What a strange thing it must be to be a Catholic in Great Britain at the moment. It seems like every opinion about the Catholic Church under the sun is coming home to roost in the expectation of the holy father’s imminent arrival. The Guardian of course is an infinite source of entertainment in this regard. Three articles came up on my Google reader today:
Actually these articles are not uniformly awful; the last one especially contains some stuff of some interest. In the first article, Sinead O’Connor describes herself as “Catholic by birth and culture”, but notably not “by faith”. It seems incredible therefore that she is happy to stand up and say that “the Pope should stand down” because he and the rest of the church’s leaders are “anti-Christian”. It reminds one of two sayings, “the pot calls the kettle black” and “is the Pope Catholic?”. Apparently O’Connor is to feature in one of seven films that will be shown on Channel 4 coinciding with the papal visit in England. Some of these films will take a positive view of Pope Benedict, including a contributor who is a mother of eight and who believes the papal blessing saved her unborn child from death. The makers of the series explain their intentions as follows:
For us, the whole idea is diversity and seven anti-pope films don’t sound very diverse. Some people think he’s amazing, others don’t. Religion means different things to different people. This isn’t intellectuals coming down from on high or someone who has been put forward by a religious institution.
The second article follows the “is the Pope Catholic?” line more strictly. It focuses on a group of “Old Catholics”, and actually reveals quite a bit about this “tradition” which split off from the Catholic Church in 1870. Father Jerome Lloyd maintains “that we are the continuation of Roman Catholicism as it was prior to papal infallibility.” That seems to be stretching the imagination in another direction as the article reports:
Since the schism from Rome, Old Catholics have been splitting from each other and now worship in a loose communion of separate “jurisdictions”: “I would say in the UK there are about 50 [jurisdictions],” says [Bishop Richard] Palmer. He puts the total number of Old Catholics at around 5000. However, Lloyd disagrees with this – suggesting that some who claim to be Old Catholics don’t count, on the grounds that they accept homosexuality and women priests, and estimates the membership to be in the low hundreds.
Instructive if nothing else.
The final Guardian article is the most interesting, especially as it looks at the question of numbers of adherents to the Catholic Church throughout the world. In this regard it takes note of the obvious discrepancy between Europe and the rest of the world, especially noting the situation in Kenya and Nigeria. About three quarters of the way through, the article mentions a new book in Italian by Andrea Tornielli, Attacco a Ratzinger. In recent days both John Allen and Sandro Magister have reflected on this book. The Guardian article quotes Tornielli as saying:
the Pope “does not think of the re-Christianisation of Europe in terms of military-style re-conquest. It is not a question of numbers”. The key to his thinking, Tornielli believes, is his use of the phrase “creative minority”. In a speech Benedict made last year in the Czech Republic, he argued that “it is usually creative minorities that determine the future and, in this regard, the Catholic Church must understand that it is a creative minority which has a heritage of values that are not things of the past, but a very lively and relevant reality”.
Some of Benedict supporters believes he wants a smaller, but theologically more homogenous (and reactionary) group of true believers who can hunker down and wait for more propitious times. Tornielli thinks that is a misinterpretation. “The idea of a ‘hard core’ is essentially military and defensive. I think the Pope simply believes that the only way to get the people of our times to encounter God is by bearing Christian witness, leading Christian values. It is, after all, not so unlike what happened 2000 years ago.”
That certainly reminds me of conversations we have had on this blog with Brian Coyne. Brian does tend to think in images that are military, images where a numbers are of course important, and often misinterprets what we are talking about in terms of the formation of a ‘hard core’ of conservative Catholics. But Tornielli clearly has it right. While not losing sight of the fact that the gospel is for everyone, Pope Benedict knows that those who will have the greatest effect on the whole will be the few who seriously live out the Christian witness of holiness. At no stage in Christian history, especially in times when Catholicism has embraced the majority of the population in any one place, have all Catholics embraced the call to holiness with equal seriousess. It has always been the case that small extraordinarily dedicated groups (eg. the martyrs, the monastics, the Franciscans, the modern movements) have been instrumental in stirring up faith in those around them.