Critics of the Catholic Church have found much to fret about since the election of Pope Benedict XVI. Though he has exhibited a deep understanding of our postmodern culture and an intense concern for evangelizing the secular West, many modern pundits have dismissed the new Pope as a cranky conservative whose defense of traditional Catholic teachings will lead the Church into inevitable decline.
If he continues to hold the line on such issues as artificial birth control, abortion, homosexuality and women’s ordination, they argue, the pews will empty out and the Catholic Church will forfeit its influence on our public life.
The conventional wisdom of the critics holds that a church attracts more converts by conforming to its members than by challenging its members to conform to the church. They argue that in today’s post-Christian culture, the narrow, rugged path of orthodoxy is simply too tough to travel. Since most people have already abandoned that path, the church’s only hope for survival is to follow them down the broader, more comfortable superhighway of theological and moral relativism.
Such conclusions are dominant in public discussions of the Church’s future. They are also dead wrong. As the case of mainline Protestant churches so aptly demonstrates, the liberalization of sexual mores and the dilution of doctrine amounts to institutional suicide for those churches.
By following the siren song of cultural accommodation in the hopes of appeasing disgruntled members and attracting new ones, liberal Protestant church leaders have seen their pews emptied, their Christian witness compromised and their cultural influence diminished. Their members, meanwhile, have fled to churches that defend traditional faith and mores.
A study conducted a few years ago by the Glenmary Research Centre verified this trend. Researchers found that between 1990 and 2000, the congregations that grew fastest were socially conservative churches that demanded high commitment from their members — a category that includes the Traditional Catholic Church, as well as some evangelical and Pentecostal churches. Socially liberal churches, meanwhile, were hemorrhaging members at the fastest rate. As the centre’s director, sociologist Ken Sanchagrin, explained to The New York Times, “the more liberal the denomination, by most people’s definition, the more members they were losing.” That phenomenon is not new. Sociologist Rodney Stark unearthed a similar dynamic when studying early Church history for his book, The Rise of Christianity. Stark’s review of the evidence led him to conclude that many of the characteristics that made Christianity flourish in the pagan culture of the Roman empire are the same ones that make socially conservative churches flourish in our neo-pagan culture today. In contrast to their pagan contemporaries, the early Christians preached a radical message about God’s love, defended the dignity of the human person, and embraced countercultural values. Their distinctive behaviour and beliefs attracted the interest of outsiders, and their unflinching fidelity to the teachings of Jesus made the early Church grow by leaps and bounds.
Such lessons of history — both ancient and modern — are often ignored by the champions of Church reform today. But they are not lost nor overlooked by Pope Benedict XVI.
Pope Benedict XVI has taken up the mantle of the new evangelization, and he has wisely recognized that it will succeed only if the Church proposes a compelling alternative to the dominant relativism of our day, not a baptized imitation of it. His plan for Church renewal disregards conventional wisdom in favour of the supernatural. For that, and for the election of this wise and faithful shepherd, Catholics should be deeply grateful.