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Ökumenik, Konfessionskunde


Hellemans, Staf, and Jozef Wissink[Eds.]


Towards a New Catholic Church in Advanced Modernity. Transformations, Visions, Tensions.


Münster u. a.: LIT Verlag 2012. 277 S. = Tilburg Theological Studies, 5. Kart. EUR 29,90. ISBN 978-3-643-90204-7.


Paul Avis

Neben dem angegebenen Titel in dieser Rezension besprochen:

Hertlein, Saskia, and Hermann Josef Schnackertz[Eds.]: The Culture of Catholicism in the United States. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter 2012. 396 S. m. Abb. = American Studies. A Monograph Series, 213. Geb. EUR 45,00. ISBN 978-3-8253-5938-6.
Beentjes, Pancratius Cornelis [Ed.]: The Catholic Church and Modernity in Europe. Münster u. a.: LIT Verlag 2009. 241 S. = Tilburg Theological Studies, 3. Kart. EUR 24,90. ISBN 978-3-643-90023-4.

These three collections of studies describe the vast changes that the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) has undergone in Europe and America over the past half-century and set out the daunting challenges that the Church of Rome faces today. The books were written and published after one great watershed in the history of the RCC had occurred – the international sexual abuse scandal, which broke in the USA in 2002 – but before what at the present moment looks as though it may prove to be another watershed – the reforming pontificate of Francis I.
The revelations of widespread sexual abuse and the grossly inadequate response of the hierarchy, sometimes involving reprehensible attempts to cover it up, seem to mark a turning point in the fortunes of modern Roman Catholicism. The RCC is, of course, a strongly hierarchical and rigidly structured institution. Doctrine, governance, liturgy and permissions to act come down from above– from »the successor of Peter« and the »Vicar of Christ«, who in practice acts like a universal bishop, as Vatican I put it, taking the whole world as his diocese. In the case of the sexual abuse scandal, the hierarchy manifestly failed and, as a result, has lost much of its authority, just as it did once before, in the Great Schism of the West in 1378 when there were two, then three popes: the institution fell apart. The papacy is seen by RCs as the hub and guarantor of unity, truth and holiness. When the papacy fails, the wider Church will tend to look for an opportunity to bring about comprehensive reform and renewal of the institution. In such a way the Council of Constance re-unified the papacy in the early fifteenth century by implementing the conciliar theory of church governance that had been stimulated by the Schism (though the Council's attempts at reform were muted and were ultimately frustrated by the strengthening of the papacy that the Council itself had achieved).
The first volume under review here will prove to be an eye-open­er for anyone not familiar at first hand with the condition of the RCC in the USA. It presents a series of striking facts, figures and interpretations. There is a paradox in the fact that, while the default religious culture and self-image of America is Protestant, the RCC is the largest single denomination. Roman Catholics (RCs) make up more than one fifth of the population – around 65 million souls. While a high proportion of American RCs claim Germanic descent, one third of all RCs in the USA are of Hispanic origin, their first language being Spanish or Portuguese. The basic values of the Amer­i­can ideal are freedom, democracy, pluralism and individualism. But these values are not strongly reflected in the way that the RCC conducts its business. The laity have no executive role in church affairs and the Vatican’s disciplinary procedures do not always conform to standards of natural justice. Religious freedom and freedom of conscience, along with some recognition of the validity of other religions, was affirmed by the Second Vatican Council in a revolutionary reversal of traditional RC teaching. (In 1832 Gregory XVI condemned freedom of religion and freedom of the press as a »menacing error«; later Pius IX memorably protested that he had no intention of reconciling himself to »the modern world«.) But the official stance of the RCC remains that the faithful (clergy and laity) are expected to receive and accept the teaching and direction of the Church with unquestioning obedience. The culture of clericalism and deference to authority that prevails in the RCC runs counter to the deepest intuitions of American ideology, where »rugged indi-vidualism« is the order of the day. In the sphere of political ethics, the concept of the Common Good, which the RCC has taken the lead in promoting, sits uneasily with the typical American predilection for self-interested competition, where »the weakest go to the wall«.
