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We Should Fight Battles As Well As Heal Wounds

An article by Philip Campbell in “The Catholic Herald” just after Easter 2024 cited numbers of recent baptisms/conversions in Canada, USA, France, full-to-capacity attendance at Westminster Cathedral on Good Friday, and “the growing church attendance amongst young people in Finland” as possibly being “the budding shoots of a Christian revival.” Apparently the article had been inspired by one from Justin Brierley in “The Spectator” magazine on the previous 30th March, whose headline (more confident than Mr. Campbell’s suggestion) was that “A Christian Revival Is Under Way in Britain,” and who named sixteen individuals who seem to have recognised that “secular humanism has failed” and to exemplify (to various extents) a “turning of the secular tide in the West.” Two books mentioned as evidence of this encouraging change were “The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God,” by Justin Brierley, and “The Case Against the Sexual Revolution,” by Louise Perry.

Mr. Brierley refers in his article to the insufficiency of “regarding religion as a ‘useful fiction’ for making sense of life,” and reminds readers of the importance of believing Christianity to be true; it is not “just a useful lifeboat for stranded intellectuals. … If people hadn’t actually believed in the Christian promise of redemption and if they hadn’t been able to hope in the face of death, they wouldn’t have had the courage to change the world in Jesus’s name.”

Global transformation began with a dozen men,[1] and although the process prospered by means of God’s grace more than by means of numbers, increasing numbers did help and were themselves evidence of progress. Major problems which exist today are (a) that too few Christians seem to have a significant wish to “change the world in Jesus’s [N]ame,” and (b) that even those who possess such a wish disagree about the forms which the change should take.

In “Christian Counter-Attack,” first published by Blandford Press, Ltd., in 1969 when secularism was really ‘getting into its stride’ as the dominant influence in ‘Western’ countries, Arnold Lunn and Garth Lean wrote that many Christians believed that the case for Christianity was the better “for not being stated,” whereas asserting the case for contra-Christian opinions and policies was considered natural and reasonable.[2] Pope St. John Paul made the same point: “In many social settings it is easier to be identified as an agnostic than a believer. The impression is given that unbelief is self-explanatory, whereas belief needs a sort of social legitimization which is neither obvious nor taken for granted.”[3]  

Many Christians reverse St. Paul’s exhortation to be “not conformed to this world” [4] by falling over themselves to conform to it, and in doing so are transformed by it until they are indistinguishable from the secularists among whom they live.” [5]

The certainties of the faith “are being undermined in many people by a vague religiosity lacking real commitment,” and many in Europe, and no doubt many elsewhere, “think they know what Christianity is, yet they do not really know it at all. Often they are lacking in knowledge of the most basic elements and notions of the faith.” [6] To counteract that lack of knowledge, the “New Evangelisation” project was launched in 2010 by Pope Benedict; has anything ‘concrete’ been done in your area to implement it?

St. Peter exhorted his readers to be always prepared to give an account of the faith when required. [7] The prevailing circumstances erode optimism about the quality of account which typically would be given, and even about willingness to give it. For example, in England the Archdiocese of Birmingham web-site published a “Discussion paper for Parishes following the Lent 2012 Pastoral Letter on future planning.” The Paper included a section entitled “Ongoing evangelisation – a cause for hope.” That section described “…the norm for many Catholics [as] ‘I know what I believe, but I don’t want to talk about it, and if pushed, I’m not sure I’d be confident about what I believe’.”

It should, therefore, be no surprise that according to the agenda for the 2012 Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelisation (paragraph 49), the responses to questions circulated by the Vatican in preparation for the Synod showed “that many Christian communities have not fully perceived the challenge and the magnitude of the crisis generated by [the] cultural environment, even within the Church,” and (ibid., paragraph 92) “that the process of transmitting the faith needs to be re-awakened.” The responses showed (ibid., paragraph 95) that “[t]he principal obstacles to the transmission of the faith are the same everywhere[,] and arise from within the Church [and from outside it.]” They result in intellectual disability and apostolic paralysis. As Pope Benedict XVI said at the 2012 Synod, “Being tepid is the greatest danger for Christians.” [8] It seems much more like a widespread reality than a dangerous possibility.

