Monday, April 1, 2013

A smaller, purer church...

I unintentionally went on an Easter “bender” this weekend.  Saturday night I hit the moderately attended Easter vigil at the local cathedral and then went to a moderately attended Easter morning Mass with one of my daughters.  Since that Mass included only two Easter hymns and one of them was played at a tempo my daughter thought might inspire Jesus to re-mount himself on the cross, she insisted we hit yet another Easter Mass in hopes of singing some standard favorite Easter hymns.  That Mass wasn’t full either with most every pew having room for a few more people. 

I seem to recall Easter Masses that were standing-room-only even as recent as a few years ago.  “Where have all the people gone, long time passing?”

The attendance shift did not go unnoticed.  One of the priests remarked about the decline in Mass attendance over even the last 5 – 10 years.  However, he said that we don’t know why people stay away.  And, once again, I found myself uttering something aloud in church when I said, “Yes we do.”  But, this time I was not alone because my daughter said the same thing simultaneously, and then began to enumerate causes: sexual abuses, bishops' lack of accountability, power abuses, money mismanagement, misplaced priorities, new Mass translation, marginalization of women and homosexuals, ignoring the poor and immigrants, political agendas of bishops, excommunications, leaders who seem to act opposite the gospels, etc…

I found the whole thing a bit ironic.  On Christmas day, 1969 Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) gave a radio address that predicted a smaller and more pure church.  That has been the mantra of neo-orthodox Catholics for decades with them speaking gleefully about how wonderful having a smaller, purer church would be, and working hard to achieve it. 

Well, it seems that with Easter unable to draw a full-house many places, the much vaunted "smaller church" has arrived!  The ortho-cratic temple police succeeded driving people away, to the point many won’t stomach even one sentimental holiday liturgy with them.  One would expect celebration for achieving a target rather than hearing “Wha’ happened?”    

Note to Ortho-crats: If you have a long-standing stated objective and undertake sustained concerted efforts to achieve that objective, don’t feign dismay and confusion that you achieved your target.

Some area churches were giving away copies of a book written by a prominent but theologically unqualified self-promoting Catholic author.  Having heard the guy speak, and read part of one of his books, I know he plays fast and loose with facts, inventing them if necessary to support his points.  He counts on people not checking his facts and with millions of sold books, he seems to have assumed correctly.  My theory is that since the guy also runs a secular motivational speaking business, his Jesus-business is a front to increase demand for his secular business – but using a non-profit organization and all its tax shelters to do his marketing.

He also plays fast and loose with Catholic theology but the hierarchy loves him anyway because he rabidly implores people to follow hierarchical leaders blindly.  Jesus says the only unpardonable sin is denial of the Spirit but the Catholic hierarchy these days seems very comfortable denying the Spirit in others and deems questioning them or holding them accountable as unpardonable sins instead. 

I’m not going to promote the guy by mentioning his name.  But, I will say that his charitable foundation with an abysmal score of 23.84 out of 70, and zero out of a possible four stars has the lowest ratings I’ve ever seen given by Charity Navigator, an organization that tracks legitimacy and fiduciary responsibility of charities. 

As I mentioned, many of the neo-orthodox love the guy and so does the hierarchy even though the guy spouts numerous theologically incorrect concepts…but then so do the neo-orthos and the hierarchy.

Anyway, I looked at one of his websites and found this sales pitch for his books:

You decide… Forget the spiritual benefits for a moment and focus just on the financial benefits. If one person comes back to the Church because you give them a book on the way out of Church this Easter or Christmas and that book re-engages them, here are the statistics: If that person is 40 years old and lives to be 80, and puts just $10 in the basket each week, that returning Catholic will contribute $520 over the next year… and $20,800 over the rest of his/her lifetime.

Ah, suddenly it becomes clear… a “smaller, purer” church is “good” but a “smaller, poorer” one isn’t.  Oh the difference a vowel can make.  Those retro, disco-ball vestments call for real coin, my friends.  And let us not forget the bill to pay for the new Mass translation materials.  Lobbying politicians also is an expensive hobby as are direct marketing campaigns to marginalize and dehumanize fellow humans.  But, all those pale in comparison to the expenses of court costs fighting to not pay restitution to abuse survivors and then eventually paying restitution to abuse survivors when every "loving" last effort to discredit them and avoid responsibility fails.  Let’s face it, dividing the flock costs money so they need to re-attract some of the people they drove away to help pay to drive them away again. 