The result of these tensions is what is described here as a »hybrid« or syncretistic form of RC spirituality. The most extreme example is the RC-Voodoo syncretism in the South of the USA in the nineteenth century, described in a fascinating essay by Nina Möllers. More typically, outward conformity (attendance at Mass and other church activities) is combined in private life with the quint­essentially American values of competition, moral self-determination and material prosperity. Of course, this tension is not confined to America, but is pervasive in Western European countries too, where Roman Catholicism is a significant presence. Neither is it restricted to RCs, because Protestant and Anglican Christians live their lives and loves with the same tensions and dilemmas. All the churches wrestle with issues of gender, human sexuality, marriage and divorce. The Protestant churches in Europe and America have, on the whole, proved more willing to accommodate themselves to prevailing social mores, or to put it another way, to conform to the spirit of age. Anglican churches have been slower and more reluctant to accept change in the moral sphere, though they have moved in the end. But the RCC has a serious problem in contemporary society with issues of gender and sexuality. It condemns homo-sexuality outright and excommunicates those who are divorced and remarried.
Fifty years ago 74 % of American RCs attended Mass every week. Church life embraced not only Sundays but the whole week. The election of the first and so far the only RC President, John F. Kennedy in 1960 marked the high point of RC confidence and influence. Moreover, at that time Pope John XXIII had an announced the first »Ecumenical« Council since 1871. But as Gerald P. Fogarty puts it in his survey of developments over the past 50 years, »The euphoria that accompanied Kennedy’s election and the approaching council soon turned to turmoil«. RCs were active in the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War protests and the civil disorder that accompanied them. There was a mood of questioning and dissatisfaction within the status quo. By 1968, the year of student revolution in Europe, dissent had moved right inside the RCC. That year saw the high-profile dismissal of Charles Curran from his official chair for challenging the official line on ethical issues. The highpoint for numbers of seminarians, clergy and religious was reached in 1966; from then onwards the statistics show a steady and alarming decline. Robert Putnam’s benchmark article of 1995, »Bowling Alone«, highlighted the endemic individualism of American culture and the fading of solidarity, fellowship and social capital generally. The RCC was not exempt from these trends.
However, the RCC in the USA retains enormous numerical and institutional strength. Unlike the Protestant denominations that are more socially segmented, it includes a broad cross-section of the population. It still has the capacity to make an impact at all levels of civil society. It is potentially a powerful force for Christian witness and social good. But, to be effective, the approximately 350 RC bishops (all appointed by Rome) must adapt to modern culture and especially to the use of the mass media. They have not been confident in handling the media; the coverage of the sexual abuse scandal by the tame RC press was disastrous. One last thought-pro-voking fact about the power of the media: apparently most young Americans have derived what they know of religion and of the RCC in particular, from the movies – the Church in American films is always the RCC; it is much more colourful and interesting than Protestantism!
I now turn to two valuable collections of studies of the state and fate of Christianity in general and of Roman Catholicism in par-ticular in Western Europe. There is some overlap of contributors (Staf Hellemans, Henk Witte, Peter Jonkers, Jozef Wissink) and of themes between the two, as is to be expected in the Tilburg Theological Studies series. Both books contain useful analyses of ad-vanc­ed or late modernity, with reference to the dynamics of the secularization of society, the privatization of religion and the driv­ing force of individual consumer choice. The Catholic Church and Modernity in Europe is rather more weighted towards a theological response to modernity, including an affirmation of apologetics, and slightly more critical of advanced modernity, especially where it shows itself in selfish individualism. Towards a New Catholic Church in Advanced Modernity is slightly more weighted towards sociology. But what we have in both volumes is theologically aware sociology and sociologically aware theology – a most fruitful conjunction.
The context and centre of gravity of both works is The Netherlands, but the analysis that they offer applies to several other countries in Western Europe (Britain is given particular attention). The authors are mostly comfortable in advanced modernity, a complex, liquid social reality, subject to constant changes and breaks of continuity. They want the RCC to embrace it and adapt to it. They affirm that God is present in liquid modernity. They find in the contemporary individual quest for authenticity and meaning an opportunity for the gospel and the Church. But advanced modernity lacks resources of solidarity and compassion. For this it needs the transcendent vision that Christianity provides.
