Why stay in the Church? - André DeBattista

Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina

Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina

On the first Sunday of Advent, churchgoers were asked to fill in a questionnaire to help the Church in Malta identify trends in Mass attendance.

At this stage, it is difficult to predict or interpret the findings. However, there are two observations which any churchgoer will make; Mass attendance is on the decline while the average age of people who attend is on the increase.

When faced with the question of whether to remain part of the Church or not, some opt to leave. However, those who remain may also grapple with the question of whether or not remaining part of the Church is tenable with their life and their aspirations.

For people who take faith seriously, doubt is a constant companion particularly when faith becomes challenging in a personal and direct manner.

In a lecture delivered in June 1970, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger attempted to answer the same question: “Why am I still in the Church?” Almost five decades removed from this lecture, his observations are still valid.

He acknowledges that there are many conflicting reasons not to be in the Church. Some are alienated from the life of the Church; they regard it as “too old-fashioned, too medieval, and too hostile to the world and life”.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who are nostalgic for a return to a glorious past. They fear that the Church “is in the process of betraying what is most characteristic of her, that she is selling herself to current fashion and thus losing her soul: they are disappointed”.

In recent years, there have been other developments. The inability to understand religion has robbed us of the ability to differentiate between violence committed in the name of religion and other forms of violence perpetrated by religious figures for non-religious reasons.

Thus, when the clerical abuse scandal rocked the Church, many of the faithful felt they could no longer be part of an organisation which had such depravity in its midst.

Others are disturbed when the Church enters into the foray of ‘politics’; when it dares to voice its informed opinion on matters affecting society, politics and economics. They portray the Church as a divisive, partisan voice which seeks to divide rather than unite.

Many have also had bad experiences with individuals within the Church. Parochialism, an inward-looking attitude and the lack of pastoral sensitivity by some individuals may lead us to turn our backs on the Church. After all, many will argue, one can be spiritual but not religious; one can believe in God but not in the Church.

There are some who opt to remain in the Church for all the wrong reasons. It might be out of habit or for cultural reasons. Their faith may have never been challenged or questioned and, thus, going to Church is part of the daily or weekly routine.

At face value, there are many reasons why leaving the Church may seem like a good idea. I will argue that, although the concerns are real, there is an equal number of reasons to remain in the Church.

It is because humanity fails time and time again that an ecclesial faith is needed. Faith never allows people to remain isolated in their comfort zone

A believer can never believe alone. Ratzinger reminds us that “faith is ecclesial, or it is not faith”. Faith challenges us to transcend ourselves and to see ourselves in relation to those closest to us and the wider world.

Thus, setting one’s standards of belief is an oxymoron: “A self-made faith would only vouch for and be able to say what I already am and know anyway; it could not go beyond the boundary of my ego.”

It is because humanity fails time and time again that an ecclesial faith is needed. Faith never allows people to remain isolated in their comfort zone. C.S. Lewis observed that if he wanted to be happy he’d get himself a bottle of Port rather than resort to religion. He added: “If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

Christianity demands impeccably high standards of its followers while offering the grace of mercy and forgiveness to those who fall short. And, invariably, everyone will fall short. Some failings will be used to paint the Church as a hypocritical organisation which does not practice what it preaches.

Here, Ratzinger too helps to shed some light on the situation: “However much Christianity may have failed in practice during its history (and it has failed again and again appallingly), the standards of justice and love have nevertheless emanated from the good news preserved in the Church even against her will, often in spite of her.”

Many are dismayed when the Church comments on political matters. However, faith does not aspire to replace politics. Rather, “it forms something decisive without which politics, for all its safeguards and considerations, comes up empty: conscience, which makes a man trustworthy”.

Undoubtedly, there are challenges ahead. Some churches and parishes fail to create meaningful communities. Declining vocations and a reluctance to engage the laity may have weakened the ability of the Church to reach out to the wider society. This may encourage insularity rather than openness. However, there are signs of hope.

Despite the decline in vocations, the Church still has dedicated people who answer the call to religious life. They serve the Church and society with inspiring selflessness, dedication and sincerity.

Despite the empty pews, many volunteers enrich this ecclesial life. They are active in various groups and institutions which reach out to those in need and strive to create meaningful communities.

Despite the impression that the Church is not willing to connect with the wider world, many individuals crave the prospect of engaging in a dialogue with the worlds of science, politics, economics and the arts.

The results of the survey commissioned by the Church will surely be sobering. However, there are solid foundations on which to chart the way forward.

André DeBattista is an independent researcher in politics and international relations.

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