views of the great Augustine); that claim was rightly condemned, but it would be perfectly easy to assert the truth of this statement with regard to the general ignorance, not to say dissent and heterodoxy, that is common throughout parishes (and presbyteries) these days. I recall, as a humorous example, the laywoman who told me without a trace of a smile that Vatican II called for whole-wheat hosts... she appeared miffed when I rolled my eyes and speculated aloud on the likelihood that three thousand bishops met for three years to decide on that, but then again, given the usual importance of episcopal conference statements, I may have been assuming too much.
The irony is that the great desire of many aCatholics, apparently – that Catholicism might by stages approximate to Episcopalianism – is a mirage; and even if it were possible (by going into practical schism from Rome to an ever greater degree, which to be honest has been a strategy employed fairly successfully over the last four decades throughout Australia and beyond), it would only speed the rate of decline. After all, if our religion is reduced to pious foolery adorning secularism, what need is there for playing at church at all? Again, the honest ones gave up Christianity as ridiculous long ago, and the generations that have grown up have only given way to practical atheism more and more completely, to the extent that even in a Catholic school it is a rarity for many of either staff or students to, for instance, regularly attend Sunday Mass (or even think that doing so might be of theoretical importance for some strange reason).
Consider the former Bishop of Toowoomba, whom Benedict XVI noted to have lacked the theological and mental calibre to ever have been worthily appointed a bishop – and yet one assumes the official rescript of his appointment, as read out by the Nuncio when Morris was consecrated, contained the usual platitudes about his eminent abilities and virtues. It need hardly be stated that many of his peers would most probably fall in a like category, but merely have managed to keep their dafter opinions sufficiently quiet – I recall hearing of one of Australia's younger bishops, who upon first attending the Bishops' Conference was horrified by the low intellectual and cultural level.
And what is said of bishops is certainly true of priests: consider the one who in a homily in my hearing said that, when Our Lord died on the Cross, He didn't know He would rise again – what heresy! has the man (a "scripture scholar") never read the Gospels, wherein Christ clearly spoke of His coming death and resurrection? But I suppose I am succumbing to fundamentalism, and ought not fall into the sin of daring to criticise the Lord's Anointed (funny how clericalism never really dies, but is a truly hydra-headed monster)...
Or again consider the typical sort of priest whose views on sexuality are rather at odds with Humanæ vitæ (as is the norm for Catholics and has been since 1968). When did you last hear a sermon against fornication (a rather common sin, yet strangely never criticised), or unnatural practices, or contraception, or anything of that sort? Yet surely the Magisterium still takes the age-old view that such things are rotten and gravely sinful. Of course, in "reality", this, and much if not all else that makes up the symbolic framework of Catholicism, is simply no longer believed. There is great cognitive dissonance between the actual objective content of the Faith, and the confused and subjective hold on it possessed by the average Australian Catholic – hence the paradox whereby the "liberals" who in fact hold much authority in the Church are yet still angry and afflicted with feelings of powerlessness to overcome nasty old Rome.
Recall Neuhaus' words: orthodoxy, if made optional, will sooner or later be prohibited; to which I add (from whereever I suppose I first heard it), doctrines not preached are not believed. I recall too what a Lutheran pastor mentioned to me: that he was sick of meeting self-hating Catholics who couldn't wait to tell him how proudly they dissented from the teachings of their Church, little realizing that he, as a zealous and orthodox Lutheran, was if anything closer to Rome and to more than mere Christianity than they were.
Catholicism, as played out in most parts of Australia, has no future. Evangelism, by a body not believing its own teachings, nor following even its most basic professed morals, but exposed to all and sundry as a nest of fools and perverts, is a sick joke, not a realistic hope. Looking around my own parish Mass – blessed with a good and dedicated priest, I hasten to add – I see very few children and young people, as Father himself lamented only last week. Our priest, though hale and hearty, is eighty; the congregation is fast catching up to him; I see a far healthier spread of ages at the monthly Latin Mass in Hobart!
Come, Holy Spirit, save us who cry to Thee! Descend with Thy Divine Fire and purge us of our unbelief and wickedness! Save us from ourselves!