Finding the path to renewal in the Church: An interview with Brandon McGinley

“We have everything we need to renew the Church and the world,” says the author of The Prodigal Church, “but we just don’t recognize it because we’ve been so well-catechized by secularism.”

(Image: TeroVesalainen | Pixabay.com)

Brandon McGinley has written a book, The Prodigal Church (Sophia Institute Press, 2020), which analyzes what has happened within and to the Catholic Church in recent decades, and how the Church can best respond to the dominant culture. The publisher describes the book as a “roadmap to renewal,” as McGinley provides a thoughtful and in-depth diagnosis of the issues the Church faces today and a prescription for how to meet those challenges.

McGinley recently spoke with Catholic World Report about his new book, and the role the Church should play in meeting the challenges of our culture today.

Catholic World Report: How did the book come about?

Brandon McGinley: The ideas in The Prodigal Church had been percolating in my mind for years, but they came out piecemeal: an essay here, a tweet there. Writing the book gave me a chance to organize those thoughts into a coherent whole, focused on a renewed appreciation for the deep reality of what the Church is. That’s something I kept coming back to in my writing: We have everything we need to renew the Church and the world, but we just don’t recognize it because we’ve been so well-catechized by secularism.

At the time these ideas were coming together, I was the editor for EWTN Publishing, which is a collaboration between the network and Sophia Institute Press. I had long dreamed of being completely independent, though, and both EWTN and Sophia were very supportive. I pitched the book to the team at Sophia as my term as editor came to a close, and it anchored my first year as a freelancer.

CWR: Explain the title: The Prodigal Church.

McGinley: I always hasten to say, when answering this question, that the title is meant to evoke the entirety of the parable of the Prodigal Son—not just the (very negative) meaning of the word “prodigal.” Like most people, when I think of the parable, I don’t think about the pigsty; I think about the reconciliation. And so the title is meant to evoke both the struggles of the Church today—a dissipated inheritance, like the Prodigal Son’s, that has left us feeling defenseless against secular modernity—and the constant possibility of restoration and reconciliation. Our birthright of grace and peace can be restored by the Lord if only we trust that He can do it and return to Him—as individuals, families, parishes, and the Universal Church.

CWR: At one point, referring to an address of Fr. Joseph Ratzinger from 50 years ago, you rhetorically ask if we are in the beginning, the middle, or the end “of the Church’s faltering response to modernity”. What do you think—are we in the beginning, the middle, or the end?

McGinley: That’s a very good question. It really resolves into: How far along in the collapse of secular liberalism are we? From the pandemic to politics, it seems like everything is accelerating, so part of me wants to say that we are near “the end,” and the Church better pivot right away to thinking about and bringing into being a new order to replace the one that’s passing away. On the other hand, liberal civilization has proved quite durable, and may still have several generations left in it. That seems to me to be a harder case to make, and it’s hard to see how it hurts for the Church to be on the front lines of considering “what’s next.”

CWR: We are living in a world where the culture no longer sustains the faith without us having to think much about it. How do you think this will affect the Church in the near future? How about the long term?

McGinley: In the short term this is a disaster for the Church, as has been proven over the past several decades. At her best the Church passes down the Faith—through families and with the support of culture—almost like DNA. What happened in the middle part of the last century is that all the cultural supports for that process evaporated, but the institutional Church and Catholic families acted like they were still there. Now we’re finally coming to grips with reality—which means we have the chance to turn this liability into an asset. While it’s never ideal for the Church to be a “voluntary association,” it does select for zeal: Almost all adults Catholics of my generation are, by some definition, converts or reverts. The task before us now is to harness this new density of passion, and to try to build again the kind of (sub)cultures that will allow it to propagate itself, rather than dissipate once again.

CWR: How would you respond to those who talk of a smaller, “purer” Church?

