There has been a mass exodus from church attendance at Christian worship, including by Roman Catholics, during the last half century. In my book, Living Love (D.L.T. 2004) I gave detailed statistics from several Western countries, of both a decline in attendance at mass and of candidates for the priesthood. Statistics apart, attendance at any Sunday mass tells the whole sad story: the virtual disappearance of young people and the fact that those present are mostly in the second half of life. In the West, the Catholic Church is haemorrhaging towards the point of extinction.
On the surface there is little change. The reduction of priests is camouflaged by new boundaries and amalgamations. The churches appear full, even if the bulk of the congregation is elderly, or made up of young children. Even in Ireland, a very devout country, Catholicism is on the point of collapse. Despite all these signs of disaster, there is a blanket denial of the crisis, reminiscent of the way in which the band on the Titanic continued to play while the ship was sinking.
Attempts are made, of course, to show that recovery is on the way. A headline in The Tablet of 31st of December 2005 reads, ’Steady Rise in Vocations’. That is to say a rise in England and Wales from 23 in 2002 to 35 in 2005. In the Christmas issue the news is that baptisms have risen from 59,096 to 62,570 in 2005, while Church attendance continues to drop from 1,071,975 to 941, 208. These pathetically small increases in vocations and baptisms, are avidly hailed, showing in reality the measure of current desperation. Whistling in the dark, putting our heads in the sand are no substitute for facing reality.
The first reality for the Church to face is to look at itself. Heaven forbid, says Rome, that this should happen. Centuries of thinking itself practically perfect is hardly a good preparation for self-examination of the Church’s limitations. Survey after survey screams that society is hungry for the ‘spiritual’, but simply does not trust the churches.
The Church makes all sorts of excuses, especially for priestly sexual scandals. These few black sheep are invoked to explain everything, as also the penetration of seminaries by homosexuals. Yet Saint Augustine’s catastrophic teaching on sexuality, which has governed the minds of both the Church and the Reformers, as well as influencing extensively the life of Christians, is rarely, if ever faced. Why? Because facing it means change and the Magisterium simply cannot cope with change. This is not because the means of change are unavailable. The Second Vatican Council announced at least one fundamental change: the need to move from biology to love in human relations. It has proved hard for the Church to embrace the single most important experience which lies at the centre of its faith. And now surprisingly, Benedict XVI’s first encyclical has love as its subject. So, we live in hope…
In the meantime we continue to receive excuses for the catastrophic decline in church attendance. All the ‘isms’ are invoked: materialism, consumerism, atheism, even though every study in the West shows the paucity of atheists. . And if it isn’t the world that is at fault, then the rotten apples in our midst are to blame. It is theologians who lead the people astray. It is theologians and the people of God, who are misinterpreting the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. It is the people of God who are disobedient. The possibility that there might be something missing in the way the Church sees itself, simply cannot be grasped. Change is ruled out. All the explanations offered certainly contain some truth. Equally they are not the major reason for the collapse of trust in the church.
What explanations have I got to offer? Basing my views on numerous surveys, that show widespread hunger for the spiritual, fifty years of lecturing all over the western world, extensive reading, listening and discerning has led me to the following conclusions:
The church is perceived as inhuman, as it has developed splendidly the spiritual side of the incarnation, while lamentably neglecting the human side. By the spiritual side I mean, it has focussed primarily on the experience of God in the building of the church through:
A) The Sacraments and principally the mass
B) Confession (when it existed)
C) The Liturgy
All this is supported by wide ranging theology and philosophy with clear cut dogmatic fundamental theological teaching.
By “lamentably neglecting the human side” I mean:
A) Whilst having the brilliant insight of declaring marriage a
sacrament, the church has failed to develop the teaching of Vatican
II which defined marriage as a community of life and love.
In other words the Magisterium is moon years away from the inner living reality of married life, in which some 80% of the People of God find their salvation. Relying on just the other sacraments, particularly the Eucharist is not enough.
