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God doesn’t guarantee that the British Church will last

A readiness to compromise, and sentimentality, are responsible for our decline, says John Haldane.

Of late there have been several press and media stories that might lead the unwary to conclude that the Catholic Church has moved into a position of denominational ascendancy in Britain. Even if that were true, however, it would be imprudent for Catholics to preen themselves over it. First, assumptions of societal advancement invite the reminder that “the first shall come last”. Second, they serve to encourage the view of some other Christians that Catholicism is more concerned with its social position than with God’s word and work. Third, self-congratulation would have about it something of the character of fiddling while Rome burns, for the plain fact is that participation is declining precipitately. Never mind the issue of which denomination is doing best or worst, Catholicism is ailing.

Why is that? And what might be done to arrest this decline? The formation and transmission of Catholic consciousness and commitment depend critically on three bases: home, school and parish. It really makes no sense to think that if home and school are without Catholic identity then a weekly visit to Sunday Mass can bear the load. Likewise, poverty of liturgy and of preaching can undermine the work of good parents and teachers. Also, diocese and religious orders are struggling with declining numbers, and the priest has become an object of public denigration.

With parents distracted by work, and leisure now a dissociating, rather than a a bonding, force in family life it is unrealistic to think that the faith is being nurtured in the home. Without that, however, schools will find it difficult to inculcate habits of Catholic thought and practice; and they themselves are subject to other demands, including from Catholic parents preoccupied about secular success. Catholic schools also have difficulty recruiting teachers knowledgeable about and committed to the Catholic faith, and are now anxious that being avowedly Catholic, in the sense of adhering to Catholic religious and moral teachings, may incur the wrath of secular critics and public authorities.

Where there might have been a process of mutual support and reinforcement building a whole greater than the sum of the parts, there tends to be an uncoordinated struggle, sometimes involving mutual, if unspoken, frustration and assignment of blame. It is not a happy situation and unless it is addressed directly and unblinkingly it will certainly worsen. We have long taken assurance from the words of Matthew’s Gospel: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”, but this concerns the mystical institution not a human corporation, let alone any cultural or national branch. There is nothing in Christ’s promise that guarantees that Catholicism will not die out in Britain.

Jewish teachers have long distinguished between hope and optimism, recognising that their own history gives limited scope for the latter, but that their survival as people of God has rested on the former, as a response to a divine promise first made to Abraham. We need to develop a similar confidence in hope; but equally that should not be an encouragement to pessimistic fatalism. The state of the Church is Britain is not good, but it is within our power to try to improve it. The first step towards doing so is providing an analysis of the principal difficulties.

Here I want to identify three features of British Catholicism that suggest a loss of faith and knowledge, and about which we each, whether clerical or lay, need to examine our own thoughts and practices.

First, a pervasive inclination to neo-pelagianism in the form of the belief that we have the power to save ourselves through our works. The role of Jesus in this account is not that of securing atonement but rather one of providing a moral example of what human beings might aim for. Catholic teaching, by contrast, is that we are saved by grace and that our works only bring merit to the extent that they are the fruits of grace, which is itself a free and unmerited gift.

Second, we have become sentimentalist about matters that call for hard, reasoned thought. Catholic moral theology was once celebrated for its argumentative rigour which was then communicated to homiletic and pastoral contexts by a clergy trained in its methods. No doubt there was some dusty and introverted scholasticism amid that, but as Chesterton once observed, we can either rely on thought that has been thought out or on thought that has not. Today we have lost the habit of philosophical thinking and substituted a sentimental advocacy of causes without critically assessing their relationship to the faith that saves.

Third, we have become accommodationist, preoccupied with means of forestalling secular criticism, rather than engaging confidently with it, in part by means of ingratiating ourselves with dominant groups and classes. Time was when “conservative” Catholics craved Anglican establishment and hoped for conversions from the upper classes of society, with more than a few prayers being directed to the conversion of a “royal”. Now “liberal” Catholics crave secular establishment and hope for conversions from the political, press, or public-service classes. We are also generally poised to assure the prevailing secular culture that we share its approved values.

There is a connection between neo-pelagianism, sentimentalism and accommodationism: it is that these involve the displacement of Catholic faith and sacramental practice understood in terms of a rigorous theology of grace and salvation, and their substitution by good works, identified and sustained typically through emotive rhetoric, with an eye to seeking approbation or at least minimising exposure to criticism from secular critics of religion. This is in no way the preserve of one side of the divided Church. The pro-life movement and those preoccupied with opposing civil partnerships may be as much prone to substituting works for faith as those committed to justice and peace and the environment.

The decline of Catholicism in Britain will continue until such time as it is defended and promoted for what it is, not a social teaching or a cultural lifestyle, but the truth that without grace we cannot be saved, that grace comes by Christ’s salvation, and that what Christ himself taught is that no one comes to the Father save through Him. Serious re-education in this teaching, through home, school and parish, would transform the condition of Catholicism in Britain and equip it to embark on the necessary tasks of engaging the faithless, and missioning to the unfaithful.

John Haldane is Professor of Philosophy in the University of St Andrews and Consultor to the Pontifical Council for Culture. His books The Church and the World (Gracewing) and Seeking Meaning and Making Sense (Imprint-Academic) are published in May (For further information, see below).

This article first appeared in the May 23 2008 issue of The Catholic Herald and is reproduced with permission.

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New Book:
Essays Catholic and Contemporary by John Haldane

The philosopher and commentator John Haldane explores a range of issues concerning the condition of Roman Catholicism, its leadership and teachings, and examines the ways in which these connect with, complement, or challenge trends within Western Society. Over the course of some twenty-five essays he discusses matters as diverse as the papacy of John Paul II, the role of philosophy in articulating Catholic teaching, evolutionary theory, Christian humanisim, medical and sexual ethics, religious architecture and Catholic schooling. The chapters display the analytical mind of the philosopher, the sensibility of the art critic, and the fluency and descriptive power of the journalist and broadcaster.
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New Book:
Seeking Meaning and Making Sense
by John Haldane

150 pp., £8.95/$17.90, 9781845401221 (pbk.), Jan. 2009, Societas, Vol.38
Published June 2008

Copyright ©; John Haldane 2008

This version: 3rd June 2008

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