A conversation started on Sunshine Mary’s blog recently about whether the pope is being too lenient with straying Catholics. My response was too long and off-topic to post there, but this was the line that got me typing:
That path ultimately leads not to schism but the slow death that it is currently experiencing.
When he was still Joseph Cardinal “God’s Rottweiler” Ratzinger, Pope Benedict predicted that death in the book Faith and the Future:
[The Church] will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity…. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek…The process will be long and wearisome.… But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church…. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.
That shrinkage seems clearly in the future, but whether from a violent schism or a quiet dying off and drifting away of the unfaithful is the question. He’s softened since becoming Pope (though still much better than his predecessor), and I’d like to see him take a harder line again, but I try to remind myself that he’s much holier than me, much more knowledgeable about the situation, and maybe even smarter than me! (Seriously, read any of his many books; the guy is brilliant.)
He heads a church where, according to polls, 75% of the members violate one of the 6 core precepts (confession at least once a year). So according to the rules, at least 3/4 of his sheep are going to burn, unless they escape on the technicality of cluelessness (which seems to be what most people are counting on, but they shouldn’t). That seems like good enough reason to shake things up and let the chips fall where they may, but what if a schism leaves an even greater number of people without valid sacraments? It’s not that easy a call.
Traditional Catholicism is healthy and growing, just very small yet and mostly confined to the United States, Poland, and a few enclaves in Europe. Demographically it’s the future, but it’s going to take a while to get there. (My understanding is that the same thing is happening among Protestants, with the more traditional sects growing and the mega-churches and soft groups starting to wane.) Right now, if the pope tried to pull everything back to pre-Modernism times, he wouldn’t have enough priests left to say Mass everywhere. That’s changing, though.
It’s a difficult choice on a personal level, too. I know cafeteria Catholics who consider themselves faithful, yet freely admit to using birth control or violating one important tenet of the faith or other. They tend to take the simplistic view that as long as they’re basically good people — no murdering or raping or major stealing — God will forgive them their peccadilloes. In their minds, Hell is a vast, empty place, with Satan, Hitler, and Jeffrey Dahmer sitting around a card table waiting in vain for a fourth. I might make a mistake now and then, but surely nothing serious enough to end up there, they think. Never mind St. John Chrysostom’s claim that the floor of Hell is paved with the skulls of bishops, or St. Faustina’s vision of an uncountable number of people walking down the road to Hell.
Knowing that, do I get in their faces and scream at them to get to Confession, to stop violating God’s laws, to learn about their faith so they know what they’re doing wrong and what it’s costing them? Well, mostly not. You don’t generally convert people that way. I try to be ready with a nudge if they seem ready for one, or to answer questions the best I can. But unless they have some kind of foundation for understanding sin and consequences, I’m not going to get very far challenging them on it, and it’s not going to do them any good if I convince them to leave the Church altogether. If I’m dealing with a fellow traditionalist, I can say, “Hey, you’re screwing up here and you know it; cut it out,” and he’ll get what I’m saying. He might not agree, but at least he’ll know what I’m talking about.
I think that’s kind of where the pope’s at currently with average Catholics: they don’t know enough to be usefully chastened.