I heard Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna give a talk in London recently. It was part of a promotional event for the International Theological Institute, an English-speaking centre of theology in Austria. See their website here.
He was speaking about the role of the Church in a Western culture that is increasingly secularised. He was somehow pessimistic and optimistic at the same time. I didn’t take detailed notes, so some of this might have my gloss on it.
The pessimism went like this, and he acknowledged that he was simply repeating themes elaborated by Pope-Emeritus Benedict over many years: There is no doubt that the cultural landscape in the West has become more secularised over the past fifty years or so. The Church seems to have less influence as a cultural and political force; and it has lost or is in the process of losing the big moral battles of the last two generations (abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, euthanasia, traditional marriage, etc).
On top of this, the Church itself has in many ways become more secularised. The ethos of many Christians (their attitudes and behaviour) is often not dissimilar from the ethos of the secular world around them. So the Church is both marginalised for being at odds with the culture, and ignored for having nothing significant to offer to the culture; it is both counter-cultural (in a way that is incomprehensible to most people), and yet too influenced by the culture to give a distinctive voice.
The optimism came as a result of the pessimism. Because the Church, in this analysis, has more or less failed in the mighty cultural struggles of the last fifty years, this failure gives it a new freedom to stop worrying about how influential it is on society and concentrate on just being itself and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Instead of trying to win a political argument, and putting all its energy and anxiety into resisting political and cultural change, it can choose to witness to the truth of Christian values on their own terms.
It’s as if we have been gripping the wheel too tightly, judging our worth by the measure of how effective our campaigns have been in particular ethical issues, of how many people we have managed to convince to change their views. Perhaps this is all misguided. Perhaps we should concentrate on purifying ourselves, and the witness we are giving, and leave the results to God. If the Church becomes less concerned about convincing the secular world, and at the same time less worldly herself, she will actually have more to offer the world in an authentic way.
Cardinal Schönborn quoted St Bernadette of Lourdes, when she was interrogated by the clergy and police after her visions, and one of them said to her, ‘You are not convincing us’. And she replied, ‘My job is not to convince you, but just to tell you’. It’s like Peter and John speaking to the elders of Jerusalem in Acts 4: ‘Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard’.
I’m not 100% sure about all this! Yes, Christians need to have the confidence to witness to their faith, without over-worrying about how this witness is being received. Yes, the Church needs to be purified, converted, and each individual Christian needs to become less worldly and more focussed on Christ and his teaching. Yes, if we fail to convince or even challenge the culture, we shouldn’t give up. This is all true, and makes sense to Catholics who are confident in their faith, and have the support of a strong Christian community.
But there are other concerns too. When the Church loses its influence in society, this effects in a negative way especially the many ordinary Catholics whose faith is perhaps less strong, who don’t yet have the inner spiritual resources to self-identify as a confident and creative minority: those on the edges; the lapsed; those without the energy or time to engage in questions about Catholic identity. When the Church is no longer a strong cultural presence, and when Christian institutions are not nurturing the faith of ordinary people in quiet but significant ways, then the moral and spiritual lives of many people suffer.
And I’m also concerned about this apparent failure to engage constructively with the culture. If we do have something to say, shouldn’t it make sense to at least some people? And if it isn’t making sense, shouldn’t we find better ways of saying what needs saying? It’s about the continuing importance of dialogue and cultural engagement.
To be fair to Cardinal Schönborn, he was not suggesting that we should give up on dialogue and retreat into a self-justifying mode of ‘witness’. Quite the opposite. He explicitly said that the Church should step out more freely to engage with the world, with a new confidence. That was his point. If we worry less about results and influence, if we are less afraid of being a misunderstood minority, we can be more truly ourselves, more faithful to the gospel, more creative, more engaged, and more interesting to those who are genuinely searching for an alternative to the worldliness around then.
I agree. Catholics sometimes need to be counter-cultural, in a joyful and confident way; as long as we remember that we are part of the culture as well, and we need to use as effectively as possible all the opportunities that we have to influence that culture, opportunities that come to us precisely because we do still belong to it in so many ways. Let’s not use the category of ‘witness’ as an excuse to opt-out or as a defence if our appeal to reason seems incomprehensible. We need to continue in the struggle to make the Christian message comprehensible – which it is.
It was interesting that the very last comment from the floor was about the fall of communism. It wasn’t really a question, just a statement that we should really be more optimistic, because the greatest threat to faith in God and Christian freedom of the last century has actually been overcome: communism. We forget, said the member of the audience, what a terrifying foe this was in Europe and throughout the world, how much harm it did to the Church and to Christian culture, and how much worse things could have become. And yet it did not prevail, in part because of the struggles of Christian men and women.
Cardinal Schönborn agreed, and thanked this person for ending on a note of hope. As if to say: yes, let’s be a creative minority on the ‘outside’ of the secular culture, but let’s not give up on using the influence we still have through our historical Christian presence and trying to transform the culture from within. Which is exactly what Pope-Emeritus Benedict said in his speech at Westminster Hall.