By William A. Donohue
Should Catholicism Be relevant?
On a recent television show where I was a guest, one of the other guests remarked that Catholicism risked becoming obsolete because its message wasnt relevant enough to todays Catholics. I thought this was a strange comment, especially coming from a Catholic University professor. The good news is that she is wrong.
Those who say that Catholicism should become more relevant mean to say that the Church should alter its teachings to mirror contemporary public opinion. They err twice: a) The magisterium of the Church, i.e., the pope in communion with the bishops, does not and cannot come to conclusions regarding the proper teachings of the Church by consulting George Gallup, and b) If they did, they would kill the Church. Because the former is true, the latter does not apply. Let us assume that it might, just for the heck of it.
It is no secret that in the past quarter century, those religions that have lost the greatest number of members have also been those that have done their best to become "relevant." For evidence, consider the sharp decline in the mainline Protestant churches: the Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches have all taken a hit, and none more than the Episcopal. The Episcopal has also been the most successfully "relevant."
The latest data confirm these conclusions. The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA has just released its 1998 yearbook. The volume lists statistics drawn from 1996, the latest year that complete data are available. It contains information on 164 U.S. churches. The data show that the numbers posted by Roman Catholicism are the envy of other Christian churches. While two other religions witnessed higher gains than Catholicism, Churches of Christ and Latter Day Saints/Mormons, both have a base number which is a fraction of the size of the Catholic religion, making percentage increases easier to achieve. Clearly the most stunning growth occurred in the ranks of Roman Catholicism. Between 1995 and 1996, membership in the Roman Catholic Church increased by 1.54%, to a record number of 61,207,914 members. Second to us is the Southern Baptist Convention with 15,691,964 members.
Numbers dont tell us everything. Indeed the case could be made that a smaller, but more unified, Catholic Church is preferable to the current state of affairs in the Church. Notwithstanding this possibility, those who instruct the Church to marry its teachings to the reigning orthodoxies of the dominant culture are simply out-to-lunch. Indeed, it is because the Church doesnt succumb to the lowest cultural denominator that it continues to grow. By providing eternal answers to eternal problems, the Churchin this senseis more relevant to peoples lives than virtually any other institution in society.
Lets put it this way. Those who want serious answers to serious questions dont repair to a local guru for advice. Rather they confide in their parish priest. For example, if someone is given to sexual recklessness, it makes no sense to look to the Playboy Philosophy for guidance. If drinking is a curse, stopping off at Cheers for conversation wont help. If suicidal tendencies are evident, consulting Dr. Kevorkian isnt the answer. Those drawn to violence dont seek remedies by following the lead of Kung Fu. Those who are depressed dont watch "Nothing Sacred" for relief. This is just common sense.
Yes, some Catholics complain about certain Church teachings. But the reason they keep coming back is because the Church doesnt attempt to mirror the culture. In a day and age of victim-hood and New Age spirituality, where "feelings" are soothed by reading the latest book on "angels," it is not surprising that millions of levelheaded men and women find no solace in such soft and fuzzy responses. That is why most persons inevitably seek out answers that are as timeless as they are true. And what better place to go to than the Catholic Church?
Questioning Catholicisms relevancy, then, is downright silly. The problems we face today are rooted in human nature and are therefore not dramatically different from the problems faced by our ancestors. It makes great sense to look to Catholicism, possessing as it does, lasting answers to perennial human concerns. Because of this, the Roman Catholic Church cannot help but be relevant. This may not be music to the ears of those whose idea of relevancy is a hip do-it-yourself Church. However, given their own indisputable irrelevancy, who really cares?
William A. Donohue is the President of the Catholic League. © 1998 Catalyst. Used by permission.