Slightly overblown claims are made that Vatican II adopted a stance of »critical solidarity with advanced modernity« (52) and that its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the modern World »reasserted the deep correspondence between Christianity and En­lightenment« (82). But it is undeniable that the church finds itself within modernity, whether it likes it or not and that the Church of today is, at last in part, a product of modernity. The progressive administrative centralisation of the global RCC (which the contributors regret) is itself a manifestation of modernity and a response to it. It is asserted that modernity should not be seen as a purely Protestant production: RCs have also contributed to its making (here the authors could have referred to recent work in the history of ideas on the RC Enlightenment in Europe). Charles Taylor’s suggestion that secularisation is the eventual outcome of both Protes­tant and RC reform movements is mentioned. But, it is suggested, Protestant theology has often been seen as antipathetic to modern­ity because it has despised reason, especially in the sphere of salvation. This seems doubtful. What Protestantism has often tended to reject is image, symbol and ritual, which are fruitful points of contact for the Church’s mission and may be the seedbed for conversion.
Although the RCC is deeply implicated in modernity as such, it has not adapted to the present, advanced form of modernity, marked by a high degree of individualism and consumer choice. Two salient characteristics of the RCC – asceticism with regard to the body and sexuality, combined with the demand for implicit, un­questioning obedience to an authority that does not need to give its reasons – are not recognised within the scale of values of ad-vanced modernity. The authors believe that advanced democratic societies have many virtues; they are open, tolerant and generous and they have the ability to combine a wide range of differences in a stable environment. The RCC should be more like them.
The contributors grapple with the challenge posed by the gradual disappearance of majority mass Roman Catholicism with its all-embracing church life based on the parish and Catholic organisations. Religious practice is no longer a comprehensive life-world: the church is reduced to offering only core religious activities. A whole Catholic world has passed away since 1960. The authors do not blame those who have »voted with their feet« and become distanced from the church. They blame the institution, the hierarchy and the Vatican. Its secretive, unaccountable ways of working arouse suspicion, suspicion that can be dispelled only by transparency. People are alienated by the negative, judgemental tone of the church’s public pronouncements, especially on moral issues. They are repelled by the scandal of sexual abuse of minors and other vulnerable persons and the way that it has been generally handled. They are baffled and indignant at the official stance of the RCC on issues of gender and sexuality, sometimes unsupported by reasoned theological argument. Alongside these specific issues, there is a widespread distrust of large historic, public institutions and the ever-increasing bureaucracy that they generate. Parish-based mass Catholicism has had its day and cannot be revived. Altogether, Anthony Carroll believes, »the Catholic Church has teetered on the brink of a meltdown in its very institutional fabric« (70).
What might replace the traditional model of the RCC? The authors entertain various future scenarios. One model is the sect – a tiny, marginal but strict community: basically irrelevant to the wider society, but actually a very possible future for the church if present trends continue. Another model is the minority church – much diminished in popular support and social influence, but still an institution to be taken seriously. The third scenario – and this seems to be the model preferred by some contributors – is the »li-beral fellowship«: less of an institution, more of a network, tolerant of a wide range of personal lifestyle and belief choices. Henk Witte’s analyses of ecclesiological models sets certain benchmarks in this context and there are also worthwhile discussions of the implica-tions for liturgy and mission. There is an especially useful essay, by Peter Jonkers, on why we become attached to religious traditions. But one thing is clear: the RCC in Europe needs to become a church that is attractive to people who know that they can choose otherwise, people seeking well being and happiness.
How might the RCC in Europe become more attractive? It must, the authors believe, evolve new paths of spirituality and belonging to replace the moribund parish structure and Sunday Mass attendance and must provide layered forms of spirituality for people at very different stages in their spiritual journey. It must invest in personal spirituality and identity-construction. These new paths may take the form of working more intentionally with Christian symbols and images through such activities as pilgrimages and large stage-managed, multi-media gatherings.
Looking at the RCC and indeed mainland Europe from the outside, I do not entirely share the authors’ pessimism about the parish basis of the church’s mission. Tradition is embedded in concrete practices and routines, as these authors recognise. Such routines and practices need to be reformed and revitalised, but it is doubtful whether the tradition that carries the gospel – and with it the Church in Western Europe – can survive without such embedding. Discrete spiritual happenings cannot replace a consistent, local, pastoral and liturgical routine. Perhaps, if the church’s public reputation is restored through a process of reform, parishes can be re-newed and can be seen again as centres of mission and outreach.