One pastor questioned in his Easter bulletin column if the early Christians truly sold everything and laid the proceeds at the feet of the apostles, who then ensured that "There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need. (Acts 4:34 - 35)."  This same pastor (an apostle), as is the case with most pastors (apostles), allocates precisely 0% of the parish budget to care for the poor. He instead encouraged others to share with the poor.  "Where has all the money gone, long time passing?"  The money currently laid at apostles' feet primarily goes to fund the apostles' staff and property upkeep.  And we wonder, "where have all the people gone?"   

It is a smaller church but is it a “purer” one?  I dunno.  For whatever reason when I turned to shake hands with one woman near me at the sign of peace, she looked me squarely in the eye and then turned her back on me...without shaking my hand.  Was that indicative of a purer church?  Who would Jesus snub?

Interestingly enough, the gospel reading for the Easter Vigil tells of the three women learning of Jesus’ resurrection and running to tell the Apostles…who didn’t believe them...  Let’s think about this.  The male apostles did not believe the truth of the gospel good news the women apostles told them and this dehumanizing dismissal of the women's experience is just skimmed over usually.  

How did the male apostles' "epic fail" initially rejecting the gospel good news proclaimed to them by women turn into their supremacy in interpreting the gospels, their exclusive control on the ministry to proclaim it, and their exclusion of women from proclaiming it anymore? Perhaps the same way today's apostles doubt that their early Christian predecessors actually took money given them and used it for the poor instead of building edifices and staffs?

There seems to be a fair amount of re-writing history to preserve what the apostles hope is truth rather than seeking truth.  And this is accompanied by persecution of those who commit the unpardonable sin of questioning the invented history as they seek truth.  The ortho-crats prefer that those who commit the unpardonable sin of questioning invented histories leave the community.  This has happened with many believers leaving the community.  How sustainable is the current model?   

If the church will not die unto invented history, can it be resurrected in truth?  Do you and should you fund your own or others’ delusions?  Do you overflow in sharing with the poor or is it a token gesture to make you feel good?  Should we be concerned that the church is smaller or rejoice that many of the faithful left the institution rather than lose their faith? 


  1. I found the minimalist approach of B16 thoroughly depressing. I also found myself on the margins, of course. The renewal that Francis is bringing is a breath of fresh air to me. In the line of what I see Jesus doing in the gospel. I imagine many of us will return. As is well known, however, once one has left, one never can return to the home one had left :-)

  2. Spot on. I've noticed attendance at my local parish dropping, and there were not many in the congregation at the Easter Vigil mass.

  3. Perhaps we need to expand the definition of Simony to include the sale of access to the church. No-one begrudges the apostles their daily bread, but gold chalices, vestments, other tools to awe and cow the faithful seem simply immoral especially when paid for by the pious who entrust their hard-earned money to shepherds who seem interested only in the next shearing.
    On the other hand, to value souls by the amount the put in the basket on Sunday has the merit of honesty, I suppose.

  4. I like what you write here. I especially picked up on:

    a “smaller, purer” church is “good” but a “smaller, poorer” one isn’t.

    One of the reasons the church is being relatively successful in the developing world is that it is an aid donor, via various catholic charities. While this is a good thing, it is much easier to be liked it you come bringing gifts than if you have your hand out asking for money all the time. One problem the "smaller, poorer" church will face is that it is the despised western church that funds the church in the developing world. As the western church shrinks, the money to make it look good in the developing world shrinks too.

    Pope Francis is lifting the atmosphere among the group that felt marginalised (or pushed out altogether). At my parish in Sydney, Australia there was in fact a very noticeable lift in attendance over the Easter and also a very marked difference it atmosphere. There was a tangible feeling of hope that there just might be a change of direction ahead.

  5. @Anonymous, you raise some interesting points. The church has been growing in the developing world and that's largely funded by catholic charities from the west. In the US, over (well over) 50% of Catholic charities' money comes from government sources. It's a minority that actually comes from private donations.

    I wonder with the vitriolic stance the bishops have taken against the government, if they will continue to enjoy such lavish funding from the government (while at the same time filing lawsuits about "religious liberty").

    So, I think the shrinking population combined with the possible shift in government funding will be interesting to watch.

    I think there is guarded optimism about the new pope. The big test will be if he tackles some of the major institutional and governance issues.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    1. Thanks for that.

      BTW, I'm only "anonymous" because I couldn't make the "select profile" thing work for me, not because I want to hide.

  6. Great, great article. I liked it so much I am linking your blog to my sidebar.