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Candour, Minimalism, and the ‘Wineskins’ Factor

“No-one puts new wine into old wineskins,” said Our Lord,[1] because the old skins are too weak to hold it; new wine needs new skins. So a receiver (the skin) must be ready to receive what is received (the wine); a message must not put too great a strain on people. If, of course, the message is weaker than the minds to which it is expressed, there should not be a problem with its absorption/acceptance.

This is a credible metaphor of the task facing today’s evangelisers and catechisers, and quite possibly their predecessors. Often they do not know their individual or collective audience, and therefore may be handicapped in formulating the message appropriately.

According to St. Luke (5:39), Our Lord added that no-one who has drunk old wine wants new; he says ‘The old is good’ (or ‘better’). If taken as a metaphor, that can be contrasted with St. Paul’s prediction (which turned out to be true – as shown, for example, by the falsely-named ‘Reformation’ and by the equally-misnamed ‘Enlightenment’) that a time would come when people would not accept sound teaching but turn away from it, wandering into myths and following teachers who suit their own likings[2] and being “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine.”[3]  

Whichever of the immediately-preceding two paragraphs is taken as the basis for thought, a surely-rational suggestion is that religious activists need to know whether they want to address their allies or sceptics or opponents. All are, for different reasons, legitimate audiences. It is, however, certain that unless the advocate of a message is adequately prepared, a good outcome is unlikely.

A symptom of the alarming manifest deterioration of the Church in Europe is an often-heard aversion to ‘causing division’. That may well account for difficulty in obtaining opportunities for meetings in parishes to focus on contentious subjects. In very many contexts, religious or secular, the making of any assertion carries a potential for causing division, because differences of opinion on many matters do exist. That is so despite formal, professed acceptance of (and therefore, ostensibly, shared belief in) specific propositions. Therefore, even advance publicised clarity of the desired mind-set of attendees may not ensure ‘unity’. It makes sense, however, to specify a desired mind-set rather than (by not doing so) to risk the presence of the opposite; surely that is compatible with aversion to “causing divisions.” Even so, the mere mention of a subject and the desired mind-set can be enough to doom a request for use of a parish hall. 

Our Lord said that He had come to cause division, not peace, and that division would exist among the closest of relatives.[4] The Pharisees were worried about divisions being caused by people forming different opinions about Our Lord’s teachings; they thought that if Jewish unity broke down the Romans would take advantage of the division, so unity was vital.[5] Unity does feel better than disunity, but that around which people are united is more important than the unity itself.

Our Lord did cause division, as His teachings still do today, but it is a mistake to allow a prized notion of unity to cause us to shy away from facing truths and expressing them candidly. “We must testify to Christian truth without diluting it.”[6] The Church “seeks a unity which, if it is to be the fruit and expression of true reconciliation, is meant to be based neither upon a disguising of the points that divide nor upon compromises which are as easy as they are superficial and fragile.”[7] “Our apostolate must not make vague compromises concerning the principles which regulate and govern the profession of Christian faith both in theory and in practice.”[8] Opposition to candour in religious realms is ‘irenicism,’ defined as “an inordinate attempt to make peace at all costs by eliminating differences,” and condemned as “ultimately nothing more than scepticism about the power and content of the Word of God which we desire to preach.”[9] Of course, people have different beliefs about the Word of God which they desire to preach; therefore the message can vary greatly from one preacher to another, which has consequences for the ‘tension’ between unity and division.

Catholics’ deprecation of ‘division’ can, furthermore, serve the purposes of the faith’s enemies, even if unwittingly. Humanists accuse religion of being (inter alia) ‘divisive,’ and argue for its replacement by unity in agnosticism (de facto atheism). To embrace ‘wool’ in pursuit of ‘unity’ is to fall into the humanist trap. Long before events vindicated the prediction, a humanist leader said that in open societies the ‘walls’ of distinct communities such as Catholics would “be breached from the inside.”[10] This was especially relevant to Catholic schools, a favourite target of humanism. He recommended the undermining of these by taking away their supporters’ justification for wanting them.[11] Violence (to serve politics, not religion) in Northern Ireland has been exploited ideologically by the humanists; the destruction of Catholic schools there was put formally on the political agenda many years ago. Secularist notions of laws based on ‘equality’ and ‘diversity’/ ‘pluralism’ are being used predictably against Catholic schools in England, and (‘hitched’ to always-undefined ‘sectarianism’ in football) in Scotland. ‘Division-averse’ Catholics can be expected to approve.

The scope for division in religion can be narrowed considerably by irenicism’s derivative, ‘minimalism’: avoiding sensitive subjects, avoiding (for fear of alienating the wayward) all but the most imprecise references to waywardness, and reducing teaching and preaching to platitudes with which everyone (except those who recognise the ambiguities and vacuities) can feel comfortable. St. Oscar Romero must have been thinking of irenicists and minimalists when he asked rhetorically what sort of a gospel does not provoke any crises, or unsettle, or touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed. He said that many people prefer very nice, pious preaching which does not bother anyone.[12] It has an equivalent in politics; for example, Barack Obama wrote of people in the Democratic Party who pursue a “centrist” strategy, believing that to “split the difference” with the people who hold positions of power is to act reasonably – “and” (he added) “failing to notice that with each passing year they are giving up more and more ground.”[13]

Much religious utterance is of that type.[14] It does not deviate noticeably from The Beatles’ minimalist message in 1967 that “All you need is love” (cf. “whatever [being in] love means,” as now-King Charles said decades ago). It is, however, not solely a modern inclination. St. John Henry Newman wrote of “[a]n attempt to deprive the Bible of its one meaning to the exclusion of all other” [a chorus of voices says that it does not have one exclusive meaning], “to make people think that it may have a hundred meanings all equally good” [‘Yes, it has,’ cry the voices], “or, in other words, that it has no meaning at all…”[15] Vagueness is now the staple diet. Whatever the motive(s) underlying it, the result is a religious equivalent of the relativism in society, of which Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI had much to say.         

