The Church in Crisis: Roots and Realities

The crisis in Catholicism today, argues Fr. Martin R. Tripole, S.J., author of a detailed study of the Enlightenment and its continuing influence, is "a crisis of abandonment of fidelity to Christ’s Church and its teachings".

Fr. Martin R. Tripole, S.J., is professor emeritus of theology, Saint Joseph’s University, Philadelphia who earned an S.T.D. from the Institut Catholique in Paris, France. He is the author of Church in Crisis: The Enlightenment and Its Impact upon Today’s Church (CUA, 2012), and has published numerous essays and book reviews on theology, spirituality, and education. He recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about his book and some of its major points, including the roots and nature of the crisis in the Church, the key characteristics of the crisis, the political aspects of the crisis, and the pontificate of Francis.

CWR: Your thesis is that the crisis in the Church in America is not years or decades old, but “has been going on for centuries”. How would you summarize that crisis? And what is the point of origin?

Fr. Martin R. Tripole: The crisis in the Church in America today is a consequence of major movements that have been going on in the Western world for centuries. One must first look at the crisis in the modern world of which the Church in America is a part to understand the crisis occurring in the Church. I would summarize that larger crisis as a loss of meaning and purpose in life.

For the origin of the crisis, one needs to go back at least to the time of William of Ockham in the fourteenth century, with his philosophy of voluntarism. Using what is called “Ockham’s razor,” Ockham excised anything he considered superfluous for an understanding of reality. He is generally understood to have argued that 1) essences do not exist, and 2) rational proofs for the existence of God are impossible.

1) The first principle destroyed the intrinsic value of things, since intrinsic values are rooted in essences. If the human being does not have an essence—which Aristotle defined as “rational animal”—he does not have intrinsic value but only extrinsically imposed value. For Ockham, that value was given to the human being by God willing it. Since there were no essences for Ockham, there were no universals. There was no universal category of human beings which we have traditionally called man, but only individual human beings who resemble each other. But without universals, there is no intrinsic foundation for principles of morality or for natural law. The consequence of all of this is that morality is either imposed by God, or, if not, becomes a matter of personal choice or collective rule, in which case might makes right.

2) For Ockham, knowledge is based on direct experience, and since I cannot have direct experience of God, I cannot prove God’s existence. Ockham made conviction regarding God’s existence a matter of faith: I can believe in the existence of God, but such faith becomes a matter of personal or collective conviction, and not something that could be argued in the public square. The consequence of that kind of thinking is that the notion of God imposing value on human life is ruled out of public discourse, from which eventually follows the marginalization of religion and the separation of Church and State.

All of this eventually comes to have an effect upon the life of the modern Church. How that happens is the focus of my study. But if I have to say at this point in a nutshell what the crisis in the modern Church is, I would say it is a crisis of abandonment of fidelity to Christ’s Church and its teachings, for all of the reasons we will discuss here.

CWR: There are a number of avenues by which the crisis was brought on by the Enlightenment mentality. What are some of those avenues?

Fr. Tripole: The eighteenth-century movement called the Enlightenment generally gave primacy to individual over community, and to reason over faith. In the first case, the rights of the individual were stressed over the welfare of the community; in the latter case, the conclusions of rational investigation predominated over faith convictions, which, as we argued above, were ruled out of public discourse. That meant the loss of a scientific basis for the study of theology and faith. Since God had been made a conviction of personal experience, it was impossible to give theology social legitimation.

Strictly speaking, theology cannot be a science with this kind of thinking; it can at best be metaphysical speculation, which makes it useless in public discourse. As a result, as the rationalistic spirit of the Enlightenment increasingly took hold, it was only a matter of time before religion was placed on the margins of public life.

CWR: Catholics are not fatalists, of course, and thus don’t see history as a downward spiral. Yet it surely appears, in the West, that Catholicism has been pulled into a downward spiral for quite some time. What are some of the evidences of that trajectory? What signs of hope do you see?

Fr. Tripole: I think strong evidence of that trajectory may be seen in different areas:

1) in the disorientation of Catholic thought. This can be found, for example, in the rationalistic mentality of the Enlightenment that has inevitably crept into the world of theology, so that the ordinary primacy that should be given to faith in theological discourse is given to reason. A theologian will often argue to the validity of his position based on what he considers to be the weightier conclusions resulting from his own argumentation; he will not argue on the basis of the collective wisdom of the faith experience of the Church. The problem with that mentality, of course, is that what one theologian finds rationally convincing is not necessarily so for another; in other words, a theology that is not grounded in truths that are known in faith is just “my” theological argument versus “yours”, and then, once again, might makes right.

