The Catholic Institutional Collapse

Dr. Ralph Martin’s recent article in the theological journal Nova et Vetera, The Post-Christendom Sacramental Crisis: The Wisdom of Thomas Aquinas, has garnered considerable attention for its relatively sober assessment of the current condition of the Catholic Church.

“There is something like an institutional collapse going on, evidenced by the vast numbers of schools closing, parishes merging, clustering and closing and the multiple assignments that many young priests now are asked to manage. Besides the institutional collapse, there is evidence of a widespread repudiation of the teaching of Christ and the Church by vast numbers of Catholics,” Martin observed.

The article, especially noteworthy for having been published in a journal that Archbishop Chaput called “an outstanding resource for the renewal of theology in line with the New Evangelization,” certainly deserves kudos. That said, the main reason it has been so well received among traditionalists is simply because Martin states what so many other “new evangelists” are determined to deny; namely, that the visible structures of the Catholic Church are rapidly deteriorating before our very eyes.

Martin makes a number of important observations, but even as he holds a veritable x-ray up to the light, revealing a nasty ecclesial tumor; ultimately, he leaves the disease undiagnosed.

The article begins with a thesis:

This article argues that, given the collapse of a societal consensus that is supportive of the Judaeo-Christian [sic] moral tradition, the Church is facing a sacramental crisis. The crisis consists in fewer and fewer baptized Catholics participating in the post-baptismal sacraments and fewer and fewer of the Catholics who do participate in further sacraments effectively realizing the fruits of these sacraments. Part of the solution to this crisis is to consider carefully the wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas on how to identify (and remove) obstacles to sacramental fruitfulness.

Martin goes on to cite statistics from an unnamed Midwestern diocese that reveal a problem that is far more fundamentally important: In just a ten year period (2000 to 2010), Catholic baptisms and marriages are down nearly 50%.

So, while it is certainly true that “fewer baptized Catholics” are living a fully Catholic life, and addressing the matter of sacramental fruitfulness is a noble idea, we would do well to concern ourselves first and foremost with the underlying causes that have led to this time when so few are even approaching the sacraments in the first place.

Yes, the two problems of lower numbers and a lack of sacramental fruitfulness are interrelated, but while some may be tempted to get caught up in a chicken-and-egg debate, Martin comes frustratingly close to putting his finger on the actual disease that lies at the heart of the matter:

With the intellectual currents of the Enlightenment, the subsequent anti-religion rebellion of the French Revolution, and the profound intellectual rejection of the Christian worldview symbolized by Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, forces were unleashed in Western culture that eventually led to not only a repudiation of the church-state relationships that had evolved over many centuries but a repudiation of religion itself as a legitimate shaper of culture.

What Martin leaves unaddressed is the degree to which these “intellectual currents” were unleashed, not only in Western culture at the hands of determined secularists, but in the very heart of Catholicism via the Second Vatican Council at the hands of determined churchmen.

Archliberal Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens hailed the Council, and with no little accuracy, as “1789 in the Church” for a reason:

  • It was the Fathers of Vatican II who officially (in the document Dignitatis Humanae) repudiated the “church-state relationships that had evolved over many centuries,” effectively dethroning Christ the King in exchange for a solitary folding chair among the many at the political table, as if He aspires to be accepted as nothing more in society than an equal to every heathen, heretic and humanist with an opinion.
  • It was the Fathers of Vatican II who invited religious indifferentism by suggesting that false religions are a means of salvation.
  • It was the Fathers of Vatican II who replaced the Church’s call to conversion with a sentimental plea for religious dialogue and mutual understanding.

I could continue, but presumably the point has been made.

“Of course, it would not be accurate to leave the impression that the ‘secular culture’ is to blame for [the sacramental crisis.] Years of silence about those aspects of the gospel which the contemporary culture is hostile to—the truths about sin, about heaven and hell, about the need for repentance, about the real meaning of discipleship, about the supreme value of knowing Christ—have contributed to the metamorphosis of Catholicism in the minds of many into a comforting religious ritual of indeterminate meaning,” Martin rightly observed, and for this he should be applauded.

He failed to address, however, precisely what gave rise to these decades of virtual silence.

The unvarnished truth is that fewer people are coming to the sacraments simply because the overwhelming majority of our sacred hierarchs, from the 1960’s on forward, have ingested every limp-wristed, weak-kneed, kumbaya-style ambiguity the conciliar text has to offer, only to regurgitate them back to the souls in their care at every opportunity like pelicans feeding their young.

Along the way, an entire generation or more has come of age having been nurtured on little more than the fast food of modernism by pastors who have utterly ceased to proclaim the Social Kingship of Jesus Christ, the Catholic Church as the solitary means of salvation, and therefore the paramount importance of the sacraments that the Lord has entrusted to her.

All of this being the case, is it any wonder that the Catholic Church in our day is in the throes of a full-scale institutional collapse?

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