Should the Church—Christians acting as such, especially those in authority—heed the cry of the people? Less rhetorically, should the Church be guided by public opinion?
The answer, of course, is “sometimes.” The people are guided by their needs, but also by their obsessions and illusions, and they ask for good things, bad things, and things that don’t matter much. So what is popular is sometimes right and sometimes wrong.
They’re also guided negatively, by the topics they avoid. Not talking can mean no problem or a big problem. People usually don’t ask for what they need most, or they ask for it in a confused way. If they knew just what it was, and could tell you all about it, they’d usually be able to deal with it effectively and it wouldn’t be such a problem.
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For all that, popular views matter a great deal. If you want to know what’s up with someone, what he needs and is going to do, you start by talking to him. The outlook of the people is basic to the overall situation, and even wrong views can point to real issues. Populism isn’t sensible as a general principle of government, for example, but when it takes hold it’s a sure sign something has gone wrong, and the people usually have a better sense of what that is than the higher-ups.
Like anyone with independent perspective and judgment, Catholics should support people when they’re right, and when they’re not they should abstain, resist, or attempt to redirect them. Not everything is our battle, but we shouldn’t follow or even cooperate with the multitude to do evil.
But how do we decide whether the people are right and what to do about it? Confucius noted that if you want to straighten the world out you should start by learning more and straightening yourself out. The process, of course, is never completed, but whatever our imperfections we can’t avoid involvement in the affairs of our fellows. “Live and let live” can apply only to a point. People affect us at least as much as we affect them, so we live better if they live well. And in any event, we have to decide whether to go along with what they want.
But how do these grand principles apply to public opinion today?
The people believe a variety of contradictory things, so it’s rarely possible to talk about the cry of the people in a simple way. For the most part, commentators use the expression to refer to views they agree with that win public opinion polls. On that interpretation the cry of the people is sometimes for theocracy, sometimes for throwing Christians to the lions. Today, at least in the West, it seems mostly a cry for comfort and accommodation. So the cry of the people has become a cry of mediocrity, if such a thing can be imagined.
That cry is everywhere. Differences of opinion cause problems, so people want the Church to downplay them. What practical use, they ask, is doctrine? Or if we need it to maintain a sense of continuity, the kind the British get from their monarchy, we should ignore it in practice. That’s pastoral, since it lets the flock do what they want, and (by good fortune) it also pleases worldly powers and makes life easier for shepherds.
In a time of great freedom from traditional restrictions, the cry is to get rid of the ones that remain. Many demands regarding doctrine have to do with sex, where doctrine unavoidably hits home in daily life. Pretty much everyone ignores doctrine on contraception. Beyond that, people want married priests, women priests, and acceptance of divorce, homosexuality, informal unions, and so on. Brave churchmen, possessed of the spirit of prophecy—or at least we are told they are—respond by going along.
Nobody cries for the defeat of careerism, consumerism, and mediocrity. People see nothing wrong with attachment to wealth, position, and comfort, although some want them spread around so everyone can join in. So there’s no interest, for example, in asceticism. People don’t see the point. Why give up something for Lent, let alone undertake voluntary poverty of the sort traditional among ascetics? The only reason a lot of people can come up with is that it’s about solidarity with the poor, who don’t enjoy the benefit—apparently a necessity for a dignified human life—of full participation in the consumer economy.
Instead of asceticism we have happy talk and joyfulness bullies, who tell us that if we’re not all smiles all the time we’re not real Christians. Of course, the Church also needs to stand for something beyond loosening restrictions and avoiding sad thoughts. Everyone’s in favor of material well-being, so why not that? So today, in by far the healthiest and most prosperous period in history, the basic mission of the Church, apart from acceptance and tolerance, is thought to be spreading material well-being around. The corporal works of mercy are certainly important, but for most people most of the time what’s needed most is a better way of life. That involves work, though, and one way to avoid the issue is to say we’re busy dealing with the problems that are humanly serious by creating a Church of the margins and peripheries.
As a practical matter that solution pleases the most powerful, since it supports a globally administered system; the most indifferent, since it gets the Church out of their day-to-day life; the most hypocritical, since it provides endless opportunities for virtue signaling about faraway things; and the hierarchy, since it doesn’t inconvenience them and pleases everyone else. And it claims to be a heartfelt response to the cry of people in acute need, so it provides a moral club to beat dissenters with. It’s the perfect response to the dominant cry of the people at the beginning of the third millennium.
There are of course people who, for a variety of reasons, dissent from these trends. Some are just hard to satisfy, others make odd demands that are unpopular for good reasons, and others want the Church to shut up about political and social issues because they disagree, wisely or unwisely, with the politics of her more vocal representatives. Still others have already arranged a comfortable accommodation with the Church, and dislike any changes that might upset it.
Even so, minority positions often have something to them. Many people have a sense that the current situation in the Church isn’t normal. Some of the saints were cheerful, others wept a lot and emphasized penitence, still others thundered jeremiads. Why wouldn’t all those things be necessary in a Church that thought it was dealing with realities? So the one-sided emphasis on joy, practical insistence on comfort, and complete absence of the ascetic impulse suggest something is missing.
There are people who dissent from the trends now dominant because they want a greater sense of reality in religious matters. That desire, which is more or less the same thing as faith, lies behind the strong minority interest in orthodoxy, in a more demanding standard of life, in traditional devotions and other traditional practices, including the Latin Mass, and in religious orders that favor classical spirituality.
If the Church wants to consult the faithful, it seems that these are some of the people she should consult. Some of them may be flawed and make mistakes, but that is just to say they are human. It seems more important that they are people for whom the Church and her specific teachings are real and important. If they are right about that, the silence of the majority on such matters shows they are needed now more than ever. And in any event, what can be the future of a Church devoted wholeheartedly to mediocrity, comfort, and assimilation to the world?