Catholicism is Not a Numbers Game

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When I was an adolescent, my understanding of faith and politics was developed around the dinner table of my uncle. Several families would routinely get together at his home, and the men would invariably sit and discuss world affairs and the state of the Church, debating their points, reminding each other of Catholic teaching, hammering out nuances, and occasionally flat-out arguing. Still, cooler heads prevailed more often than not, charity was a virtue highly prized, and I learned a great deal. I was also given the opportunity to participate in those conversations once I was old enough to have something to say. As my knowledge of the faith grew, my ability to articulate my own views grew with it. It was in this environment — safe, but competitive — that I honed the skills I now use every day.

In the bathroom at my uncle’s house was a small wooden book rack, usually containing a couple of children’s books and some Catholic periodicals like The Wanderer. Affixed to its surface was a sticker that read, “The Catholic Church: Never Popular, Always Attractive.”

A great deal of my life can probably be explained by these two anecdotes. I learned to love my faith and to argue for it; to confront people with truth but not to bludgeon them with it; and to try to bring as many souls as possible to Christ while recognizing that people have free will, and can make the choice not to accept what is offered to them.

In a recent online discussion about this article on ad orientem liturgy, I saw a priest who has had some success facing liturgical East in one of his parishes lament the effect that kind of thing has in another one he manages. People there leave the parish over even small changes. It’s reasonable to believe that this is a widespread problem. In some parishes, a liturgical improvement will cause an initial exodus, only to bring in new people who are attracted to the change. In others, the people leave, and leave, and leave…and that’s it. It puts a strain on the parish finances. It threatens the livelihood of those employed to care for and maintain things. It presents a real dilemma for pastors.

During the question and answer session that followed Bishop Schneider’s talk on the reform of the liturgy last February, someone asked a question about what a priest should do when he wants to implement reverence in the liturgy, but is afraid that people will leave if he does.

The good bishop didn’t miss a beat: “The priest’s first duty is to serve God,” he replied, “and by doing so he serves the people. If a priest serves the people first, it is paganism.”

Paganism. Idolatry. The worship that is due to God given instead to man. Catholicism is never popular but always attractive.

It’s difficult, maybe especially so, for Americans to realize that Catholicism isn’t a numbers game. We’re so used to reading the news, paying attention to our investment portfolios, running our businesses, all with an eye to rising stats. Profits, subscribers, readers, customers, year-over-year growth.

But Christ said, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” (Mt. 22:14)

There’s no question that we should choose to do the right thing because it is the right thing. We needn’t look for a further justification. If the chancery is pressuring a priest to pander, to try to create a “customer-oriented” brand of Catholicism, it’s wrong. Catholicism is what it is — and has always been — and may not be changed to meet the whims of the worshipper; it is He Who Is worshiped who must always take first priority. But there is a supreme benefit to putting God’s demands first: because He is Truth and Goodness, anything that is pleasing to Him will by its very nature benefit us. Even if we are at first resistant to it due to poor habits or immersion in a culture that is deeply antithetical to Him.

Doing the right thing when it comes to our liturgical and sacramental life is the only way forward. It means that some parishes will become empty, and have to be closed. It means that people will turn away, because they want a religion that is focused on their desires and not His. But from the time of Christ, this has been the case. When, after His discourse on the Eucharist, many of the disciples left because of the “hard saying” requiring them to eat the body and drink the blood of the Son of God, Christ did not seek to placate them with anodyne explanations or popular niceties. He instead rounded on the apostles, challenging them:

Then Jesus said to the twelve: Will you also go away?

And Simon Peter answered him: Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. – Jn. 6:68-69 (DR)

Our answer must be like that of Simon Peter. We must accept the Lord’s challenge to go deeper, to step outside our comfort zone. To refuse to make excuses, or to walk away because there’s something that we don’t understand.

There are those who will fail this test. We should reach out to them and try to help them, but we have to be okay with letting them go. They have God-given free will, and free will is a radical and dangerous thing.

In 1969, a young Father Joseph Ratzinger made some startling predictions about the future of Catholicism. He wrote:

The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.

She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes . . . she will lose many of her social privileges. . . As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members….

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 . . . The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution — when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain . . . But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.

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. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.

This is no longer a statement about a future threat, but an assessment the present moment. The “sifting” is well underway. We have to accept this winnowing; we have to understand that only a Church which has distilled down to its essence can every truly evangelize. And evangelize we must, beginning with the vast majority of men who call themselves “Catholic” and are anything but. The sort who, in an unconscious declaration of “non serviam,” run from worship and a sacramental life that demands something of them they are unwilling to give.

Fear not, pastors. Do always what is right it is right, and resist the paganism of our day. We do not worship a mere man, but the Creator of the Universe incarnate. We are not panderers and self-flatterers, but a people who falls down in adoration, prostrate and obeisant before the infinite majesty of our God. It is He and He alone Whom we must seek to please.

Pastors, do not worry about finances and parish closings and administrative demands. Do not worry that you will offend people by giving them the meat of God’s truth, and that they will turn away from the hard sayings, leaving you with a reduced flock.

For your Father knoweth that you have need of all these things. Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God, and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you. – Mt. 6:32-33

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