The problem of authentic Catholic renewal is very much in the air leading up to the Synod on Synodality. Indeed, the preparations for the Synod itself often highlight the problem by giving worldly participants an opportunity to advocate changes that undermine authentic Catholic renewal. Of course, in Church affairs there is often significant good behind the scenes which seems far too boring to report. But one thing has become clear through this synodal process: There is a great deal of confusion about what it means to renew the Catholic Church.
Probably for this reason, the better publishing houses are trying to promote new books that get renewal right despite the more popular theorizing and reporting that gets it wrong. Indeed, when all is said and done there have been throughout history only two kinds of “renewal” in the Church. On the one hand, we have the effort to increase the Church’s power and influence by aligning Catholic teaching and Catholic advocacy with the goals and aspirations of the surrounding non-Catholic or even anti-Catholic culture. On the other hand, we have the effort to refocus on the fundamental identity of the Church as the Body and Bride of Jesus Christ so that she can, again in her members, bear a sacrificial yet also evangelical witness to the world.
But of course not all who bear the name Catholic are thinking about any sort of renewal at all. There is a diminishing third track among those who still acknowledge the Catholic name without actively participating in the life of the Church. This is the track of drifting along as a vaguely self-identifying Catholic without really paying much attention to what that ought to mean, with an ever-lessening connection to the Catholic sacramental life, but without necessarily joining the camp of those who wish to secularize the Church into a more socially and politically relevant international NGO. Authentic Catholic renewal can probably win a significant percentage of these people back. But renewal through imitation of the dominant culture will only lose them entirely, out of sheer irrelevance.
The stakes are high for those who see in the Church a potential human service organization which can advance the current cultural moral imperatives—high enough stakes, that is, to keep Catholic dissidents active in Church circles until they have eliminated the institutional Catholic witness against the sins and the culture they cherish. Moreover, such persons typically understand that the Church’s counter-witness can be fully eliminated only by converting it into a witness in favor of those sins. Ecclesiastical silence, in this context, is always merely an intermediate demand of the party of secularized renewal. But as soon as formal approval is won, for this party, victory will eliminate the Catholic charm.
But the stakes are far higher for those who see in the Church the fullness of Christ’s Presence in this world and the source of the grace they need for themselves and their children to know, love and serve God now and forever. These, in growing desperation, may be so appalled by the tepid contemporary institutional presence of the Church as to seek refuge in allegedly Catholic alternatives which are prepared to adopt a more militantly counter-cultural profile. That refuge may in some cases be legitimate as approved by the competent ecclesiastical authority, but in other cases it may be a diabolical outward show severed from the authority of Christ.
Such high stakes can indeed prompt desperation. But we must remember that the root of desperation is despair. Any departure from the Church owing to despair is always a sin, always a lack of trust in God, always a rejection of the demands of Faith, and so always a denial of Christ. On all sides, then, we meet claims of “renewal”, and on all sides these claims prompt caution. It should hardly surprise us that most of the claims are false.
Our intellects may be contradicted; our wills may be thwarted; our sensibilities may be offended. To be caught faithfully in the midst of all this is to suffer—not to seek comforting circumstances apart from Christ’s wounded Body which is the Church, but to take up our cross daily and follow Him (Lk 9:23). In exactly the same way have innumerable saints been harassed and restricted by their ecclesiastical superiors. Misunderstandings, adverse judgments, and chafing obedience in profound reverence for a humanly imperfect Church have always been part of what it means to be a Catholic. Moreover, if we possess our souls in humility, we will recognize the possibility that some of the shortcomings could be our own. This possibility lies at the very center of genuine spiritual growth.
Now, as I mentioned, many publishers (both good and bad) have tried to make a dent in the pre-synodal discussions by exploring the question of Catholic reform and renewal. Or perhaps this idea of a “dent”, on the part of the faithful Catholic publishers, is not quite the right way to express the goal. I think, rather, there is an ongoing effort to protect Catholics from some of the more horrific reports of what has been said and advocated in the various stages of these discussions, with a good deal of encouragement to undertake the task of renewal in an authentically Catholic way. Whatever the case, the idea of somehow reshaping the Church for good or ill is very much under discussion—and not a little dangerous.
Four new books
Four such books from four reliable Catholic publishers have come across my desk in the last month, with four different but related purposes. Both the authors and publishers can reasonably expect the publicity surrounding preparations for the Synod on Synodality to increase interest and sales. But each book takes a different approach to what we might frankly call the crisis of the Catholic Church in the twenty-first century, and how Catholics can understand and respond faithfully to this moment in Christian history.
I should emphasize that all of the authors understand the Catholic Church to be exactly what she has always claimed to be; none fatuously imagine that she has somehow lost the protection of Jesus Christ, who promised to be with her to the end of time, including specific guarantees to Peter and his successors when they exercise authority over the whole Church. You will not find here any recommendations to rebel against ecclesiastical authority or shift allegiance to some alternative claimant to the Spirit of Christ. That might be a comfortable response to unpleasant developments, but it is also an approach that means risking all on one throw of a pair of loaded dice—because in playing that game, losing is the only possible result.
With this in mind, let me comment briefly on each book:
Russell Shaw and David Byers, Revitalizing Catholicism in America: Nine Tasks for Every Catholic: Our Sunday Visitor, 2023. 128pp. Paper, $17.95.