Sometimes one hears changes equated with a “tide” (Justin Brierley, as quoted above, used that metaphor), or with a “pendulum,” but in the present context each is an inaccurate equation. The essence of a tide is alternation of advancement and retreat, and a pendulum swings on one direction and then in the opposite one, but the ‘fortunes’ of Christianity as the dominant influence over thinking and behaviour in private and public life have not occurred according to the same inevitable process. In the lifetimes of everyone reading this article, the movement has been in only one direction – the wrong one.

Justin Brierley’s article concludes, with prudent caution: “Where this movement is headed remains to be seen.” Philip Campbell combined caution (“What we may be seeing…” is that some people “are waking up” to the surrounding realities) with confidence (“Our need for religion is hard-wired into us”), and he advised readers that “As Western civilisation fractures, the Church should be there as a field hospital, catching the fallen and restoring them for a great renewal.”

There was an interesting ‘echo’ in that metaphor.

A few months after he had been elected, Pope Francis took part in a long interview, for various Jesuit journals. According to the translation published in “America” magazine, [9] His Holiness believes that usually the first thing which comes to his mind is mistaken, and prefers to take the time needed to make a deep assessment.

Nearly half way through the interview, he said that what the Church needs most today is “nearness”, so that it has “the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful”. He mentioned several times the healing of people’s wounds. In doing that, he said, “you have to start from the ground up.… The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.” On that basis, he said that he sees the Church as “a field hospital after battle”, and that after healing a seriously injured person “we can talk about everything else.” The interviewer wrote that on multiple occasions the Pope interrupted himself several times, in order to add something to an earlier response. The transcript contained no such ‘second thoughts’ about the “field hospital.”

The healing of wounds was a very prominent part of Our Lord’s public life, and is thereby justified. There are numerous and extensive examples of it in the Church through history and today, and may there always be. After the section of the interview in which he gave highest priority to the healing of wounds, His Holiness expressed an opinion that the Church must “find a new balance”, because “moral and religious imperatives” seem sometimes to be put before “the saving love of God”. He gave the examples of contraception, abortion, and same-sex ‘marriage’, and evidently equated them with a pastoral ministry “obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently,” which “reduced [the Gospel] to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.” Instead, he called for focus “on the essentials, on the necessary things”, which are “what fascinates and attracts more”; after doing that, “you can draw even a moral consequence.”

Certainly specific moral consequences are derived from doctrinal teachings, and it is likely to be true that a message may have a better chance of acceptance if a recipient has first ‘warmed’ to the messenger. Also credible, however, is that advocates of a pastoral ministry concentrated on God’s love and mercy may thereby in effect be afraid of drawing moral consequences which risk displeasing anyone; if they have healed people’s wounds, they may see no sense in “talk[ing] about everything else” and perhaps un-doing the good work. This may be the reason why some ‘pro-lifers’ seem to talk more about consoling people who have been involved in abortion than about the intrinsic appalling evil of the act itself; on the other hand, that tendency may result from recognition that emphasis on that appalling evil has not changed the law or reduced the numbers of abortions committed, whereas advocating sympathy and compassion is easy and easily-accepted by ‘public opinion’. Pope Francis might approve of the ‘softer’ policy. Even if, however (although contradicted by mass lapsation), it “fascinates and attracts” people more than a ministry which dares to “draw even a moral consequence”, they can turn out easily to be ‘in’ the Church only “in body, not in heart,” [10] and thus de facto Protestants who may be ostensibly united in general principle but (as liberals tend to say) make up their own minds about what it means in practice. Examples are lamentably common.