Icon Depicting the First Council of Nicea

Alas, seemingly-unifying factors such as recitations of the Creed and renewals of Baptismal promises have not prevented the existence of divisions. Some people are naturally conservative; others are naturally ‘flexible,’ often exalting too readily the personal autonomy which is a pillar of a secular society. Except, perhaps, for Malta, Ireland was surely the last-surviving Catholic country in Europe, but look at what has happened. Rabid hatred is directed at the Church from politicians. They are elected despite, or perhaps because of, that hatred. The 2022 national census of Ireland showed that 94 per cent of Irish citizens declared themselves to be Catholic[16]; if, however, there remained enough of those Catholics whose loyalty to Catholicism transcended all else (including loyalty to a Party), politicians who spoke and acted against it might be excluded from office. A major cause of the elections-indicated dearth of that ‘faith first’ mind-set among the electorate must be turmoil within the Church. In March 2012 a summary of the findings of the Vatican’s “Apostolic Visitation” to Ireland was published. It mentioned a “fairly widespread” tendency among priests, religious and laity to hold unorthodox beliefs, and described it (correctly, of course) as a “serious situation [which] requires particular attention.”[17] Attempted rectification, though necessary, enables the Church’s internal and external enemies to portray it as vindication of their accusations.     

The teaching of the faith (‘catechesis’ being the rather obscure official and technical term) is affected by these factors. When the soil is poor, sowers are at a big disadvantage. So was Moses, who tolerated divorce because his people were too stubborn accept its prohibition.[18] So was Our Lord, who told His disciples that He had many things to say to them but which would at that time be too much for them.[19] So were the twelve Apostles, who had to start from ‘scratch’ in their teaching. How much are the ‘pupils’ able to accept? If they are judged to be too immature or rebellious, is the message to be diluted, or left unstated, and for how long is candour to be postponed? Should what is taught be governed by the audience or by the teacher? When does tactical ‘soft-pedalling’ for fear of ‘bursting the ‘wineskins’ become cowardice or betrayal?     

Thirty to forty years ago, a priest in Ireland told me that his predominantly-older parishioners are not well-versed in Church teachings because “they have been fed on pabulum for years,”[20] and that the younger minority “need total evangelization; they know nothing” (he was doing his best to correct the situation). Yet any of those people could feel contented in the delusional ‘unity’ of being ‘Catholics’ and attending the same church. Such circumstances are not to be dismissed as isolated and unrepresentative of the general state of affairs. Discouragement from them is not to be dismissed as the opinion of a crank who has failed to recognise the post-Conciliar ‘renewal’ of the Church. In 2010, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the recently-established Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, was reported to have said that missionary activity in modern societies requires a systematic effort against “the lack of awareness of the basic contents of the faith” among many Catholics. He said that it is necessary to avoid “new evangelisation com[ing] across like an abstract formula” (which it does). “We need,” said His Grace, “to fill this idea with theological and pastoral content.”[21]  

The task of putting substance and ‘back-bone’ into an appearance of unity would, if it were begun, take a very long time. It is beyond the individual power of each person who desires it, but each such person does have power to make efforts to instigate and sustain it. Without that, reversal of the current decline cannot be foreseen.

[1] Mk. 2:22; Lk.5:37.
[2] 2 Tim. 4:3-4.
[3] Eph.  4:14.
[4] Matt. 10:16-22, 34-36; Mk. 13:9-13; Lk. 12:49-53.
[5] Jn. 11:47-48.
[6] Pope St. John Paul, “L’Osservatore Romano,” 15th July 1985, p.9, paragraph 11.
[7] Pope St. John Paul, “Reconciliatio et Paenitentia,” 1984, section 9.
[8] “Pastoral Orientations for Interreligious Dialogue,” Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, 2014, paragraph 46, quoting Pope St. Paul VI.
[9] Ibid., paragraph 48.
[10] “Humanism,” H. J. Blackham; The Harvester Press, Ltd., 1976, p.63.
[11] Ibid., p.160.
[12] Quoted in “The Catholic Times,” 25th July 2010, p.13.
[13] “The Audacity of Hope,” Barack Obama; Canongate Books Ltd., Edinburgh, 2008, p.38-39.
[14] See “ ‘Extremism’ and Progress,” 8th June 2023 on this web-site, end-note 9.
[15] “The Patristical Idea of Antichrist” (specifically the section about “The Time of Antichrist”), p.59-60.
[16] https://zenit.org/2023/06/07/ireland-catholics-take-a-nosedive-on-the-island-of-saints/
[17] http://www.vatican.va/resources/resources_sintesi_20120320_en.html      Such serious situations have been acknowledged by the Vatican as being part of a world-wide malaise; see Synod of Bishops XIII Ordinary General Assembly, The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith, “Instrumentum Laboris,2012, paragraphs 7,35, 48, 53, 86, 95, 98, 126.
[18] Matt. 19:3-8; Mk.10:2-9.
[19] Jn. 16:12.
[20] Pabulum is “bland or insipid intellectual matter”: “Oxford Dictionary of English,” 2nd edition (revised), 2005.
[21] “The Catholic Herald,” 15th October 2010, p.1. 

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