The tragedy is that marriage is a sacrament, which the Magisterium does not understand, despite the insights of Vatican II. The married feel marginalised, as their life is not part of the church. This is no less than a tragedy, because, as I shall show, this sacrament is open to profound spiritual values. The bishops and Rome fail to understand the harm they are doing to marriage. That is not only a profoundly culpable neglect, but contributes massively to the evil of divorce.
B) Neglect of the human is repeated in the case of friendship. The
ordinary Catholic does not appreciate that Christ called His apostles
friends and that that is our relationship with Him. Friendship is a
basic pillar of life both for the married and the single. No major
theological thinking has been done on the subject since the thirteenth
C) Everybody now recognises that our identity is based mainly on
Work and Relationships of love. Extending theology a little
further, the Image of God in all of us, revealed in many things, is
largely constituted in these two experiences. The deafening
theological silence about work is scandalous.
Jesus made it clear that loving God, ourselves and our neighbours sums up the Christian life. The development of the spiritual life of the church is intended to help us love God. But how do we do that? Primarily through the sacraments, the liturgy and prayer supported by the Scriptures. I have attended Mass nearly every Sunday of my life and I have listened endlessly to the exhortation to love. Has the Church asked itself what do people make of that most difficult word ‘love’, which those who still come to Mass hear Sunday after Sunday? Has ‘love’ become a verbal noise that enters one ear to leave the other? Does the Church have the faintest idea how this word is interpreted and translated into practice? The Scriptures are full of practical advice on how to love and hopefully the homily makes the correlation with the readings. Or does the Church believe that mere attendance expresses the totality of this love? Is there a danger that the word ‘love’ becomes an empty Mantra? Certainly, it is the duty to attend Mass which has reverberated in my life, not to elicit how to love from this pervasive sacrament of love. Often throughout my life, I have pondered the paradox that families participate in the centrality of love in the Eucharist and a few minutes later the family row begins in the car. They arrive home and perpetuate family conflict. Does the Church recognise attendance at Mass as a compulsory ritual, or as a drink from the well of life and love? How do we make sure with St Paul that the invocation of the word ’love’ is more than a booming gong or a clashing cymbal?
The exhortation to love appears in encyclicals, in pastoral letters, repeatedly in homilies, but does the life of the Church encourage its translation into practice? Yes, we give money to Cafod, yes, some of us visit the sick, take communion to them, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, help the poor and so on. Yet, we cannot pretend that these activities constitute more than a minute part of our lives. We are bidden to love twenty-four hours around the clock and we do not, neither does the Church teach or encourage a way of life that makes this possible.
You may say I am asking the impossible. The answer is that I am not, as I shall demonstrate shortly. If we took loving seriously, if the Church placed love before law, as the main form of prayer in marriage, friendship and work, there would rarely be a moment when we are not loving.
I start with marriage because I have spent fifty years until the death of my wife living it, and some forty odd years working as a counsellor with the married. The Second Vatican Council purged the abominations from its centuries old definition. Overnight it simply replaced it with a declaration that marriage was a community of life and love. I have spent the last forty years responding to the Church’s invitation: trying to understand love in marriage.
The study of psychology illumines love in a whole variety of ways. As for my own starting point, it is quite simply the centuries old picture of the child in the arms of the Madonna. Modern psychology interprets the encounter between the baby and its mother and later of the child with both parents as the funadamental experience of love. The foundation is laid with the first intimate interaction between child and parents. These patterns of love, initiated by patterns of sound, vision, touch and smell bring expressions of trust, intimacy, security. The balance of closeness and separateness, are associated with anger, followed by forgiveness, and peace, affirmation, communication, amongst many others, all of which are expressed as love. They are followed very closely, though not entirely, in subsequent adult intimate experiences, of which marriage is the most important.
