Catholicism cannot be reinvented as if from a clean slate in every generation
Just recently, as this magazine reports, a large 19th Century church was demolished in Germany. This happened as part of a planned removal of an entire village to make room for an open cast mine, and the new settlement has a new church, but the pictures perhaps speak louder than words, and provide an eloquent testimony to the precipitous decline of German Catholicism.
If the point needs reinforcing, last year Himmerod Abbey closed, after 883 years. Gradually, one cannot help but feel, Catholicism is being removed from the German landscape. And yet, the German Church is perhaps the richest in the world, thanks to the German Church tax which in 2016 brought in more than six billion euros.
You would think with all that money that the German Church would be able to finance some effective evangelisation. But of course, the most effective evangelisers are those who have no cash at all. One thinks of Saint Francis of Assisi, and of Mother Teresa, both firmly wedded to Holy Poverty. My guess is that the richer you are, the poorer you are spiritually: the richer a Church gets, the more it drives people away, and not just the sort of people who do not want to pay the Church Tax. Put simply, vast institutional wealth makes you less Christian.
As if on cue to tell us how decayed the German Church is from within, here comes Bishop Bode of Osnabruck, vice-president of the bishops’ conference, with his suggestion that we should start talking about the blessing of same-sex unions. The bishop has, in terms that will be familiar to many readers, “called for a debate” on this matter, though one suspects he has a pretty firm idea of where that debate should lead and what the result should be. After all, if you wanted to reinforce the Church’s traditional teaching, you would not call for it to be debated, would you?
How would these blessings of same-sex unions work? Presumably, the German Church would only bless the unions of those who have paid the Church Tax, and the number of people seeking such a blessing with their Church Tax up to date might be rather small. As for the devout Catholics who do pay their tax, they might be pretty fed up by the thought of just what the hierarchy, who are very well remunerated, are up to. Might they not consider a Church Tax strike? Is the matter of blessings for same-sex unions really the most pressing matter of the moment?
Far more pressing is the need for the proper proclamation of the eternal verities, the truth about God and the truth about humankind, along with the truth about the proper place for sexual relations in marriage and marriage alone, and marriage as it was understood by the whole of humanity until very recently, being the lifelong union of a man and a woman for the procreation of children. The only debate we need is one on how better to proclaim these truths.
Bishop Bode’s remarks are to be regretted because they seem to reveal that he is unsure about the unchanging tradition of the Church; he seems to think it can and should change. Well, it certainly should develop, but there is a difference between change and development. The Bode approach, and he does not seem to be alone in this, seems to be that Catholicism can be reinvented ab initio, da capo, as if from a clean slate, in every generation. It can’t. This is a serious mistake.
Every generation including our own has to be in conversation with preceding generation. Every theologian and bishop needs to ‘talk to’ the theologians and bishops of the past. Historical amnesia is the death of Catholicism, and to be avoided at all costs. Our own generation has its own insights, it is true, and these are not to be dismissed, but neither are they to be canonised. We, the people of today, cannot claim that a bright new sun has risen and banished the age of darkness that preceded our own. Rather, we have to test all our insights against the faith as lived by previous generations.
If we do not do this, then we build without proper foundations. And we all know how that ends. “And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” (Matthew 7:26-27).