2) in what Benedict XVI has called “the dictatorship of relativism”. With the loss of the existence of essences, intrinsic value, and natural law based on the existence of essences, what possibility is there for grounding truth? None, unless edicts from God are imposed as the final arbiter. But since God has been ruled out of the public forum, no final grounding of truth is available. One is left with nothing more than one’s own subjective evaluation and common agreement. Thus all truth becomes relative, based on how I/we see things. The inevitable outcome is moral and intellectual degeneration, which we are experiencing in our society today, since no one can say what really should be.

3) in the loss of faith. One sees this especially among young people, whose abandonment of the faith is a major consequence of the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Older generations are still largely guided by the tenets of the Christian faith. But once truth and value are relegated to the subjective, what possibility can there be for faith conviction? Conviction about what? If faith is nothing but a product of what a community feels, why bother with it?

CWR: How has the influence of the Enlightenment shaped the dominant views of truth and objective goodness? What must the Church do to combat relativism and subjectivism?

Fr. Tripole: Truth and goodness are now no longer seen by even many of the wisest of people as anything but subjective viewpoints, “impressions,” expressions of one’s “feelings”. Objective reality does not generally enter into people’s consciousness today, except in relation to the hard sciences and mathematics.

One sees sad evidence of this kind of thinking among many Christian believers: in a Scripture study group, the discussion often immediately focuses not on what the text says, or what Scripture scholars conclude from their critical analysis of the text, but on “what it means to me”. That’s all that really matters.

Some of the clearest evidence of the influence of the Enlightenment today is found in recent Supreme Court decisions. The greatest legal blow to all concepts of object truth and morality is found in these June 29, 1992, statements of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Robert P. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State”. But what about under the compulsion of Truth? That a practicing Catholic on the highest bench in the nation could make statements like these shows how far the reductive Enlightenment mentality has taken over our understanding of reality and the objectivity of the Christian revelation.

As to what the Church must do to combat relativism and subjectivism, I see no alternative but to restore an understanding of philosophical Truth and the Christian Revelation as objective. This is necessary so that the existence of God may once again not only be rationally justified but also reinforced by the Christian Revelation, and that Christian tenets may no longer be understood merely as principles of personal belief, but as insights into what really is. In other words, faith leads to Truth beyond the reach of reason, and not merely to personal conviction. Jesus Christ is not simply the Savior of Christians who feel He is; He is the Savior of the world because that is in fact what His death and resurrection made Him (Acts 4:12).

CWR: How should we distinguish between “modernism” and “postmodernism”? Why are the differences significant?

Fr. Tripole: I think, for our purposes here, one could simply equate modernism with scientism, and postmodernism with contextualism. For the modernist, truth is found only in the hard sciences and in mathematics. Thus the supernatural is unreal. Postmodernists go even further: there is no truth at all for them, only subjective feelings and impressions. Everything is contextualized: We are all in our own worlds, and everything is an expression of what we perceive within the context of those worlds. There is no reality independent of these worlds by which we could determine truth.

In my view, the ultimate consequence of the rationalistic Enlightenment mentality is a postmodernism that eventually terminates in Solipsism and Nihilism—the annihilation of real meaning, value, and purpose to existence. The movement of history inevitably leads to Nihilism, once essences and the existence of God are no longer objectively validated.

CWR: You taught theology in a university setting for many years. How would you assess the current state of Catholic higher education in the U.S.? What are the main challenges to reviving a robust and unapologetic Catholic education?

Fr. Tripole: The rationalistic Enlightenment mentality has had a deleterious effect upon Catholic education in the United States. There has been a quiet dethronement of the principles of objective truth that I have discussed above which give content and meaning and purpose to life.

Modern Catholicism is also losing awareness of the primacy of the supernatural in what it means to be a Catholic. That loss was triggered first of all by the cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s, which emphasized the purely pragmatic, and especially by the introduction of liberation theology in Catholic thinking. Liberation theology tended to downplay the reality of the spiritual and to emphasize the social dimensions of the Christian experience, specifically, concern for the economically poor and the socially marginalized.

Statistical data presented in my book strikingly indicate that, when asked what it means to be a good Catholic, Catholics have increasingly moved from stressing the importance of entering into the sacramental life of the Church to being socially concerned. The basic theology course required of all students now on the campus where I reside is not a study of the Scriptures or of the teachings of the Church, but of “Faith, Justice, and the Catholic Tradition”, where the emphasis is on the development of the Church’s teaching on social justice. This social-justice movement has had a major impact upon the thinking of young Catholics today, who are now more eager to serve the poor as a witness to being a good Catholic than to go to Mass. Emphasis is now placed upon participating in social justice activities as an integral part of Catholic education rather than on participating in the sacramental life of the Church. Mass attendance has dwindled considerably, and fidelity to the teaching of the Church is largely optional. In my opinion, it is only a matter of time before theology courses become obsolete in what is left of Catholic education.