Another consideration is that people can be “seriously injured” because some specific “moral and religious imperatives” such as those which His Holiness mentioned have not been over-emphasised but smothered. How many of the Catholics who still attend Mass weekly can remember significant, or any, priestly support of such imperatives which secular law and practice defy? Although there is, indisputably and justifiably, a need to heal wounds, it should not be accompanied by ‘looking the other way’ in cases when the wounds were caused by inculturated contra-Catholic ways of life. Asked by his interviewer whether the Church needs reforms, Pope Francis said that “The first reform must be the attitude.” The attitude which needs urgent ‘reforming’ is that of armour-plated serenity. The virtue of compassion is taken as obvious, but origins of the need for it are often passed over discreetly.

To see the Church “as a field hospital after battle” is to see only part of the reality. There needs to be candid recognition that battlefields exist. They are symptoms of a secularist war against Christianity in general, and particularly against some well-known principles of Catholicism. This is not new, [11] but antiquity is no excuse for indifference.

Given the existence of a war (any war), the broad choice is between helping it, hindering it, and/or trying to help its casualties. Helping casualties entails minimal risk of unpopularity, but (and this does not diminish its intrinsic value) it does not affect the conduct of the war; it is ‘damage-limitation.’ Is the Church to confine itself to the “field hospital,” dealing with an unending supply of casualties? When Our Lord predicted that the gates of Hell would not prevail against the Church,[12] He surely did not mean that the “field hospital” would never be forced to close. He surely did mean that Hell’s gates (the defences put up by Satan to protect his evil works from interference) would collapse under the weight of the Church’s attacks (‘what attacks?’ we might wonder). To the casualties, the priority is to be healed, but dealing with them while allowing the war to continue in effect unopposed is not enough.    

The more general priority is how to win the war. In simple terms, the best way of doing that is to deprive the opposition of their power to wage it. The modern war against Catholicism has legal support. Laws are made by politicians, who depend on votes for their power. Therefore, consistently with exhortations from Vatican II, it is necessary to work on public opinion and use votes to replace the faith’s enemies with its friends who will reverse immoral policies. For that to happen, there would have to be a culture-change within the Church to encourage Catholicism-compliant members to gain power over temporal affairs. Documents of Vatican II advocated that.

The Council has been linked consistently with ‘renewal’. Renewal means restoration of what has been damaged or destroyed. Philip Campbell’s article (op. cit.) concluded with reference to the ecclesiastical “field hospital catching the fallen and restoring them for a great renewal.” To confine it to an individual level is only part of what should be the objective. The whole of the temporal order must be renewed. There is an interdependence between personal betterment and the improvement of society,[13] but to believe that social improvement will result naturally from individual improvement is too easy. It may be logical, but events do not always unfold according to logic. Even temporary transformation of society depends on practical power (a) being in the right hands and (b) being used rightly.     

Pope Francis, however, told his interviewer [14] that “[w]e must not focus on occupying the spaces where power is exercised”. As noted at the outset above, he said that he is wary of his own initial responses and likes to take time to think deeply. May he (and many others) realise that praying “Thy will be done on Earth” is undermined if power is disdained.       

[1] Acts 1:13-26. 
[2] “Christian Counter-Attack,” A. Lunn & G. Lean, Catholic Book Club edition, 1970, p.1 & 2.
[3] “Ecclesia in Europa,” Pope St. John Paul, 2003, paragraph 7.  
[4] Rom. 12:2.
[5] “Christian “Counter-Attack,” op. cit., p.77-78.
[6] “Ecclesia in Europa,” op. cit., paragraph 47.  
[7] 1 Pet. 3:15.
[8] “Catholic Herald,” 12th October 2012, p.1.
[9] “A Big Heart Open to God,” 30th September 2013.
[10] “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” paragraph 837.
[11] See “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” paragraph 409.
[12] Matt. 16:18.
[13] “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” paragraph 2344; see also “Gaudium et Spes,” paragraphs 25, 26, and 30.
[14] “A Big Heart Open to God,” op. cit. .

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