Philippa Martyr: Facing up to how we got here would help

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The Plenary Council will have to take a hard look at the facts on the ground to have any hope of changing or reversing the factors that have emptied our churches.

Knowing the harsh demographic realities facing the Catholic Church in Australia today should force us to look at the past 50 years and weigh up honestly and exactly what we’ve done to cause this.

This didn’t just happen to the Church. We followed a clear and definite trajectory of decisions made, high and low, since 1968 which have brought us to the situation we are now in.
We introduced a plainer liturgy, which was not a bad thing – but we allowed individual priests and enthusiastic lay people to re-create it in their own image and likeness.

Result? The creation of liturgical silos, where two parishes next door to each other may as well be in different Churches (and sometimes parallel universes).

Thousands of Catholics have been church-hopping for a couple of generations now, trying to find somewhere they can belong – or at the very least, worship in peace.

The lack of peace and quiet in most suburban churches is also what’s driving many Gen Xers and millennials to the Extraordinary Form communities. We had Humanae Vitae – but we allowed individual priests and lay people to make up their own minds about this. We could have taken it seriously. We could have built a more generous and creative Church which welcomed larger families and supported them.

Result? The demographic winter that’s now setting in. The lack of welcome and encouragement of larger families – and unsolicited contraceptive advice – is also driving younger practicing Catholics out of mainstream parishes.

We sought and obtained state aid for Catholic schools – but allowed individuals with an agenda to misuse their authority, watering down catechesis and religious instruction to make the Church more ‘relevant’ and popular with the kids.

Result? The under-30s are the least likely to be seen in any church for the past 30 years.

Catholic schools produce large cohorts each year of young people who don’t practice. We tried to make our churches more welcoming of youth – but instead they fled in dismay, as youth always do when they’re pandered to, instead of being challenged.

Result? An unhealthy obsession with the few young people who remained, who have been listened to probably more than was good for them. Many of these grew up to work in diocesan bureaucracies and are gradually ossifying into the Boomers they are replacing.

We decided to make our parishes more active by introducing endless ministries, groups, and do-gooding – but allowed this activity in too many cases to become a substitute for catechesis and faith.

Result? Instead of the dreaded tyrannical priests of the past, we now have tyrannical lay people who – singly and in groups – have decided that the parish church is an extension of their living room, and exercise control over every aspect of the liturgy and interior decoration.

There’s a reason why millennial Catholics invented the Facebook personality ‘Susan From the Parish Council’, whose unintentionally hilarious magisterial statements have gained her 14,000 likes.

The results from the first round of listening in the Plenary Council were dismaying because it was clear that none of these issues was going to be faced realistically. The polarisation in the feedback was very noticeable. On the one hand, the Susans of the Church in Australia were being their usual vocal selves, and certainly this was what I and others experienced in the on-the-ground sessions.

A friend told me about her listening session, where an elderly lady suggested that we need to ‘get rid of the fire and brimstone’. My friend asked her when the last time was that she had heard any fire-and-brimstone on any topic. There was no response.

On the other hand were the practicing Catholics who were genuinely concerned about the decline in catechesis and the poor standard of liturgical worship in our parish
churches.

They wanted more leadership from our shepherds, the bishops. They wanted more prayer for vocations, and better formation for future priests and engaged couples. It’s this second group who are the least popular with the Boomers, and the least likely to be taken seriously.

The Catholic Boomers in Australia are fighting an increasingly quixotic war with the windmills of their imagination.  They still believe – and keep repeating doggedly – that if we just made the Church more inclusive, more open, less dogmatic, that somehow all our problems would be solved.

But one wonders what changes the Plenary Council could make – if any – to change or reverse the factors that have really emptied our churches.