McGinley: As I discuss in the Introduction, then-Fr. Ratzinger’s 1969 radio address—the genesis of the “smaller and purer” trope—predicting a “smaller and more spiritual” Church. And he didn’t necessarily recommend this notion; he just said it was coming, at least in the West, whether we liked it or not. Who could say he was wrong? It’s really up to us whether a smaller and “more spiritual” Church is purer or not. It could be! The Church could be more nimble, more confident, more evangelical: Shorn of many of her institutions, she could boldly reclaim her traditions while speaking fearlessly and prophetically to the world. Or this Church could be self-obsessed, whiny, and revanchist, trying to restore a recent past whose foundations have long since been washed away.

CWR: You do not idealize the past, some sort of pristine pre-conciliar flourishing Church. You recognize that some things worked, and some didn’t. How do we identify what worked, and what can work today in helping to renew the Church?

McGinley: I tend to think of it in terms of what is applicable across time and space, and what was contingent on particular circumstances. For instance, the old teeming urban Catholic enclaves are gone forever. The political power of the Church as an actor within the liberal order isn’t coming back. And so on. But at the same time, we can say that tight-knit networks of families have been essential to the Church’s flourishing through time, and then try to figure out what that looks like in the circumstances of our society and each family. We can say that a confident sacramentality in parish life sustains communities, and then discern how that works in a new, shrinking spiritual geography. And so on.

CWR: Since the time this book came out, this nation elected its second Catholic president—a man whose policies are quite often directly at odds with the Church whose creed he professes. How does this affect efforts for authentic renewal of the Church in this country?

McGinley: I suspect President Biden will be seen as the second bookend for the heyday of what I have called “accommodationist Catholicism” that opened with John Kennedy (whom I criticize rather severely in the book). His brand of Catholic identity, where everything but the Creed is negotiable with prevailing trends in American liberalism, has failed spectacularly to propagate to successive generations. He will be deployed by secularists and liberal Catholics to needle Catholics who actually believe what the Church teaches about the dignity of life and sexuality and so on, and that will be extremely annoying, but I really don’t think it will change many minds. Joe-Biden Catholicism is a zombie theology: This presidency will give it the appearance of vitality for a few years, but certainly to the vast majority of young Mass-going Catholics, it doesn’t look like (because it isn’t) a live option.

CWR: Is there anything else you would like to add?

McGinley: It’s so easy to fall into despair over the state of the world and the Church today: We see it every day online, especially, with rage and contempt and detraction passing for passionate faithfulness. But the virtues are part of the truth, and a bare fact that is delivered with meanness or impiety actually fails to communicate the truth in its fullness. As we’re thinking about renewing the Church, the first word across our lips (other than “Jesus”) must be “grace,” followed by “love.” Unless we are cooperating with (and therefore communicating) grace by acting with charity, we will be the “clanging cymbals” Paul warned about in 1 Corinthians 13. If we are to see real renewal in our time, it will be through a meek and humble reliance on God to bring about the restoration—like that of the Prodigal Son—that His power alone can effect.


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About Paul Senz 87 Articles
Paul Senz recently graduated from the University of Portland with his Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry. He lives in Oregon with his family.

15 Comments

  1. Wisdom (Justice) should embrace the practicalities of our earthly life. King Solomon prayed for the gift of Wisdom and it was given to him and he acted with justice in caring/governing his people while praising God.

    I believe that the problem for the Church today is a spiritual one, but sadly the church cannot give us a solution, because in doing so it would have to confront itself in ‘Truth’/humility. Which she appears to be incapable of doing so. One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is Wisdom; Wisdom is both the knowledge of and judgment about “divine things” and the ability to judge and direct human affairs according to divine truth; “It is a Way of life that is lived” and if lived with the Holy Spirit’s gift of “Knowledge which is the ability to judge correctly about matters of faith and right action, so as to never wander from the straight path of ‘justice’. Which the most vulnerable were and are denied under the present self-serving institutionalized Church, rather than embrace Humility it clings to an image of Worldly perfection a projection of Clericalism manifest in a self-serving image of worldly beauty, the present blasphemous Divine Mercy Image.

