The Church is facing precipitous decline, with sharp drops in practising populations. Figures that we used to see within a generation are now happening within the span of ten years.
Catholics just aren’t going to church as they once did. And it’s not due to Covid. They just don’t feel the need to.
But while there has been an appalling drop in Mass attendance on Sundays, there is flourishing a kind of secular Church, with some admirable ecclesial elements.
Many parishes in the US and elsewhere minister to LGBT people. They form a welcoming space for those who experience their sexuality at variance from the ‘norm’. I say ‘norm’ (inverted commas) as even among the hetero ‘normal’, the variance will surprise you – ability to commit, levels of vulnerability, need for sex, other physical and psychological issues etc.
Yet other organisations, including bars and clubs, have made room for LGBT people. I know the situation is problematic and laws range from the sensible to the ridiculous in defending the rights of LGBT people.
But does the LGBT crowd see the Church as a welcoming space? Hardly. This is quite sad because the Least Common Multiple of all human relationships is respect.
We can respect those we do not like or whose presence makes us uncomfortable. There is no Christian love without respect.
Another component of the secular Church that is growing is the one that sees the world as an ecological whole and not as the object of fierce exploitation. We see this particularly in the vegan movement, not to be confused with vegetarianism. Vegans eat no meat, nor eat/use anything that is produced for consumption by the killing of animals.
Interestingly, Jewish dietary laws were also a way of reminding the Jews you do not have the right to eat what you want anytime you want. Staying away from certain foods was also a way of reminding Jews animals have the right to exist. They too are part of the blessing of creation, and we ought to respect that. There was still this sense in the Church since the law books never removed fasting/abstinence on Wednesdays and Fridays.
I have heard many men say: “I must have my meat every day.” Imagine the animals saying: “I must have my human every day.”
The restaurant industry has flourished along Ariapita Avenue, and it is poised to flourish even more. That means more meat consumption. What would Laudato Si’ say about that?
One scientist remarked that if we want to take climate change seriously then we must reduce use of plastic and meat consumption by 50 per cent. It is not a message we can shout from the mountain top with untrammelled zeal since many of our benefactors are restaurateurs or meat producers.
But there can at least be a compromise position. The vegans are not weird. They are seeing what Buddhists and Hindus saw long ago. All sentient life has a place and purpose in God’s manifold and beautiful creation. We neglect that at our own peril.
A third manifestation of the secular Church is AGT (America’s Got Talent) and the many like organisations that have sprung up on every continent. I have seen all sorts of persons on these shows – recovered drug addicts, ex-prisoners, LGBT persons, children, the elderly, the autistic, the blind, the physically challenged, church choirs, fathers, and sons, the downright strange, and men telling men ‘I love you’ and shedding tears.
Isn’t this what Church is essentially about? Why are we not imitating in a manner consonant with the liturgical spirit and the way of Jesus this radical inclusivity/vulnerability, a way that opens doors of opportunity for others? There are all sorts of Bohemian people out there that we already think belong to the devil. But isn’t it our job to wrest them from the devil’s control?
I am not a fan of tattoos and sleeves but that is the lot of today’s youth. There are saints among them. We turn a blind eye to them at the risk of being locked out of the Kingdom.
Theologian Fr Daniel Horan OFM joins with others in reassessing the word ‘catholic’ which he claims has less to do with universal but ‘wholemaking’ – how do we keep the whole together, both human and non-human creation. Wholemaking has a place for all God’s creation. I immediately thought of Colossians 1:17: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
So let us not fiddle while Rome is burning. Let us recover through synodality the deeper meaning of Church.
By Fr Martin Sirju
Fr Martin Sirju is the Vicar General and Administrator at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception