A loss of faith

The decline of the Roman Catholic Empire

Hubert de Santana September 5 1977

A loss of faith

The decline of the Roman Catholic Empire

Hubert de Santana September 5 1977

A loss of faith


The decline of the Roman Catholic Empire

Hubert de Santana

For most Canadian Catholics over 30, the complex experience of Roman Catholicism remains fixed forever in the amber of memory. From the cradle we were subjected to a system of intense indoctrination and force-fed with religion until our souls bulged like the livers of Strasbourg geese. It was easy to understand why the Jesuitical boast “Give me a child of high faith to the age of seven, and 1 have him for life” was not made idly.

Very often the Church was not so much a loving mother as a censorious spinster aunt whose pronouncements, especially on sex, made up a long litany of prohibitions. But the church also provided Catholics of the Forties and Fifties with sublime theatre: rituals of majesty and mystery, with priests in gorgeous gold-trimmed vestments chanting Latin prayers and hymns amid fuming censers of incense. For those of us who served as altar boys, surpliced and soutaned, it did not matter one whit that beneath the rubric and the rhetoric were pagan rites of sympathetic magic. We were privileged to assist at the miracle of transubstantiation—the changing of bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ. We mumbled responses to prayers we couldn’t hear in a

language we didn’t understand. The Church gave us solace and sophistry, peace and ignorance.

We all went to confession on Saturdays, kneeling in the screened darkness of confession boxes, humbly telling our sins to a priest who took the place of God. We went to Mass and Communion on Sundays. We yawned through sermons, and sweated with terror during retreats, when priests described for us the horrors of hell, a vast, burning infernal sewer populated by demons endowed with suppurating bodies and more teeth than the shark in/aws. We had our throats blessed on St. Blaise Day; our foreheads daubed with ashes on Ash Wednesday; we suffered through the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, and rejoiced in the triumph of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.

The school kids got holidays when the Protestants didn’t; and we grew up eating fish on Fridays because we’d go to hell if we ate meat. We gathered for the family rosary every evening, reciting our beads before a shrine which contained statues and relics of saints. And wore medals and scapulars to ward off evil spirits. The walls of our homes were embellished with crucifixes, and pictures of the Sacred Heart

which showed Jesus holding in one hand a flaming heart wreathed with thorns, with a gash in its side from which blood oozed; a cross protruded from the aorta. His free hand was held up palm outward, like a policeman stopping traffic. These grotesque and powerful icons held our imaginations prisoner—splendor and superstition had an equal place in Catholicism. For some, Catholicism was balm for the spirit; for others it was more like napalm—tenacious and destructive.

All that has changed and changed utterly. The Catholic Church, which 20 years ago talked of its laity as the church militant, is now thrashing in the agony of the church disillusioned. Canada’s 10 million Catholics today are engaged in a debate with their church as never before.

It started with Pope John XXIII, who threw open the windows with the second Vatican Council. But the windows opened on perilous seas, and with the light they also let in a flood which carried away the historical implants and traditional underpinnings of the Church. Suddenly there were no more comfortable certainties. There was instead a headlong questioning of all the old verities, and many of them no longer seemed veracious.

In the 12 years since the council ended, the Church has sustained heavy casualties. There has been a steep decline in church attendance. A Gallup survey showed that in 1965 83% of Canadian Catholics claimed weekly attendance at church; 11 years later the figure was down to 55%. In 1975 a Gallup poll indicated that 67% of Catholics felt that religion was losing its influence on Canadian life. Seminary enrollment has fallen from 1,565 in 1962 to a mere 195 in 1977, because of a continuing “crisis of vocations.” In 1962 there were 7,107 priests in Canada; today there are 5,414.0f these the largest segment(25.6%) are between the ages of 55 and 64. Totally there are 41,145 nuns in Canada, compared with 59,712 in 1960. Most of these are middle-aged; those between 25 and 34 years make up only 5.2% of the total number.

