Brave New Church: Pastoral Cotton Candy instead of Clear Statements

The Final Report of the Synod of Bishops calls for new, non-judgmental language. Yet the therapeutic approach sometimes evident in it betrays a new sort of patronizing treatment.

Chur, Switzerland (  Earlier Church documents were often combative. A counterpoint to the false prophets who tickle the ears and lull the soul, while it unsuspectingly tumbles into the abyss. In confronting the dangers of the world, the Church preferred clear statements, without special-educational feel-good lyricism. That has changed. The Church wants to take the present realities of life seriously. And she wants a new language that does not judge or marginalize anyone.

The Final Report of the Synod of Bishops itself shows us what that will be like. For example, the requirement to stop sinning and to convert recedes into the background. To compensate, there is more about crescità, about our growth. The important thing is maturazione, becoming mature. In this process the Church prefers to “accompany” us rather than to scold. Gently, she wants to help us to “discern”. This sort of talk enjoys great popularity in the ecclesiastical mainstream, precisely among Catholics who deem themselves progressive. Heaven and Hell? No, better to have “images of reconciliation and fear”. Good and evil? Objective sin? Rather: “gradual realizations” of the ideal. This is a politically correct language that is supposed to avoid frightening the little sheep unnecessarily. But with this NewSpeak is the Church really taking us seriously? As modern, enlightened human beings?

For Immanuel Kant the Enlightenment was the “mankind’s emergence from its self-incurred minority”. Today many people may consider themselves full-fledged, enlightened adults. But has that also been achieved in the Church? Probably not, if everyone is insisting on crescità and maturazione, on growth and maturing. Because someone who still has to grow is not yet grown up. And only the immature still have to mature. In a certain way, of course, we all must grow and mature throughout our lives. But then that applies also to the people in Church leadership. They, however, do not consider themselves to be at the same level, for they know precisely in what direction we have to mature. Actually the Church is telling us with her new language: “I am helping you to become grown up and mature. Just as grown up and mature as we pastors are already.”

Does anybody who has understood post-modernity speak that way? Does anyone who is looking for contemporary ways of proclaiming the faith? The Church wants to be more open to the world and closer to reality. And yet the pastoral cotton candy that she is offering cannot disguise the fact that she ultimately does not consider human beings today to be adults. That she speaks down to them. Admittedly: that may be unavoidable when proclaiming a divine truth that is greater than man and, viewed in this way, always comes “down from above”. But then the Church must take a clear stand instead of secretly pretending to know better than you. Someone who wants to be taken seriously cannot achieve that as a pedagogical artful dodger, but only if he for his part takes people seriously. He has to understand the self-assurance of his enlightened contemporaries. They do not feel particularly guilty. They are not desperately seeking a mercy that the Church has purportedly denied them for a long time. If they want anything at all from the Church, other than simply being left in peace, then they probably want instead moral approval for their lifestyle, for the standards that are deemed good by the prevailing culture. Most people I know, at any rate, think of themselves as critical of religion, relatively well-informed and independent—not as immature patients in need of growth. The soothing universal therapy, the non-judgmental special education: these are not signs of a greater sense of reality in the Church. No, neither are they signs of openness, but rather of infantilization. They want to take us by the hand like children, so that we will grow and mature. Pure paternalism.

The earlier Church was more honest in this respect. With her clear speech she took for granted that we were adults. In the Old Testament, in the Book of Deuteronomy 30:19, we read: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live.” This is not paternalism. Rather, we are taken seriously with the clear alternative: blessing or curse, life or death. It confronts us, as responsible individuals, with the choice. It attributes to us the requisite degree of maturity to distinguish between good and evil. Just like Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew 5:37, when he demands: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from the Evil One.”

It is understandable if the Synod in Rome, with over 270 bishops and cardinals, during weeks of intensive working sessions divided over two years, finally should present a consensus document that cannot explain everything in depth. But after the large-scale, worldwide questionnaire about marriage and the family, whereby they intended to hear the opinion of the people in the Church, it is disappointing now that the main goal was not achieved. They wanted to understand better the existential reality in which families today live, in which they love, work and struggle. They wanted to understand the modern world better, so as to be able to enter into it better.

Instead, 200 years after Kant, they have regressed to a point before the self-understanding of the Enlightenment, and they are patronizing us in a way that Jesus never did. A shame.

(Translated from German by Michael J. Miller.)

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About Giuseppe Gracia 0 Articles
Giuseppe Gracia is the communications director of Bishop Huonder in the Diocese of Chur, Switzerland. In this commentary he expresses his private opinion.