The challenge in Catholic education is to return to a study of the fundamentals of the Catholic faith, and to inculcate a renewed awareness of the elements of the Christian revelation. Practicing social justice is vital to Catholic living, to be sure, but, unless it is integrated into fidelity to Christ in the life of His Church, it has little meaning for a Catholic.

But whether it is possible in Catholic education today to return to a solid grounding in the teachings of the Church is questionable because of the modernist and postmodernist mentality that now dominates our culture. We have to return to an understanding of the Christian revelation as objectively grounded, and to a personal relationship to the Christ Who has objectively redeemed humanity, and to the need for these truths to be known, accepted, and lived by Catholics as they evangelize the world.

CWR: You have a chapter on the separation of Church and State. What common misunderstandings exist about this much touted “separation”? Why do so many Catholics apparently think that their beliefs must be kept private and out of the public square?

Fr. Tripole: The most common misunderstanding about the notion of separation of Church and State is that it is mandated by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Nothing could be further from the truth, but this sentiment has been promoted by the Supreme Court’s erroneous understanding of that amendment since the 1940s, and by secularists in our society who have latched on to that misunderstanding as a basis for driving religion out of society. Unfortunately, many Catholics have unwittingly accepted this notion, and feel it is the law of the land.

The First Amendment in fact mandates only that Congress not establish a national religion nor restrict anyone’s freedom to practice religion. That’s all.

Delving into the mentality of the Founding Fathers indicates that nothing was more important to them than the promotion of religious practice in society as a means of ensuring a stable moral foundation to civic life. The reason why the founders wanted to ensure that there be no governmentally sanctioned religion was so that all religious faiths might freely operate in society. As a result of a modern bifurcation of religion and civic life, God is being taken more and more out of our culture and increasingly replaced by immoral and evil practices.

All of this I see as a natural consequence of the rationalistic Enlightenment mentality that eradicated the presence of God and intrinsic values from society. This eradication explains why Catholics have increasingly come to believe that their faith and its teachings should be kept private. The fact is, if God is purely subjective and faith is purely personal, the secularists are right, and God should be banned from the public square. But if God is real, and is really involved in personal lives and in the processes of history, as the Bible manifestly indicates He is, to exclude God from public discourse is to create false parameters of reality leading to injudicious decision-making and eventual chaos.

CWR: You wrote your book shortly before Benedict XVI stepped down and Francis was elected. What is your impression of Francis’ pontificate?

Fr. Tripole: I would say that the verdict is still out. There is no doubt that Francis is pastorally a bombshell! I have yet to meet a layperson who has any reservations about him. Everyone likes him! As to his long-range effect, I think that remains unclear. We have to see how strong he stands on the major moral issues besetting the modern world. Some argue that in these areas his stance has up to now been ambiguous, and whether that assessment of his views could later be overcome with greater clarity in his teaching remains to be seen.

Amoris Laetitia does not seem to have brought that clarity. The document seems to say whatever one wants it to say. It seems designed to please both sides of the equation: the moral teachings of the Church remain firm and orthodox, but in the internal forum and with individual conscience, the door seems open to wide parameters of application. How do you maintain lofty principles with wide latitude of praxis? The ultimate consequence is that it is difficult to keep the teaching resolute. I fear a growing situation in the Church where the teaching would remain firm but be widely ignored. We have the example of the Protestant churches to show us that mitigated teaching becomes no teaching, and faith loses its ecclesial dimension. Why do we not learn from them?

CWR: In your final chapter you reflect at length on the restoration of unity. Do you think Francis has created more opportunities for such unity? Or do you think the various fractures that revealed themselves at Vatican II have been reemphasized?

Fr. Tripole: It is hard to say, because on the level of pastoral influence, Francis seems to have brought people together. Many people think more favorably of the Church today as a result of his open and friendly demeanor.

But on the level of doctrine and Church discipline, I’m inclined to think that the divisions in the Church are so great that it will take years to overcome them. Francis calls for compassion, but compassion alone has limited sway. The life and thinking of Catholics have probably never been more divided than they are today. The fractures that were created after Vatican II festered until 1978 when John Paul II became pope. I think that since his death, those fractures have intensified, and the sharp new moral divisions in American culture, where the teachings of the Church are so strongly under attack, have only exacerbated the situation, since American Catholics are deeply influenced by what secularists say.

To me, nothing is more important for the future of the Church than to restore unity to Christianity. Jesus stated clearly in John 17:20-26 that maintaining a unity in love was essential to the success of His mission, and unless we see the importance of reestablishing that unity, we remain fractured and jeopardize the success of that mission. All good Christians should want to do anything possible to correct the situation. The point of my book was to drive home the importance of reestablishing unity in love, and I hope that reading the book will lead Christians, and especially Catholics, to do whatever they can to restore that unity.  

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About Carl E. Olson 1191 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.