Don't pin the message on the messenger

  • January 12, 2011
When the message is displeasing, shoot the messenger. That old saying came to mind when I was reading Fr. Raymond de Souza’s final Catholic Register column (Dec. 26) for 2010.

The messenger who got shot, in this case, was Globe and Mail correspondent Michael Valpy, the lead author of a five-part series on the “future of faith” in Canada that ran in the newspaper before Christmas.

We need not take seriously Valpy’s findings or opinions on religious matters, de Souza argues, because he made the “hilarious” mistake of dismissing Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as a credible contender for the papacy just before the 2005 election.

True, Valpy flopped as a racetrack bookie on that occasion, but he wasn’t, and isn’t, a bookie of any kind. He is a Christian journalist determined to show us something of reality, and one whose “depressing religion stories” in Advent are the real reasons for de Souza’s ire.

The Globe series told a familiar tale of church closings across Canada, dwindling numbers of worshippers everywhere, the widespread departure from orthodox Christianity by the young and not-so-young, and so forth. I don’t like this news any better than de Souza does. But Christians must face the facts of the matter squarely — and strictly avoid blaming the messengers — if we are to make any progress in dealing in an orthodox, evangelical manner with the mass secularization sweeping, with bewildering speed and effect, through Canadian culture.

Nor will we get very far if we indulge in wishful demographic thinking. In the scenario for the future de Souza lays out in his column, the immigrants will save us from whatever is ailing the churches at the present time. Here, he quotes Valpy approvingly: “On matters such as homosexuality, the role of women, sex education and religious instruction, immigrant religious groups are embracing debates that pit them against the majority public opinion.”

Valpy’s observation appears to be accurate, at least insofar as it describes those immigrants who are conspicuously active in the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations at the present time. But it surely can’t be taken as a promise about what will unfold in the future.

Neither Valpy nor de Souza present any proof that the centuries-old pattern of immigrant Christian belief — fervour in the first generation, assimilation in the next and apostasy by the third or fourth — is about to change.

What if, however, this optimistic projection were to come true? What if waves of newcomers did manage to reverse the long-standing tendency of the mainline Protestant churches to identify themselves with some items on the secular social and cultural agenda? (De Souza is right, at least when it comes to numbers, when he asserts that “the great progressive project of the Canadian Christian establishment has failed.”)

But if the numbers of people in the pews are what concern us — and I think they should and must — a theologically and culturally conservative retrenchment in Protestantism and Catholicism would probably make no difference to the long-term prospects of Christianity in Canada or other countries in the West.

After all, it is clear that Catholicism, which has not succumbed to the “great progressive project,” is suffering the same decline in membership and participation that the Protestant churches are enduring.

The Globe and Mail series, and indeed our everyday experience in secular society, show us a deeply troubling truth. It is that, in whatever form we find it, whether socially liberal or culturally conservative, Christianity is failing to capture the imagination of the leaders of contemporary society and the creators of its popular and high culture: the political class and prominent entrepreneurs, teachers and scholars, the producers of art, music, literature, the built environment of cities and the mass media.

Never before has being a serious Christian in the West seemed so lonely.

For those of us who have been touched in life-changing ways by the beauty and truth of Catholicism, this phenomenon is profoundly disappointing. But it need not be discouraging.

The history of the Catholic Church is a treasury of evidence for the Holy Spirit’s movements in and through human events — movements that are especially striking when they occur (like the call of St. Francis or of St. Ignatius Loyola) in times of spiritual stagnation and decline.

We should pray for a revival of the Spirit’s work among contemporary Christians and remain on the look-out for fresh outpourings of the justice and love we pray for.

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