Love in marriage starts by falling in love, a madness in which we feel ecstatic, delirious, idealise our partner, want to be with them all the time, overlook their faults and forgive easily. It is the only mental illness, mania excepted, from which we do not want to be cured! As the years pass, love eventually turns into what may be termed ‘loving’. Loving is the moment to moment affective connection between spouses and of which there are four main dimensions: sustaining, healing, growth and sexual intercourse.
‘Sustaining’ comprises five categories. The first is companionship, which replicates the infant-mother, child parent physical closeness. Spouses experience it when they are just together in every day life. Secondly, there is communication, a powerful expression of love, which starts with the baby’s babbling and progresses to full adult speech. Spoken communication between men and women tends to be very different. Women often express primarily emotion. Men are often impatient and interject “so what do you want me to do? ” Men are ‘fixers‘, while women often just want to be heard. Love as a facet of communication is expressed by careful listening - taking in both the cognitive and emotional content and responding to them, so that both spouses feel fully ‘heard’ and ‘understood’. Thirdly, the demonstration of affection, as for the child, is vital for couples. It is especially here where many men fall short, by failing to express the affection which they feel. Fourthly, affirmation is important both for the child and among couples. Too many couples fail to affirm each other when things go well and then criticise each other when they go badly. Finally, there is resolution of conflict. Intimacy and conflict are the opposite sides of the same coin. Conflict when resolved has a healing effect.
After a while the two spouses recognise in each other what the world calls ‘faults‘, but I call ’wounds’. These wounds may result from poor parenting, genetic influences or both. They may take the form of shyness, lack of self-confidence, hot temper, insecurity, difficulty in showing or receiving love. Unless these wounds are tended, they may lead to marital breakdown. The healing of these wounds is a vital part of loving. Healing requires recognition of the wound with no blame or criticism. For each wound the opposite is applied. For insecurity lots of reassurance. For lack of confidence lots of affirmation. For feeling unlovable lots of demonstrative love. With the right loving there is more healing in marriage than on all the psychiatric couches in the world. This healing demands infinite patience, continuity, reliability and predictability, all major characteristics of love.
Growth far from ending at adolesence continues until we die. We grow from insecurity to security, from dependence to independence, from knowledge to wisdom, as we strive to reach our potential. Our success may well depend on the encouragement of a loving spouse.
The fourth pillar of loving is sexual intercourse. When we make love in marriage, coitus becomes the focus through which sustaining, healing and growth are transmitted to each other. Contrary to what the Church has understood by coitus, it is a central and recurrent act of love, which on every occasion gives life to the couple and occasionally new life. The absurdity of expecting each act of sexual intercourse to be open to new life, betrays ignorance of the biology of women, who are only fertile for three or four days a month. It also calls in question sexual intercourse during the long period after the menopause.
Sexual intercourse has many more positive attributes than are known in Rome. The physical pleasure in the encounter has its own language of love, rather as shaking hands is an act of endearment. Sexual intercourse, with or without words, can say at least five things:
1. ’You are the most important person in my life. I recognise,
appreciate you and want you more than anyone else.’ This is the
most powerful affirmation of our identity.
2. When we make love the man makes the woman most fully feminine
and the woman the man most fully masculine. It is the most
powerful affirmation of our sexual identity.
3. Inevitably couples argue, quarrel and hurt each other. Forgiveness
usually follows quickly. Occasionally the pain goes deeper and
lasts longer. When sexual intercourse restores the relationship, it is
an act of reconciliation.
4. We all want to be wanted. When our spouse beckons us to make
love, that becomes a supreme moment of acceptance - a repeated
act of hope.
5. Finally sexual intercourse is a profound act of thanksgiving. Thank
you for being with me yesterday, today and hopefully tomorrow. I
know all too well what this loss means when your wife has died.
Sexual intercourse has a unique spiritual dimension, as the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Sexual intercourse is thus the most significant recurrent act of marital prayer.
‘Making love’ brings us close to God. God is love and by making love we reach the very essence of divine reality. In the act of love two persons become one physically while remaining separate, united by the third element of love. Sexual intercourse is an excellent symbol of the Trinity and gives the couple another entry into the Godhead.
