Category Archives: Catholic Church

Death by Monopoly, The Territorial Parish, and A Modest Proposal for the New Evangelization

This thought has been bouncing around in my head for some time now. At some point a year or so ago I was tempted to write it down but time slipped away. I thought of it again today as the topic came up in a conversation I had so I thought best to write it down even though I can’t hope that in such a short proposal it would be more than a shadow of my hoped for articulation. I pray others will respond if only because the vision is compelling to me and I wonder if it is possible. At some point I would like to see a scholarly treatment if only because a movement usually needs some philosophy and historical context (my sense is that this proposal has much to support it but I have done no research to speak of).

I’m no theologian and no expert on Canon law or Catholic history. But it seems to me that if one were to look for an underlying cause of the lack of growth, dynamism, and excitement in your typical parish in the United States one need look no further than the parish structure itself. For all the value there is in the hierarchy, for all the benefits that it lends to preserving and developing revealed truths, there is no getting around the fact that a system that is very good in preserving truth may raise certain challenges to propagating it. That is to say, it lends itself to a slow, lazy, risk-averse and somnolent bureaucracy that takes its members and its future for granted despite its long winded prognostications to the contrary. Specifically, and more concretely, while I am sure there are many higher level examples of this problem, I would like to discuss the territorial exclusivity that one calls the parish. Pull out your local diocesan map and you’ll see that if you live between Main Street and Elm Street, your parish is Saint Anne’s, but if you live between Elm and Maple you will be attending St. Joe’s. Now granted in this modern age these boundaries aren’t nearly as well honored as they were in years past but still there is plenty of compliance. In addition, and most importantly, your parish priest, the priest of St. Anne’s (you live between Main and Elm if I didn’t tell you) knows he has you. He knows he has a built-in fully loaded prepackaged parish. With no effort. It’s there. Now, again, I grant you this doesn’t mean you will show up. In fact, you probably won’t because most Catholics today don’t. But regardless Father knows he has some level of a built in base of souls, typically of the well-seasoned type who are close to meeting their maker, and of course, are currently living between Main and Elm. Father opens the doors on Sunday and lo and behold he has a congregation. This structure has its advantages in focusing a priest’s attentions and service on his flock. But no doubt it is a recipe for the fat and successful pulled from happier times. Times perhaps when the Church was living large. When there were so many priests that it was deemed necessary to grant exclusive fiefdoms.

But that is not today. There are many good things happening in most dioceses but I think it’s probably true that a strong growth wave in either priests or members is not one of them. Parishes need competition between themselves to sharpen the quality of their leadership, programs, mass, homilies, and sacraments, and to create new and better ways to attract more souls for God. The only way to do this in my humble opinion is to get rid of territorial exclusivity. Permit parishes to be formed wherever a dynamic priest or group of dynamic priests, whether diocesan or not, and lay team can gather a committed flock. Permit and even encourage cross-parish poaching of members, with the understanding that the more healthy inter-diocesan rivalries are fostered, the stronger the diocese as a whole will be. Give at least associate priests the ability to transfer from one parish to the other without Diocesan micromanagement and consider permitting the same for pastors. Don’t fear the splitting of the pie but its staling.

Do you want to see vocations, priests, brothers, and women religious, take off ? Give them a diocese where every block is free for the taking and territorial monopolies are non-existent. I guarantee you the that unshackling parishes from territorial boundaries and opening them to competition will attract leaders capable of growing the church like it hasn’t seen before. The dynamism, quality, and diversity that is reflected in the unbounded Catholic social media will be replicated in living breathing communities.

The lack of exclusive territories of course also suggests that any long term central planning or micromanaging by the Diocese which are open to sway by diocesan politics would be replaced with a deference to successful strategies proven in the new marketplace of evangelism.

Of course this will be opposed by those priest and parishes that like the stable and guaranteed, but increasingly old and shrinking congregation. And it will be difficult for Bishops. It will require Bishops to referee with a light touch entrusting growth to the Holy Spirit. At the same time, it will liberate the Bishop from micromanaging growth and dictating which parishes survive or die, permitting them to focus instead on teaching doctrinal truths, evangelization, and encouraging and enforcing orthodoxy.

For a contrast to the territorial parish, see the evangelical protestant model. The single church denominational model has no choice but to compete for members with other nearby congregations. They must think creatively, grow rapidly and act efficiently. Marry this model with the full measure of the Truth that is found only in the Catholic Church and bind it with the guidance of the magisterium and the world will be on fire.

In closing, I have no doubt that this is hopelessly naive and there’s a million reasons why it won’t work. Let’s hear them. Please comment below.

The Pope’s Comments in the Field Hospital

Some reports are that Pope Francis is calling the church to “pull back” from talking on the abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. In case you haven’t read them, below are the Pope’s comments in context (full interview, link below, is longer). I don’t take it as that, only that he’s talking about the manner of ministering. As the subsection of the article says and as the Pope said, the church today is a “field hospital” and people are the wounded – in a way far too gone for the immediate focus on morality. He’s not talking about NOT talking about these issues, but how to – to proclaim the message of salvation first, and THEN to teach morality/catechism. I don’t think he’s talking about political strategies – i.e., how strongly the church will respond and comment on social issues, but about pastoral ministry to people who are suffering the consequence of sin or are seeking. Then you focus on what “fascinates and attracts” – the person of Jesus, the spirituality. I agree on all of that – as long we’re talking pastoral ministry – people need to be converted spiritually before they are going to accept the morality. Mainly because they are too blind to the message by clouds of sin and hurt. On the social front as a whole the Church needs to be, and I hope will continue to be, outspoken and strong and clear. Of course the media will ignore that distinction. And giving this message in a public interview to a Jesuit magazine is not in my opinion the most media savvy or politically wise thing to do and guaranties there will be all sorts of misunderstandings and opportunities for people to exploit the comments and use them to silence pro-lifers/pro-family advocates. NARAL apparently did just that on their facebook page thanking the Pope. The next day after these comments were published Pope Francis came out with very prolife comments (see link below). The important thing is the results – promoting a culture of life. And only time, a long time, will tell.

The Church as Field Hospital

Pope Benedict XVI, in announcing his resignation, said that the contemporary world is subject to rapid change and is grappling with issues of great importance for the life of faith. Dealing with these issues requires strength of body and soul, Pope Benedict said. I ask Pope Francis: “What does the church need most at this historic moment? Do we need reforms? What are your wishes for the church in the coming years? What kind of church do you dream of?”

Pope Francis begins by showing great affection and immense respect for his predecessor: “Pope Benedict has done an act of holiness, greatness, humility. He is a man of God.

.“I see clearly,” the pope continues, “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.

“The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. 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. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.

“How are we treating the people of God? I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they must also be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.

“Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.”

I mention to Pope Francis that there are Christians who live in situations that are irregular for the church or in complex situations that represent open wounds. I mention the divorced and remarried, same-sex couples and other difficult situations. What kind of pastoral work can we do in these cases? What kinds of tools can we use?

“We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner,” the pope says, “preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound. In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this. During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.

“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.

“This is also the great benefit of confession as a sacrament: evaluating case by case and discerning what is the best thing to do for a person who seeks God and grace. The confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better. I also consider the situation of a woman with a failed marriage in her past and who also had an abortion. Then this woman remarries, and she is now happy and has five children. That abortion in her past weighs heavily on her conscience and she sincerely regrets it. She would like to move forward in her Christian life. What is the confessor to do?

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.

“The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.

“I say this also thinking about the preaching and content of our preaching. A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing. The homily is the touchstone to measure the pastor’s proximity and ability to meet his people, because those who preach must recognize the heart of their community and must be able to see where the desire for God is lively and ardent. The message of the Gospel, therefore, is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.”

Full America Magazine Interview

The next day after these comments were published:

Pope condemns abortion in strongest pro-life comments to date, day after controversial interview

The Depopulation Implosion

I recently came across a talk (mp3) given for the Long Now foundation by Philip Longman. The thesis can be described as a summation of his book which is described in his bio as follows:

His other books include The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity And What to Do About It, published by Basic Books in 2004 and reissued in paperback in 2006. It examines how the rapid yet uneven fall in birth rates around the globe is affecting the balance of power between nations and influencing the global economy and culture.

He points out that large portions of the world suffer from a non-replacement rate population growth, with the United States being one of the few countries that are reproducing at a 2.1 child per couple rate (replacement being 2.1, the .1 being the extra 1/10 needed to make up for early death). He says that even in Muslim Iran, the reproduction rate is less than replacement As the population ages, there will be fewer workers, and a larger older non-producing population. In short, a disaster for the whole human race, maybe a fatal one. He does an excellent job laying out the problem and there’s an interesting question and answer period with one questioner asking the obvious that doesn’t this inevitably lead to euthanasia as a solution? He decries the fact that the “fundamentalists” are the only ones bucking the trend (by which he means Mormons – he apparently (and rightly so given the widespread disregard for the teaching on contraception) doesn’t consider Catholics a group that poses a threat to the trend)

I’ve heard this argument before but this guy is no conservative – he’s a liberal who’s not afraid of saying the emporer has no clothes. Once again the truth and wisdom of Humanae Vitae is shown. Give Mr. Longman a listen.