Tom Reese, SJ, the former editor of America, writes a column for Religion News Service that regularly appears in the National Catholic Reporter. He recently tackled the vexing, if well-worn, question of “Why Is the Church Failing in the West?” He made some shrewd observations but came to dubious conclusions.
Reese is a distinguished social scientist who has examined the institutional workings of the Church in his books Archbishop: Inside the Power Structure of the American Catholic Church and Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. In his column, Reese rehearses the explanations offered by both conservatives and liberals for the Church’s current troubles. “The theories can be collected in two major baskets” he writes, “those that blame culture and those that blame the Church itself.” That dichotomy is familiar enough. Conservatives, especially those in the hierarchy, blame secularization, individualism, and consumerism. The urban, tribal, and cohesive Catholic communities of the last century have decamped to the deracinated suburbs. Nor are priests the most highly educated folks in the community anymore. Affluence and intermarriage undermine the old loyalties. Vatican II destroyed the notion of the Church as an unchanging “perfect society,” and opened the door to Catholic theologians taking public opposition to Church teaching. Or so conservatives often complain.
Liberals, on the other hand, blame the Church’s problems on a calcified hierarchy. Fr. Andrew Greeley, another social scientist, thought the hierarchy lost the laity with Humanae vitae, Reese reminds us. Liberals think not allowing priests to marry and not softening the Church’s teachings on abortion and gay rights has alienated most Catholics, especially the young. Reese candidly admits that he tends to side with the liberal rather than the conservative critique. He concedes that there is a lot of truth in the conservative argument, “but blaming the culture is like blaming the weather. That is the world we live in: learn to deal with it.”
Reese then makes several curious arguments. He thinks that both theories about what has gone wrong have been created by “theologians who believe that ideas are what motivate humans.” As a social scientist, he begs to differ. “Experience often matters more,” he writes. But these dueling conservative and liberal interpretations of the Church’s decline are hardly confined to theologians; they have been taken up with a vengeance by a good many lay people. Nor do all, or perhaps even most, theologians think ideas alone are what motivate people. Bad experiences in church, at funerals or during confession, can of course push Catholics away, as Reese observes. But is it true that “more people are driven away from church by arrogant priests than by disagreements over theology”? I’ve attended many churches over the years, and I have rarely been confronted by arrogance from the pulpit. But I have also rarely encountered inspiration or exegetical excellence. Clerical mediocrity, not arrogance, is the more common problem.