Let’s hear it for the 18th Century – the century that bred human rights and the secular, pluralist democratic state in which we happily live and enjoy our freedom.
In 1700 AD the Western world was an array of absolute monarchies. By 1800 the thirteen American colonies had successfully become the United States of America and the French had replaced the monarchy with a republic. By 1800 Australia had been settled and was on its way to democratic self-government. Underpinning all this was the Enlightenment debate with its champions of individual human rights such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
It was secular thinkers like these who won us our human rights – while the Vatican stolidly opposed this movement.
At the same time the Industrial Revolution was applying the results of scientific discoveries. This, in turn, increased the wealth of the West enormously (if unevenly). Commerce grew in step, thereby levering up the growth of the wealth of nations. An ever growing number of people embraced their individual freedom and rejoiced in the better life that their growing wealth gave them.
The Divine Right of Kings was widely accepted at the start of the century but by its end kings were on the way out and those still remaining were becoming constitutionally controlled by democratically elected parliaments. The Divine Right had become a quaint relic – except in the Vatican where it lingers to this day.
Catholics are generally happy that their lives are so improved, But not so the Vatican which is constantly complaining about consumerism, secularism and relativism.
Consumerism may be bad but consumption is not. We cannot live without it. It is the engine of commerce. Money can be the root of evil but it is essential for a functioning economy. Poverty is no ideal. If we follow Jesus’s lead we do our best to get rid of it. That commits us to production and trade. The best way to help the poor is not to join them, but to enable them to become producers and traders.
The accusation of relativism is made when you re-calibrate your ethics. But if you see that new discoveries in science or health care call for a re-think of old ethics it is irresponsible not to review. New situations call for new assessment. The outcome can be that you realize that some old values were not really values – just ingrained habits.
Ideological secularism is one eyed, but the secular state is good. Who would want to live in a theocracy whether it be Islamic such as Iran and Saudi Arabia or Catholic as in medieval Spain or even Ireland of the 1940s? The secular state with its freedom of speech is an ideal habitat for Catholic believers whose first task is to evangelize. The much heralded “new evangelization” is only possible in a secular environment.
The background to the call for a New Evangelization is the collapse of affiliation in the Western Church. Some are leaving because of disagreement with officially stated policy – usually contested moral or disciplinary issues. More importantly, many are finding that the belief and practice of the Church as presented is not relevant to their lives. The affiliation bond once broken is hard to restore. If those departing are to be reconnected they do need to be re-evangelized. But this calls for strategic planning by the Church’s leadership – not for a re-packaging of the old, alienating formulas and selling them with the label “New”.
Strategy entails determining the main goal then developing an overall plan to achieve it. Surely the main goal of the Church is to engender hope in people by leading them to believe that life conquers death - as taught by Jesus and proclaimed in the object lesson of his death and resurrection. If organizational structures, procedures or discipline are blocking that achievement - review them. If ministerial arrangements are in the way – change them. If current treasured old ideologies are dysfunctional – get rid of them. If requiring priests to be clerics is nullifying recruitment, correct it. If compulsory celibacy results in skewed recruiting or is contributing to unacceptable outcomes – modify it. Above all, if the leadership sees new knowledge as a threat - relieve them of command and pass it to someone with more strategic creativity.
The catch 22 is that there is no mechanism for leadership replacement. Furthermore, with affiliation collapsing and recruitment of priestly candidates at near zero, the result is a very shallow pool from which to draw future leaders with strategic planning talent. Still the danger signals are showing red alert. We ignore them at our peril.