Joseph Shaw

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The Church must rediscover the power of prayer if she is to address the current crisis

December 19, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – The sense that there is something missing in the typical Catholic parish experience is widespread. It is not just a sense: by every objective measure, the Church has been doing extremely badly for half a century. The malaise goes deeper even than the sex-abuse crisis: it is something which made the sex-abuse crisis possible. It is pointed to somewhat vaguely by the term ‘milk-and-water Catholicism’: a Catholicism which is somehow thin, no longer substantial, no longer able to inspire or sustain vocations, celibacy, the marriage vows, or regular church-going.

One way of looking at current divisions in the Church is as diverging diagnoses of the problem, and rival identifications of the missing ingredient. 

Some people say that the Church has become irrelevant to the world in which her members live, and therefore irrelevant to the members themselves. The most promising way of expressing this idea may be that, as some suggested at the eve of the Second Vatican Council, the Church is “offering answers to questions people are no longer asking”. With hindsight, it seems strange to make that complaint during an era of evangelical success, but it is true that many people back then, and far more now, had abandoned the mental categories of sin and salvation, and were accordingly unmoved by offers to remove the one and to provide the other. 

The problem of how to save people who do not believe that they need to be saved is a real one, but the solution can hardly be to stop offering them salvation, and to turn the Church into a second-rate social club instead. That solution, at any rate, seems to have been tried, both by Catholics and by non-Catholic Christians, and does not seem to have been notably successful at filling the pews.

Another solution is to try to generate heightened emotional engagement. This seems to promise a deeper kind of participation in the life of Faith, and many holy people in the history of the Church have expressed themselves, and aroused in others, powerful emotions. The difficulty comes in making the emotions the key step in the journey, rather than regarding them as something which might, or might not, accompany repentance, zeal, or religious experience. Shortcuts to emotional highs, such as emotionally manipulative preaching or art, can leave people feeling flat and used. 

Even if they like it, emotional experiences are also offered by the entertainment industry, relationships, and drugs, and it is not obvious that the Church will triumph when competing head-to-head with those. Perhaps superficial but fiery preaching and sentimental religious art were more appreciated, and effective, before the arrival of Television.

The problem comes down to a distinction between different kinds of means to the end of salvation. On the one hand, there are things like the means of communication. It is obviously important to adopt effective communications in the digital age, and to use the right language to ensure one is readily understood, but these are instruments rather than ends in themselves.

On the other hand, there are means to the end, of salvation, which partially constitute the end which they seek to bring about, like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle which not just a means to but part of the completed picture. 

Consider prayer. Praying will help you get to heaven, not as performing a chore will enable to take the afternoon off, but because the imperfect union with God which prayer in this life is, is, when perfected, what salvation is. Prayer brings us salvation not as an instrumental means to an end, but as a means which is partially constitutive of the end.

Issues like effective communications are of no small account, and certainly the Catholic Church has not done very well in such matters. But they are not fundamental, and the Church’s problem is deeper than social media incompetence. The fundamental problem is that the Church is no longer using, in an effective way, the evangelical tools which are not merely means to an end, but actually constitute end: not only private prayer, but the public prayers of the Church—the liturgy—and the sacraments.

Plenty has been written about the liturgy and the sacraments, and they have been changed radically in an attempt to make them more effective: an attempt which does not seem to have borne the fruit which was expected. I would suggest that this discussion and these changes have not been successful because what I have just argued was not kept in mind: that these things are not instruments to be adapted to bring about the desired result, but things which bring about in the worshipper a state of (imperfect) communion with God.

It is not about finding the answers to the questions we want to ask, or in having an emotional experience of a particular kind, but of a profound contemplative communion with the divine. That is what we are going to be doing in heaven, after all. 

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Joseph Shaw

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Dr Joseph Shaw has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University, where he also gained a first degree in Politics and Philosophy and a graduate Diploma in Theology. He has published on Ethics and Philosophy of Religion and has edited a forthcoming book on the liturgy: The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Position Papers on the Extraordinary Form (Angelico Press). He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and Secretary of Una Voce International. He teaches Philosophy in Oxford University and lives nearby with his wife and eight children.