Documentation: An Excerpt from Catholicism

 The Catholic Church, and all of Christianity for that matter, is in crisis. It has been for at least two decades. But this is not to say that the present crisis is its first or, what is more significant, its last. Nor is it necessarily to impute some radical deficiency or failure somewhere along the line…

A crisis, therefore, may not be only a time for worry in the face of perceived peril, but a time for exhilaration in the face of perceived opportunity.

The word crisis belongs to a larger family of words: critic, critical, criticism, criterion, and the like. Each of these words is derived ultimately form the Greek verb krinein, which (leans “to separate” or “to decide.” Accordingly, a “critic” one who, like the Lord of the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in the twenty-fifth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel separates the worthy from the unworthy. In doing so he or she exercises a “critical” function and manifests “critical” skills, that is, the ability to discern real quality in the midst of mediocrity or sham. Such “criticism” is based on “criteria.” A “criterion” is a standard, a means of judging, of discerning and separating good from bad.

It is within this modest network of terms that the word crisis fits. A crisis is, literally, a turning point, a moment or stage at which a process of whatever kind can go in two or more different directions. It is a time of separating out, of deicing (krinein). To be in crisis — whether political, medial, or indeed religious — is to be at the threshold of decisive change, usually, but not always, attended by considerable risk and suspense…

Consequently, to acknowledge that the Catholic Church is in crisis is to say only that it has reached another turning point in its long two-thousand-year history. The Church is confronted with new opportunities for growth, new temptations to repress and regress. And this is the way it as always been…

Nevertheless, the symptoms of this present crisis do seem clear enough: the sharp decline in Mass attendance and in vocations to the priesthood and the religious life; the higher incidence of divorce and remarriage; the widening of theological dissent; diversity and pluralism to the point of confusion and doubt in theology, catechetics, and religious education generally; the rejection of papal authority in the matter of birth control, and resistance to that authority on other issues such as the ordination of women and priestly celibacy; the ecumenical movement’s challenge to Catholic identity and distinctiveness; the alienation of young people from the Church; the abiding social and cultural dominance of science and technology, with its correlative impact upon traditional spiritual values and motivation; the continuing and inevitable involvement of the Church on both sides of the historic struggle between rich and poor, oppressor and oppressed; the raised consciousness of women in the Church.. .

“In the span of a generation,” Gilkey notes, “the absolute authority of the church regarding truth, law, and rules of life, has suddenly vanished …The collapse of this authority has not occurred because certain church doctrines, papal decrees, bishops’ rulings and so on were at last found to be in error, or… obviously ‘wrong’ or ‘old-fashioned’ in relation to the modern mind” (pp. 52-53). Such explanations, he maintains, miss the heart of the issue and fail to get at the deeper source of the present crisis, which is the loss of the traditional Catholic sense of the supernatural. Catholics feel free to reject official Church teachings not simply because they perceive them to be in error but because they no longer perceive them to be propounded with the authority of God. There has been, in Gilkey’s terms, a “geological shift” in values, away from the supernatural and to the natural, and he calls this a modernizing of the Catholic mind.

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Richard Peter McBrien (born 1936) is the Crowley-O'Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He is a priest of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford and the author of several books and articles discussing Catholicism. He is most well known for his authorship of Catholicism. He also served as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America from 1974–1975. In 1976 he was the awarded the John Courtney Murray Award for outstanding and distinguished accomplishments in theology.

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