The principal cause of all this turmoil has been identified by Andrew Greeley, a priest-sociologist who is director of the N ational Opinion Research Centre at the University of Chicago. Last year Greeley published a study called Catholic Schools In A Declining Church, which was packed with scientific data that exploded like shrapnel among conservative Catholics. It offered a cogent theory to explain the present chaos in the Church, and reinforced it with detailed statistics. Greeley has emerged as one of the most outspoken and important voices in the liberal ranks of the Church; as an author and sociologist (his latest book is The Communal Catholic) he is popular and influential and, however trying he may be to conservatives in his favorite role as ecclesiastical gadfly, he cannot be ignored.

Intense and highly strung, Greeley does not mince his words; he is convinced that the crisis was not caused by Vatican II, nor was it the result of any long-term secularization. It is the result of “the massive mistakes made after the council, most particularly with the birth control encyclical Humanae Vitae.” This controversial encyclical was issued by Paul VI in July 1968. It forbade the world’s 600 million Catholics to use any artificial methods of birth control; it gave its approval only to the rhythm method (mockingly dubbed “Vatican Roulette”). It moralized loftily about “mastery of self,” and spoke of the need for “ascetical practices” and “periodic continence.” Predictably, the encyclical was a disaster.

Moving to try and defuse an explosive situation, Canadian bishops issued a humane and sympathetic statement on the encyclical in September 1968. It did not contradict the Pope on any point, but it assured Catholics who found it difficult to be bound by his decree that “whoever honestly chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience.” Never-

theless Humanae Vitae polarized Catholics as no other encyclical has done before or since. “I was horrified when I read it,” says Greeley, “and I read it with an open mind. He [Paul VI] listed the reasons for change and then dismissed them without answering them.” Greeley states flatly that the encyclical was “a misuse of papal authority.”

The opposite view is expressed by Anne Roche, who spoke for thousands of conservatives in her book The Gates Of Hell, which attacked liberals in terms of shrill hyperbole more usually associated with her father-in-law, Malcolm Muggeridge. She is a very formidable lady, a Newfoundlander with dark flashing eyes and a voice that can flake a listener’s mastoid bone. She is the scourge of liberals, who refer to her as Attila the N un. Roche writes of the Pope: “Conservatives love Pope Paul and pray for him; they would not be surprised to live to see him canonized because of Humanae Vitae, when it has proven to have been the last great gallant attempt to halt the destruction of Christian society.”

A 1968 survey showed that 94% of Catholics in Toronto felt that the encyclical had not settled the matter of birth control; and 80% felt that they could practise contraception in good conscience.

The Second Vatican Council was opened by Pope John XXIII in October 1962 and was closed by Pope Paul VI in December 1965, after four sessions. Vatican II was a watershed in the history of the Church. Its ostensible purpose was expressed in the word aggiornamento: a bringing up to date. But what it amounted to was the tremendous

task of bringing a medieval church into the contemporary world, and it could not be accomplished without a severe trauma.

The 16 documents that the council produced affirmed all the central teachings of the Church, but they were informed with a liberalism previously unknown in a Church whose authoritarianism was legendary. The Declaration On Religious Freedom stated that religious freedom was a human right—an admission the Church had never made before. Gaudium et Spes declared, among other things, that the Church cannot allow itself to remain uninvolved when human rights are trampled.

The council introduced liturgical reforms. The Latin Tridentine Mass, whose form had been fixed by the Council of Trent in 1570, was modified, and permission was given for the mass to be said in the vernacular, though Latin remained the of-

ficial language of the Church. A dialogue on ecumenism was opened with Protestants. And Catholics were granted greater freedom of conscience.

The council sought to dilute anti-Semitism which was one of the most deplorable aspects of Christian teaching. Instead of acknowledging, and rejoicing in, the fact that Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism, Christian churches had for centuries made ignorant assertions that the Jews were guilty of the death of Jesus by insisting on His execution. Pope Pius XlI’s silence during the holocaust and the help provided by the Vatican to escaping Nazis at the end of the war are hardly surprising in view of this tradition of anti-Semitism.

The council’s liberalism, and particularly its liturgical reforms, were strongly condemned by conservative Catholics, who bitterly mourned the passing of the old magnificence and mystery set aside in favor of simpler rites. In her book Anne Roche describes the new Mass as “wall-towall noise, amplified by microphones and urged on to greater heights by priests. You get the irreverent feeling that you are a member of a studio audience

at a give-away television show.”

