The Present Crisis

Urbi et Orbi, Easter 2019
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More than 38 years ago, Ralph McInerny and Michael Novak founded a new journal called Catholicism in Crisis, later renamed Crisis Magazine. In its opening editorial, entitled “The Present Crisis,” they wrote, “The crisis in which we find ourselves is one of faith and theology, especially concerning questions of the temporal order and the role of the laity…The crisis in the Catholic Church of 1982 is that the church seems in danger of losing its true, original, and profound identity, in order to become what it is not, an instrument of temporal power.” 

Sadly, this is no less true of the Catholic Church of 2021; in fact, it is likely more true. Even in this time of massive defections from the Faith, as well as significant disorientation regarding what it means to be Catholic, many Church leaders see the Church more as an NGO than the Sacrament of Salvation. For many Catholics, being Catholic is a moderately important social identifier that has little impact on how they view this world or the next. Those outside the Church see her as but one small player in the larger culture, helpful in giving it a religious veneer when necessary, but not a significant means of influence. Widespread confusion persists regarding the proper role of the laity in the Church and the clergy in the world. The crisis in the Church and in the culture that the founders of the magazine identified in 1982 still exists today, and because of this Crisis Magazine is still vital for our times.

As I take over the reins as Editor-in-Chief of Crisis Magazine, I reaffirm the need to address directly the crisis in the Church and in culture today. I must also ask, how do we react to this crisis? How do we resist the seemingly overwhelming tide that is against us? 

First, we must be clear that the Church is in crisis today. Imagine a space alien walking into a typical Catholic parish (assuming he passes the rigorous Covid-related screenings required in most parishes today). He’d think the Catholic Church was in great shape based on all the self-accolades he’d hear from parish leaders regarding the vibrancy and dynamism of the parish and the diocese. No matter how bad things have gotten, never underestimate the ability of Church leaders to heap praise on their own efforts.

Yet faithful Catholics know in their guts that there’s a problem. We see it all around us, both inside and outside the Church. It’s not just the plummeting attendance figures or the heresy run amok within chanceries, at Catholic universities, and among religious orders around the world. It’s not even the culture’s increasingly belligerent anti-Catholicism. It’s more fundamental than that. As the founders of Crisis noted, the true crisis is that the Church is in “danger of losing its true, original, and profound identity.” 

The crisis, then, is a crisis of identity: What is the purpose of the Catholic Church? What does it mean to be a Catholic in the world today? These are the questions that must be answered today, and these are the questions that Crisis is here to address head-on. 

The Church is not to be primarily “an instrument of temporal power,” here simply to make the world a better place to live. Although for more than a half century the Church has flirted with the world in a futile effort to turn the world’s head, we must see the relationship between the world and the Church as Christ did, who told his disciples, “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18-19). Cozying up to the world has only led the Church to forget who she is, like a desperate and awkward teenage girl putting on loads of makeup to get the attention of the high school quarterback. 

The true mission of the Church is not to conform to the world, but to transform lives (cf. Rom. 12:2). And those transformed are, in turn, to go out into the world to make it better able to serve Christ the King. In the 1980’s, when Crisis was founded, the scourge of worldwide communism dominated the world, a scourge whose tenets fundamentally contradicted Catholicism, but with which many prominent Catholics flirted anyway. Today, we see Church leaders tempted again by the siren song of creating a temporal paradise, based on worldly values and worldly goals. We must reject this siren song and return to the primary mission of the Church: to baptize the nations and make disciples of all peoples (cf. Mt 28:19). These transformed disciples, in turn, go out and impact all aspects of culture, society, and politics.

As the founders of Crisis Magazine noted in their kickoff editorial, we must also avoid the dangers of clericalism. It is not up to our bishops and priests to renew culture and politics, it is up to us, the laity. While the Church, through Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium, rightly gives principles by which we are to live, the laity has the role of applying those principles to concrete situations. Working together, with the clergy proclaiming the life-saving message of Jesus Christ and the laity living it out and applying it in the world, we can by God’s grace overcome the present crisis.

Crisis Magazine has a long history of publishing the work of excellent writers, and it is my hope that we continue that tradition for many years to come. We will publish articles by writers you already love, and we hope to add new writers that you will come to love. If you are a Catholic writer and believe you have something to say that will help us in the present crisis, please feel free to submit an article for consideration. 

Regarding our writers, know this: Crisis does not participate in “cancel culture.” We publish articles by authors with whom we do not agree on every political, liturgical, or other issue. While we of course don’t publish articles by notorious heretics, we don’t shy away from other “controversial” figures if we believe they have something to say that can add to our understanding of the present crisis.

Finally, please support the work of this magazine, particularly in your prayers. And know that as we work together to advance the mission of the Church in the world during the present crisis, we will pray for you as well.

[Photo credit: Vatican Media/CNA]

Eric Sammons

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Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine. His upcoming book Deadly Indifference (May 2021) examines the rise of religious indifference and how it has led the Church to lose her missionary zeal.

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