The church is on fire, what to do? , Evangelical focus
The fire at Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral (April 15, 2019) is a symbol of the church that is burning in secularized Europe and, more generally, in the globalized world.
Andrea Riccardi’s book, La Chiesa brucia: Crisi e futuro del cristianesimo (The Church Burns: Crisis and Future of Christianity) (Bari-Rome: Laterza, 2021) begins with the evocative image of the burning of Our Lady.
Riccardi is well placed to present its analysis, being professor of contemporary history at the University of Rome III and one biographer of John Paul II.
He is also known internationally for having based, in 1968, the Community of Sant’Egidio, one of the most active lay ecclesial movements within the Roman Catholic Church.
In addition to his social commitment and his numerous development projects in the southern hemisphere, Riccardi has played a role in mediated various conflicts and contributed to the establishment of peace in several countries such as Mozambique, Guatemala and Côte d’Ivoire.
In 2003, TIME The magazine included him on its list of the thirty-six “modern heroes” of Europe, personalities who stand out for their professional courage and humanitarian commitment. He is an initiate and a scholarly voice on the internal dynamics of Roman Catholicism.
The Notre-Dame cathedral is in the center of Paris, in the heart of Europe, inscribed in its history and emblem of its culture. It burned down and, by burning, this represented the state of deep crisis in which Christianity finds itself (Roman and institutionalized).
This is not fake news, but a factual observation. Practitioners are declining across the continent, vocations are collapsing everywhere, traditions are eroding and entering the tunnel of oblivion, adherence to beliefs and morals is collapsing, and local parishes are in an identity crisis.
The processes of secularization seems unstoppable and dismantle the bricks of institutional religiosity one piece at a time. The church is certainly going through a period of decline. Is it even in danger of disappearing?
By painting this fresco in dark colors, Riccardi documents the indicators of the crisis of Roman Catholicism and he does so keeping in mind the different national quadrants (France, Italy, Spain, Germany) with their peculiarities.
He also dwells on the forms of “national-Catholicism” (Hungary and Poland) which are attempts to interweave religion and national identity to make Roman Catholicism and cultural Christianity a sort of religious-civil bulwark against disorientation. contemporary.
The crisis, according to Riccardi, starts from afar. In fact, the question of whether European Christianity was on the verge of dying had already been asked by Jean Delumeau in 1977 (Is Christianity About to Die?) and, even earlier, by the French cardinal Suhard in 1947 when he spoke of “decline”.
From this point of view, Vatican II (1962-1965), with its “pastoral” orientation, was a response to the crisis. Indeed, Vatican II was an attempt to embrace the modern world by resuming it on the side of the extended catholicity of Rome, rather than stubbornly bringing it back to the Roman canons from which it seemed to have taken leave.
With Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) Paul VI launches a call for “evangelization” as a method to regain ground after having lost it with Humanae Vitae on sexual morality (1968). The effort did not produce the results hoped for.
The The long wave of the 1968 revolution actually widened the gap between Europe and the Church deeper. (and inside the church itself). While Roman Catholicism has proven to be equipped to tackle the social issue (e.g., mitigate capitalism) and political ideologies (e.g. against communism), it has not been able to resist the contemporary individualism, sexual libertarianism and unbridled and globalized consumerism.
Long and energetic pontificate of John Paul II seemed to be catching up, but in reality he covered the crisis rather than solve it.
With Benedict XVI, the crisis reaches a climax with the shocking resignation of the Pope. Following the pastoral “spirit” of Vatican II, Pope Francis tries to further widen the network of catholicity to build bridges with the “first unbelieving generation” (p. 116) on the basis of mercy for all, of universal fraternity and concern for the environment, so many themes far removed from traditional “Roman” and institutional Catholicism. The effectiveness of this strategy remains to be seen, although it does not appear to have turned the tide.
As a Catholic scholar, Riccardi talks about the crisis and points out some ideas for a different future. He takes up the argument of the French sociologist Hervieu-Léger according to which Roman Catholicism characterized itself as a “cold religion” (top-down and moralistic) and should melt, learn to become “hotter”.
This means, for example, living in the contemporary world with “multiple ecclesial presences, capable of charismatic, diverse, close encounters, and in dialogue with the people” (p. 207).
It is not surprising that the founder of Sant’Egidio supports the role of ecclesial movements as horizontal Roman Catholic actors, able to interface with different niches of secularized society, intercepting particular needs, “freeing” the compared to religion in relation to the only channel represented by the institutional church and, therefore, offering a range of different and more contextualized “Catholic” responses.
Since Roman Catholicism has the Eucharist at its center and a priest is needed to administer the sacrament, to remedy the lack of priests Riccardi goes so far as to support the possibility of recognizing married priests (pp. 199-203).
Analysis of the crisis suggested by the book is honest and without hesitation. And yet, the imagined exit remains within the intangible framework of the pillars of Roman Catholicism.
It seems that, for Riccardi, faced with the ongoing fire, the response must beat the level of a “pastoral” attitude, without foreseeing a doctrinal overhaul of the self-understanding of the Church of Rome.
The Church is burning, to use Riccardi’s language, but is ultimately untouchable in its fundamental elements. The hierarchical structure, the sacramental framework, the theology based not on Scripture alone but on Tradition (which both includes Scripture and is greater than Scripture), unbiblical dogmas, deceptive devotions absorbed, etc. ., all this cannot be changed.
In the end, faced with a very serious diagnosis, the imagined remedy seems to be a placebo. If the church burns down, the best minds in Roman Catholicism (and Riccardi is one of them) are not constrained by the need to deepen understanding of the reasons for the crisis. They are not open to Bible reform.
For all churches and for all Christians, the turning point is not greater pastoral attention or a new missionary strategy (important as these factors are), but a return to the Word of God accompanied by repentance of sin and a faith response ready to challenge any compromised structures built over time.
These are the steps towards the “future” of Christianity as the subtitle suggests. The fire of secularization risks incinerating the church, but to use the title of a book by Michael Reeves, the unquenchable flame of reform according to the Gospel can eliminate accumulated toxins and open the way to a path of conversion.
The ultimate stake is not to move from a “cold” religion to a “hot” religion; it’s for respond faithfully to the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ in truth and love.
Leonardo of Chirico is an evangelical pastor in Rome (Italy). He is a theologian and specialist in Roman Catholicism.