Is it fair to blame the Catholic hierarchy for failing to develop a theology of marriage. Up to the Second Vatican Council the clergy could plead ignorance, but under Pope John the Church achieved a new appreciation of the spiritual enrichment of marriage. Rome is surely culpable in causing the Church to tear itself in pieces over contraception, while failing to heal one of the worst evils of our age, marital breakdown. By failing to deal with the human side of the incarnation alongside the spiritual, many of those leaving the Church feel unconsciously that they are being cheated of their human connection with God. Rome fails to grasp that within marriage there are many opportunities for the expression of that love, so often invoked, but
without any practical guidance on how it can be put into effect. For, marital love when properly understood is a profound source of sanctification.
In the Gospel of St John we read: “This is my commandment, love one another as I have loved you. No one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends.” (John 15:12-15)
Friendship, unlike marriage, has not been defined by the Church as a Sacrament. Yet who can deny its centrality in the life of Christ as a means of communicating His love, that is of the essence of God Himself. Friendship, alongside marriage, is part of the human side of the incarnation, lived in, centred on and expressing love, which is the nature of God. Friendship is a mirror of marriage in everything apart from sexual intercourse. The everyday practices of friendship, such as running errands for our neighbour, helping in times of emergency, visiting our friends, offering hospitality etc. all signal our availability to friends. Showing understanding, patience, tolerance, being unjudgemental are alll qualities of friendship seen in Christ. Friendship reduces loneliness, aids communication, which in turn affirms friendship, while engendering the trust, important for everyone. Within trust the conditions are open for self disclosure, which is central to being human. For disclosure can lead us to discover who we are, to reflect on our identity and affirm it. Jesus asked his apostles who people said he was and more importantly who they said he was, eliciting the proper answer from Peter that He was the Son of God. Friends, because they see us less often, are better placed than spouses to notice gradual changes in personality, which can aid us in discovering an unfolding self. Two of the commonest psychological problems are anxiety and depression and both, if mild, can be helped and supported by friends through reassurance and talking. As with marriage, so with friendship, people are cheated by a Church, which fails to instruct them in how to cherish and to deepen this spirituality, as practised by Christ.
The third element of the humanity missing from the Church’s understanding of Incarnation is work, which with relationships largely constitutes our identity. Every moment at work we are in relationship with God, as his co-workers in furthering His creation. Does the tired doctor know, that by continuing dutifully to examine the next patient realise he is doing God‘s work? Does the hospital pathologist realise that the report he has just sent back is God’s work. Does the bricklayer appreciate that the next brick he lays is God’s work? No one will have told these people, least of all the Church.
In view of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on work and a whole compendium of the Church’s social teaching, is it fair to arraign the Church for failing to teach the sanctity of work? We can only applaud what the Pope says about the dignity of work and the rights of the worker. There remain two problems. First 99.9% of the People of God will not have read the encyclical. Secondly, the link is missing between high theory and the care with which the next brick is laid. In homilies on the parable of the vineyard, in which each worker is paid the same amount, the sanctity of labour itself is hardly ever given its due.
For ordinary Catholics the practice of religion takes place for about one hour in a church building. Little effort is made to help Catholics appreciate their connection with God during all the other hours of the week. In Living Love ( DLT 2004 ) I have proposed that the home, called the domestic church by Vatican II, where grace flows throughout the twenty-four hours of every day of the week, and the work place where grace also flows, be connected with the grace of Mass on Sunday. Needless to say, the Magisterium, though not the People of God, is oblivious to these ideas.
Why then do I stay in the Church? Because, whilst the Church throughout its history and particularly at the present time has many human limitations, it remains the one and only authentic mystical body of Christ and nothing will detach me from the love of Christ. I have spent a lifetime remonstrating against the Church’s mistakes. My purpose is not only to help the Church, but to be a witness to the truth, which the People of God deserve. I do this in my name and that of my late wife who taught me all I know about love.