    So here is a spiritual message from the *Hopi Elders Full of Wisdom

    “You have been telling the people that this is the Eleventh Hour.
    Now you must go back and tell the people that this is The Hour.
    Here are the things that must be considered:
    What are you doing?
    What are your relationships?
    Are you in right relation?
    Where is your water?
    Know our garden.
    It is time to speak your Truth.
    Create your community.
    Be good to each other.
    And do not look outside yourself for the leader.
    This could be a good time!
    There is a river flowing now very fast.
    It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid.
    They will try to hold on to the shore.
    They will feel like they are being torn apart, and they will suffer greatly.
    Know the river has its destination.
    The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off toward the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water.
    See who is there with you and celebrate.
    At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves!
    For the moment we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt.
    The time of the lonely wolf is over.
    Gather yourselves!
    Banish the word struggle from your attitude and vocabulary.
    All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration

    We are the ones we have been waiting for.

    My understanding as a Christian of this Hopi spiritual message.

    The eleventh hour is always an ongoing time of crisis. So, in whatever time/world you are living in presently, now is the hour to leave and let go of the safe institution (shore) and step into quickening water of Life/Grace, as now is the time to speak the ‘Truth’.
    Create your spiritual community. Be good to each other and do not look outside yourself for the ‘Light’/leader. Leave the dead to bury their dead on the shore do not be afraid as you know that the river of His grace has its destination. Keep your eyes (Hearts) open, see the grace in the water of life (Christ), see who is with you and rejoice. Walk His ‘Way’ of Truth; do not struggle, as all that you do now must be done in a sacred manner (Trust)
    Are you one the ones, He has been waiting for?

    A further statement from the Hopi Elders, that relate to the state of world today; it is also full of wisdom.

    “The forces we must face are formidable, but the only alternative is annihilation. Still the man-made system cannot be corrected by any means that requires one’s will to be forced upon another, for that is the source of the problem. If people are to correct themselves and their leaders, the gulf between the two must disappear. To accomplish this one can only rely on the energy of ‘TRUTH’ itself.

    And that energy rests within Christ our King.
    Venerate the true Divine Mercy an Image of Broken Man as we reflect the Lords heart the best we can. Father! we only have to turn to you and always you give the morning dew, your own Heart is nailed to a tree so that we dance free when we bend our knee

    “Jesus, I Trust in thee”

    *The Hopi are mainly agricultural people who live in the American Southwest, mainly in Arizona where today their Hopi reservation covers a land area of over 2,500 sq mi. They cultivate dozens of varieties of corn, beans, pumpkins

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

    • Addendum to my Post on FEBRUARY 24, 2021 AT 1:11 PM.

      “If we are to see real renewal in our time, it will be through a meek and humble reliance on God to bring about the restoration—like that of the Prodigal Son—that His power alone can effect”

      Yes! We need the insight to allow “ourselves” to be healed by God’s Mercy and this can only come about when we acknowledge in humility/honesty our need for His Mercy. But this need for the manifestation of His Mercy, at this moment in time, is even more necessary for the leadership of Church as mankind would surely say ‘Physician, heal yourself!’. You can only lead by example and the EXAMPLE what is presently going out to mankind is a culture of denial and cover up (Unaccountability) we do not need ‘Super Confessors’ we need to see our Lords Shepherds (humble men) serving the Truth and walking in humility before God and in so doing teach others to do the same.