This short book focuses on the need for renewal in the Church in the United States. It provides a simple (and at times statistical) overview of the decline of Catholicism in America, describes the various models that have been advocated to preserve the Church’s integrity while fostering new growth, and offers a practical list of the commitments and steps each Catholic should take to revitalize his own faith and the Church as a whole. These steps are basic Catholic steps, such as discerning and living out our vocations and engaging in apostolate.
There is neither anything new nor anything unique in Shaws’ and Byers’ analysis and recommendations. Rather, it is all solid information about the situation in which American Catholicism finds itself and what it means for each person to take his Catholic life and Catholic responsibilities seriously. In other words, this is a book largely aimed at those who are fairly new in their awareness of the problems facing the Church in the United States, and who have not already been wrestling with them for a long time. It also includes a list of recommended books for further reading. It is very basic and very sound.
Benedict XVI, What Is Christianity? The Last Writings: Ignatius Press, 2023. 223pp. Hardback $24.95; Ebook $26.92.
Of the four books listed here, this is the only one I have not yet read. But it hardly needs my reading to merit a recommendation. This is a collection of the essays Pope Emeritus Benedict wrote after he resigned the papacy, which he asked to be published after his death. But of course Benedict remained interested, as he always had been, in the issues which had particularly animated Christian discussions in our own period, namely the relationship of the Church and Christianity to Judaism and to other religions, the fundamental elements of the Christian religion, certain specific topics in theology, plus “occasional” topics addressed in individual speeches and essays.
Here, then, we have Benedict’s final writings on the relationship of love to missionary work, the nature of tolerance in monotheism, dialogue with Islam, and the interrelationships of music, theology and liturgy. Other chapters touch on Faith as a life, not an idea; the Catholic priesthood; the meaning of Communion; and the scandal of sex abuse. The final entry is an interview Benedict gave on Saint Joseph, entitled “His Silence Is Also His Way of Expressing Himself”. In attending to Pope Benedict, one is never far from authentic Christian renewal; I will read this one for sheer pleasure.
Gerhard Cardinal Müller, True and False Reform: What It Means to Be Catholic: Emmaus Academic, 2023. 272pp. Hardback or Ebook: $42.95.
As you might expect from the academic arm of Emmaus Road publishing, this is a scholarly book with a dense text that is fully annotated. But at the same time it is a refreshingly idiosyncratic book in the way it develops themes about what it means to be Catholic in light of the author’s own interests, personal experiences and immense mastery of the field of theology. In other words, it is fairly heavy going in its awareness of the history of philosophical and theological developments while being at times quite personal in the way the author brings his understanding to life, perhaps especially when dealing with the subject of Tradition.
What makes the book so relevant is that Cardinal Müller gets at the problem of true and false reform not, as we might say, directly and conveniently, but more deeply by actually making it very clear what it means for the Church to be “Catholic” in the first place. The Introduction poses the question of the meaning of this term. The subsequent chapters cover being Catholic in the contemporary spiritual situation; Catholic life with God in His Church; the origin and profile of the concept of “Catholic”; “Catholic” as the attribute of the one Church of Christ that links all Christian communions; and, inevitably, “Quo Vadis, Ecclesia Catholica?”
Cardinal Müller was the last Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith appointed by Pope Benedict XVI, who understood from long experience what the job entailed. The text of this book is challenging, but it is precisely by focusing on deepening our understanding of what the Church really is that we come out at the end with a grasp of the difference between a true reform that is faithful to the Church’s identity in Christ, and a false reform which betrays it.
Robert Cardinal Sarah, For Eternity: Restoring the Priesthood and Our Spiritual Fatherhood: EWTN Publishing, 2023. 256pp. Hardback $24.95; Ebook $9.95.
Which book a reader will find most spiritually nourishing will vary with the needs and background of that reader, but there is no question which of these four books aims at being the most spiritually nourishing, and this especially for priests. This unusual book by Cardinal Sarah consists of fourteen chapters on the priesthood, each of which begins with an introduction by Cardinal Sarah followed by a text drawn from another author highly recommended by the Church, which in turn is followed by the Cardinal’s own meditation on the text he has presented.
In this way, Sarah introduces and offers significant insights into fourteen topics essential for priestly reflection, prayer and growth, featuring sublime texts from St. Catherine of Siena, St. Gregory the Great, St. John Chrysostom, St. John Paul II (2), Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Pope Benedict XVI (2), Georges Bernanos, St. John Henry Newman, Pope Francis, Pope Pius XII, and St. Augustine.
Now that Cardinal Sarah is 78, my hope that he would be the first African Pope is doomed to frustration, and indeed I know nothing about his administrative ability (which is no small part of doing a good job in that office). What I do know is that, in his writings, Sarah has been spiritually among the richest cardinals in the contemporary Church. I emphasize that I myself realized I was not called to be a priest when I figured out (in the seminary) that I wanted to advance and defend the faith but had no particular interest in administering the sacraments (a fairly large clue, of course, but perhaps not completely obvious until I tested this vocation at the age of 19). But even as a confirmed layman, I found this book full of deep spiritual insight.
I pray that in this list of books, there will be something to help each reader to weather the storms of false synodality that, in one form or another, we must undoubtedly endure and combat as the Church tries to draw good from an inescapably chaotic process. Our Lord warned: “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!” [Mt 18:7] We may well be tempted on every side, but we must avoid all of the sins by remaining rooted both in the Church and in Christ, which are one and the same thing.
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