It had its enemies, but believed that 100% of the fault lay with them. On Sundays the churches were full, and there seemed to be every reason for confidence.
Over my lifetime I have seen a consistent downward trend in most markers of the Church’s activity. Only 15% of Catholics now regularly attend Mass on Sundays, compared with about 50% when I was born.
Why have so many fallen away? I believe we need to look both at factors within the Church and factors outside it.
Within the Church the most obvious and public factor has been the scandal of sexual abuse of minors and the even greater scandal of the poor manner in which it has been handled.
There has also been clericalism, that is, the patriarchal and patronising manner in which too many bishops and priests have acted.
All too many women find that their dignity is not respected and there is no real place for them.
There is still too much of the angry God and fear of hell. Morality is still based too much on obeying rules rather than thinking for oneself.
The Church’s teaching on sex fails to speak to most Catholics.
Sunday Mass still consists of thousands of words poured over a passive congregation.
The wealth of the Church deters many.
The fancy dress of cardinals and bishops and their archaic titles do not speak to the modern world.
Teaching on subjects such as contraception, divorce and homosexuality does not seem to reflect a loving God.
The Christian life can be reduced to a form of stoicism where people are driven by duty rather than drawn by delight.
Faith can still be seen too much as intellectual assent to creeds and not enough as a response of love to God’s call of love.
One could go on, but I hope I have made the point that there are many things within the Church that repel rather than attract.
And yet, even all of these things taken together do not explain all that has happened, for there are also powerful factors coming from outside the Church and influencing all religious belief.
The nineteenth century saw the spectacular rise of science and a developing conflict between science and religion. In that conflict science largely won the all-important battle for the imagination of people.
It also gradually created a mindset in which the material was the most important reality and many people moved away from things they could not prove. Belief in an afterlife began to diminish.
Those who still looked to the spiritual started distinguishing between religion and spirituality.
Religion is essentially about community and will always be battling up a steep hill in a world where individualism reigns supreme. Individualism puts ‘me’ at the centre of my existence, and it is impossible to have two centres – God and me.
Even the most devout of Catholics have absorbed many values from the secular world around them. The media then creates a kaleidoscope of images, ideas and impressions from this secular world that powerfully influences people.
There are so many uncertainties in today’s world, and this has created a fear of permanent commitments.
For two thousand years a parish church was not just a religious centre, but also a social centre; the place where people met and found much of their social life. Within my lifetime the car has made people mobile, television entertains them at home and the telephone enables them to socialise in totally new ways. Suddenly the parish faces the daunting task of seeking to be a spiritual centre without the benefit of being a social centre.
For a number of people in Australia, affluence has taken away any felt need for God.
The greatest threat to the Church is not so much extinction as irrelevance.
Is there any way to reverse this trend? I suggest three steps.
The first is that the Church must absolutely confront sexual abuse head-on and ruthlessly take all steps necessary to abolish it. If this is not done, nothing else will help, for no one would be listening. Equally, it must confront all other negatives within it, otherwise groups such as women, the divorced, homosexuals and many others will not be listening.
The second step is that the best thing the Church has going for it is the person and story of Jesus Christ; the worst thing is those who represent him (and the higher they are up the ladder, the more they become a problem). So the task is to get the Church out of the way as much as possible and let Jesus himself shine through. There has been far too much emphasis on Church and the person of Jesus has been hidden and distorted in the process.
The third step is to embrace such truths as – growth is more important than obedience, the Church must listen to its saints more than its bishops, and we must move from a religion in which beliefs, moral rules, worship and membership of an institution hold first place to a religion in which a love relationship with God and neighbour holds first place.
Bishop Geoffrey will be speaking in Newcastle on Friday 19 September and Morpeth on Saturday 20 September, under the auspices of the Social Justice Council. View this flyer for more information.