      The Church has put great emphasis on the sin of sexual immorality but the reality is that all sin has a drying (Hardening) effect upon our hearts but our pride conceals this from us. We cannot truly love our neighbour as ourselves unless we bow down before the light of Christ in humility and abase ourselves before our Father in heaven. To do this we need to see ourselves as we truly are and this comes about when we see ourselves as He see us, as he hangs on the cross and cry’s out to us “Father forgive them they know not what they do” The true Divine Mercy Image also demonstrates this seeing of us, as in His sight, we are ALL broken with distorted hearts, as in a badly broken mirror reflecting different aspects of ourselves before God and mankind, to accompany this Image we have been given this pray

      “Jesus, I Trust in thee”

      We have all been forgiven for original sin at Baptism and our sins are continually been forgiven as the thief on the cross was forgiven at that moment in time, as we all are, when we acknowledge in sincerity our need for His mercy but the fruit of His Mercy must be seen in context with the symbolic mustard seed growing within the heart.

      We have to realize that our core nature has to be transformed and this can only be done by accepting “Living water” (The inviolate Word of God) the transforming water that wells up into eternal life within the heart. The Churches fundamental teaching that God’s Word is Inviolate as in ‘One Iota’ should ensure that the hearts of her children cannot dilute the sense of sin and need for repentance and forgiveness; sadly, this sacred teaching has been breached by those who sit at the top table (Rome) and in doing so they have committed blasphemy, (The breaking of the Second Commandment) …
      See Link
      https://www.associationofcatholicpriests.ie/2020/11/full-text-of-the-mccarrick-report-published-today-in-rome/#comment-99319
      …which if left unchecked by her True Shepherds will lead eventually to the dissipation of the established Church.

      Divine mercy “the grace that transforms all” can only be received by standing before God in humility and the path that leads to this humility is the absolute Truth, the inviolate living Word (Will) of God as defined by Jesus Christ, living within the heart.

      The greater our capacity to walk in TRUST and continually accept forgiveness moment to moment of our fallen human nature before God the more our hearts are transfigured into His likeness and this continual walking of “The Way” our journey through this earthly life, is always a personal humbling transforming encounter with God Himself as our hearts are gradually refined into pure gold (Compassion)

      To know that you constantly need God’s mercy is to acknowledge your dependence on Him and Him alone and when fully ACCEPTED in TRUST within the heart forms a bond of friendship with (love of) God. It becomes the greatest gift we can possess as it incorporates Faith, Hope and Charity “Unites us to God” and in this friendship based on our humility before God we cannot help but feel compassion for our neighbour, because in him we see our own fallen self.

      Conclusion

      We are ‘all’ vulnerable before the yoke of our Fathers inviolate Word (Will) and when embraced honestly, it will induce humility (St Bernard Humility a virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself) as we direct the open recognition of our state of being before Him, otherwise you run the risk of becoming self-righteous, the blinding of oneself, to the reality of your own heart/soul.

      If we continue on this path /‘Way’ of bearing witness to the Truth with honesty it will induce humility (if it does not, we are not been honest and delude ourselves) and at that moment in time, we are given the power to become children of God (as we are part of His essence Truth) in bearing witness to the Truth within our own hearts, as in the parable of the mustard seed, growing in the light of the Holy Spirit (Truth) producing moist leaves of compassion that give shelter to all from physical and spiritual suffering, we too will eventually do the same or for very badly damaged people like myself, slowly progress from a heart of stone, into a more compassionate gentle (vulnerable) one before Him.

      kevin your brother
      In Christ

    • You really need to read the full Biblical transcript about King Solomon. As wise as he was, he ended his kingship breaking every rule in the Scriptures regarding the conduct of the kings of Israel. He also disregarded the direct commands given to him by God. His foreign wives turned his heart away from God and towards their gods. God’s punishment was the division of his kingdom. In a Bible study I was told that the description of King Solomon was that of a tyrant. The people cried for relief from his son Rehoboam to no avail. That is when God’s punishment of the division of the kingdom took place. To me the Protestant Revolt/Reformation looks a lot like what happened to King Solomon.