I recently attended a Mass at Our Lady of the Airways Church in Mississauga, and found the ceremony barely recognizable. The glory and solemnity are gone; in their place is a homely, informal service. The words of hymns and prayers are projected on a screen for benefit of those who don’t know them. The congregation stands for the elevation of the Host and the chalice, instead of kneeling with bowed heads as in the past. Communicants also stand, and may receive the Host in the hand if they so wish. The sermon is now a “homily,” but its effect seems to be the same—the yawns were as frequent and as cavernous as they were during my youth. The walls were bare except for large banners with such legends as: Jesus Brings New Life; Start of a New Beginning; The Fire of Life. Gone are the Stations of the Cross, holy pictures and statues.

Most young Catholics prefer the new liturgy, because it makes church services accessible and comprehensible. “The new Mass is more human and less boring,” says Wilma Cortelucci, a 22-year-old social worker. “I can understand what’s going on, and I can take part more fully than I could with the Latin Mass.” But for an older generation of conservative Catholics, a cherished tradition was irrevocably lost in the wake of Vatican II.

The most extreme example of resistance to change has come from French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in Switzerland, who stubbornly refuses to celebrate the Tridentine Mass in defiance of the Vatican. Lefebvre hopes for a return to a pristine Church which will be free of “thieves, mercenaries and wolves”; but he is fighting a losing battle, for insubordination to Rome is futile. Far from posing a serious threat of schism in the Church, “l’affaire Lefebvre” is little more than a media event, for the archbishop has already placed himself outside the Church, and the numbers of his followers are insignificant when compared with the world’s total Catholic population.

The Catholic conservative today is like the old Australian aborigine who was given a new boomerang and spent the rest of his life trying to throw the old one away. The only thing to do is to drop it; but this is something conservatives are unwilling to do. Instead they complain of the psychological torture to which they are subjected by a church that they feel has badly mistreated their sensibilities.

The Most Reverend Emmett Carter, Bishop of London, Ontario, is an authority in the field of religious education and an expert on liturgy. And as president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, his word carries exceptional weight, authority and influence. Carter unhesitatingly admits that the Catholic Church in

Canada is in trouble. But he carefully defines what he means by trouble. He explains that the Church is “incarnational”—Catholics believe that God revealed himself in and through a man. Therefore the Church is inextricably bound up with the human condition. Says Carter: “The Catholic Church has always been a church of the people, never a church of the elite...” Viewed from an historical perspective, Carter feels that the Church’s present troubles are “nothing.” He claims that the crisis of the Church is that of all mankind. Carter uses the word temporality to characterize the man of today, who has looked away from eternity and is concerned only with things of the moment: “He lives from one television program to another; from one sexual experience to another; from one pay day to another; from one car or yacht to another. The Church has to be troubled by this because it lives with man; and the people who are in the Church are not divorced from it, and mustn’t be divorced from it.” Yet most of Canada’s 10 million Catho-

lics (they constitute 47% of the population) feel that there is not enough communication between the hierarchy and the laity. This was borne out by Grant Maxwell’s study, Project Feedback, undertaken for the social affairs department of the CCCB. Maxwell proposed an experiment in social journalism: he would explore and report how a cross-section of Canadians at local levels felt about social goals, everyday life, faith experiences, religious and civil leadership, and prospects for the 1980s.

Bishop Carter’s assertion that the Catholic Church is a church of the people was not supported by many of Maxwell’s respondents. A random sampling of their advice to the hierarchy:

Western Canada: Community worker— “In the first place, get out of the churches, get down to the people and find out what they want and what their needs are.” Quebec: Suburban homemaker—“Be with the people—women, blacks, the weak. Be a church for all the people.” Widow—“I’d try to follow the simple ways of Jesus. He was not complicated; Rome

complicated it. Jesus was with the people.”

Atlantic Canada: Single parent—

“Come down to earth and get back with the people.”

Prayer and social action groups have multiplied across the country like spores on a pétri dish. The most dynamic of these is the Charismatic Renewal movement, whose membership numbers hundreds of thousands in Canada, and about five million in the United States. A Pentecostal group which began in California in 1960, its first members were Protestant. But it is interdenominational, and today at least half its members are Catholic. Last June, eight bishops and 900 priests officiated at a meeting of 45,000 Charismatics in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. It was a spectacular display of mass hysteria, with members rolling their eyes in a fine frenzy, swaying and chanting, practising glossolalia (speaking in tongues), while “cripples” leapt from wheelchairs and proclaimed themselves miraculously cured.

For the past decade birth control, abortion, divorce, priestly celibacy and the ordination of women priests have remained the most contentious issues in the Church. Anne Roche finds artificial birth control hateful and repugnant (“I wouldn’t touch the Pill with a barge pole!”) and passionately defends the Church’s stand on contraception. But she is a voice crying in the wilderness. More than 90% of lay Catholics I talked to were in favor of birth control, and felt that the Church’s ruling was callous, irrational and outdated. “I don’t think the Church ought to leave something as important as children to chance,” remarks Doreen Cardozo, a 48-year-old homemaker and mother of six children.

Most Catholics endorse the Canadian bishops’ statement on abortion: “Respect for life is a fundamental moral principle. Direct abortion is a most grievous wrong since it involves the ending of a developing human life.” At the same time many Catholics feel that exceptions should be made in cases of rape or other special circumstances. “I don’t believe that either the Church or the government has the right to dictate on abortion: it should be left up to the individual,” says Pirette Skrba, a 35year-old community centre project manager. “A 13-year-old girl who finds herself pregnant may lack the physical, mental and psychological capacity to go through the process of having a baby; in such a case an abortion should be granted, if she still wants one after she’s had sympathetic counseling.”

“One of the great crimes of the Catholic Church was its implacable stand on divorce: making people stay together when they absolutely hated and despised each other,” said novelist Brian Moore recently in Maclean’s. Most Catholics agree with Moore, though annulments are being

granted with increasing frequency. Requests for annulments (a formal declaration by the Church that because of some lack of capacity, intention or impediment, a true marriage never existed) pour steadily into the offices of the eight Catholic marriage tribunals in Canada. A Catholic who is granted an annulment can then obtain a civil divorce and remarry with the Church’s blessing.

The drastic drop in seminary enrollment is directly linked to the Church’s insistence that celibacy be mandatory for Catholic priests. The 1971 World Synod of Bishops decided against the abolition of celibacy for priests and this decision was reiterated by Paul VI last March. In a society that puts a heavy emphasis on sex, it is not easy for a young man to make a lifetime commitment to celibacy, whereas a generation ago it was considered an honor to try. Besides, many lay Catholics feel that celibacy is emotionally dysfunctional, and prevents a priest from having any understanding or insight into problems of sexual intimacy.

The Church’s thousand-year-old ban on women priests was upheld in January of this year. A declaration issued by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explained that “the Church, in fidelity to the example of the Lord, does not consider herself authorized to admit women to the priestly ordination.”

Apart from alienating its women members, this ruling places a stumbling block in

the way of any further unity between the Roman and the Anglican churches. A solid majority (71%) of Canadian Catholics would accept women priests.

What is the future of the Church in Canada? It is unlikely that the Church is on the verge of a religious renaissance; what is indisputable is that the Church as an institution is in very bad shape, with an unreturning army of clergy and laity marching away from worship and belief. Bishop Carter in-

sists that these losses should be considered on a qualitative rather than on a quantitative basis. “If people have suddenly stopped going to church because there is no longer any social pressure to do so, then they didn’t have very good reason for going in the first place. So those who are going to church now will be better Catholics because they’re going out of conviction.”

For some Catholics, the decision to drop out of the Church is a painful one. They do not slip out of their religion with the ease of a snake sloughing off a second skin. It is a wrenching, agonizing experience which can leave a lapsed Catholic with lasting bitterness and disillusionment.

But the Church is resilient and durable and has survived many crises in its long history. Whether it will emerge from the present one strong and revitalized depends upon its ability and willingness to evolve and adapt itself to the needs of a rapidly changing society. In its present anemic state the Church cannot afford another decade of continuous hemorrhage. As it is, only massive transfusions of faith from a new generation of Catholics can restore it to anything like its former state of health. But it has first to win back the confidence of those under 30. And the way to do it is to talk less and listen more to what the people are saying. If the Catholic Church goes on willfully ignoring the wishes of its people, it will wake one day to find itself addressing empty pews and ears of stone.^