  2. Brandon McGinley’s Joe-Biden Catholicism is a zombie theology decked it. Zombieism has likely become an American obsession in that the multitudes have sadly become spiritual zombies. The morally departed find intriguing interest unknowingly in caricatures of themselves. Amoris Laetitia, in effect, is a theological death certificate for the naive living Catholic, as well as for the already living dead. For example, “In Amoris Laetitia we read, ‘the Church does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to her teaching on marriage’ (para. 314). The mission of the Church is not to give validity to such elements but rather to convert souls to divine love, to which one adheres by observing the commandments. The world does not want a true father, loving in the measure in which he is also judging, but rather it wants a buddy; or better still, a fellow traveler who lets things go and says, ‘Who am I to judge?’”(Aldo Maria Valli in Rome is Without a Pope). Journalist Valli cites passages with similar accommodating tone in the papal manifesto for reconciliation without repentance. For accommodation rather than conversion. For a morbid caricature of faith. It’s really simple as McGinley explains since we have the means. The dilemma is implementation with presbyters and bishops who themselves lack the spiritual grit. Whatever may be hope remains as well as grace elicited by prayer and sacrifice.

    • The clerical abuse crisis is the refutation of much of the framework of Amoris Laetitia. The abusive clergy were given 70X7 forgiveness and limitless mercy through catch and release. The conscience of the abusive clergy was very defective. They were even willing to disgrace and defile the sacrament of Holy Orders. They were the very kind of defective clergy that Donatism deals with. It took the judging and removal of the abusive clergy from priestly ministry to end their abuse within the Church.

  3. I could have done without the knee-jerk swipe at traditionalism. In my area, the single traditionalist parish is thriving in every way. Every other “Catholic” church in the area is either dying or dead.

  4. “If you love me, keep my COMMANDMENTS!” John 14:15. “My sheep hear my voice! I call them and they follow me!”John 10: 27.

    That all we need to do! It is Wrod made flesh! The flesh must lives one’s words! The words and the flesh are in oneness! If not, Jesus will call those people: “You hypocirtes, you brood of vipers. you white washed superchre of bleached bones!…..” Matt. 12:33-34

  5. “When he came to his senses” (Luke 15:17a) The beginning of process heartfelt repentance in the Biblical Gospel message of Christ Crucified. Remember the Biblical repentance is the work of God the Holy Spirit using the Word of faith to bring about faith in God’s mercy and His forgiveness of all our sins. Tragically, due to theological liberalism and it’s offspring “Relativism” within the hearts and minds of both clergy and laity, we are dealing with willful unbelief of the Gospel of Jesus the Christ. We have become the “people honor Me(God) with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.(Matthew 15:8) So, Christ’s message to His visible Church: “Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15)

  6. Brandon McGinley gets it right. No amount of mere structural change without personal renewal and spiritual development based on scripture, Church teaching, sacramental life and prayer will effect either individual or communal renewal. Lent is a God-sent opportunity.

  7. The parable of the prodigal son has two pertinent messages.
    1. “All you need is love” (the father) and
    2. “All you need is humility” ( the son)
    Sadly our modern secular society is built on self-aggrandisment rather than humility which is seen as a weakness rather than a strength.

  8. We are so bored by Jesus Christ that we yawn at His name. We find comfort in liturgy , St Thomas, and the fact that we aren’t liberals, but we are lukewarm interested only in our financial security. What we see and smell is Divine spew.

  9. This article shows what has been going on in the Catholic Church – very much worth reading the entire writing. Link provided —

    “34 years ago, a KGB defector chillingly predicted modern America
    A disturbing interview given by a KGB defector in 1984 describes America of today and outlines four stages of mass brainwashing used by the KGB.”
    PAUL RATNER
    18 July, 2018

    “Bezmenov described this process as “a great brainwashing” which has four basic stages.
    The first stage is called “demoralization” which takes from 15 to 20 years to achieve.
    According to the former KGB agent, that is the minimum number of years it takes to re-educate one generation of students that is normally exposed to the ideology of its country.”

    Read More:
    KGB defector Yuri Bezmenov predicted modern America 34 years ago – Big Think

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