The graph points downwards

The graph points downwards

B.A. Santamaria

Few, if any, historians of the Catholic Church have a greater claim to distinction than Fr Hubert Jedin, S.J., whose definitive work was a history of the Council of Trent and whose subsequent 10-volume history of the Church was finally translated into English in 1982, the year after his death. AD2000 (March 1992) printed Jedin's letter of 16 September 1968 to Cardinal DÅ¡pfner, Chairman of the German Episcopal Conference. It accompanied a more general memorandum warning of an impending major crisis within the Church. Surprisingly - or perhaps not surprisingly - Jedin's critically important memorandum, the contents of which have been verified by subsequent history, has only recently been translated into English.

Through the courtesy of one of our Japanese subscribers, Dr Paul A. Sawada, Professor of Modern European History at Nihon University, Tokyo, AD2000 has been acquainted with what was clearly a sequel to Jedin's original memorandum. This was an expanded article in the official Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, dated 30 January 1969. Since it deserves to be studied in full, the full text will be published in the September issue of AD2000.

Jedin concludes his second article with this paragraph: "The history of the Church cannot give us any formula for the solution of the (present) crisis of the Church. The history of humanity does not repeat itself, nor does the history of the Church. However, the history of the Church, as a knowledge of the past of the Church, is similar to lived experience for the individual. It claims to know quite well what should not be done and hopes to be able to place signposts along the path of the Church in the future."

Doctrinal and moral anarchy

Almost a quarter-century has passed since the publication of Jedin's article. Whatever remedies for the incipient crisis were tried have, in fact, proved quite ineffective in stemming the doctrinal and moral anarchy which obviously envelops the Church today. Although the de-stabilisation of the institution of the family throughout the Western world has had a profound effect on the two generations which have followed, the greatest cause of failure is the lack of effective response within the Church itself.

The monograph, Sponsoring Faith in Adolescence, prepared by Sr Carmel Leavey O.P. and her associates for the official Institute of Religious Studies (see p.3) provides further statistical documentation - if more were needed - to establish this point. Although based on a systematic, continuing study of only three schools, the statistical basis is presented as sufficiently wide to encapsulate the general position within the Catholic school system. The fact that the preface to the book is written by Fr Tom Doyle, Director of Melbourne's Catholic Education Office, is a sufficient indication that the results disclosed by the research are accepted as reliable by 'the government' and not merely by 'the opposition.'

What Sr Carmel Leavey's research discloses is that of those who are still at school:

  • 77% have at least a tentative belief in God and Jesus;
  • 57-58% have some intention of modelling their lives on the teaching and example of Christ;
  • 35% have a 'positive' view of their knowledge of Christianity;
  • 13% can explain the Incarnation;
  • 42% believed in the certainty of life after death;
  • 2% could adequately explain the Kingdom of God;
  • 43% went to weekly Mass (compared with 90% in a similar survey in 1970, and 63% in 1981).

The decline being continuous and persisting over two decades, it would be unreal to believe that the forthcoming publication of the Universal Catechism (to be called Catechism of the Catholic Church) can of itself solve the problem of religious knowledge. Some years must pass before the various national catechisms are prepared and published: even if it is accepted - perhaps over-optimistically - that everything will be done in good faith. "Over-optimistic", probably, since dioceses which in July 1992 provided open access to Dr Monika Hellwig, as has happened in this country, cannot have understood the nature and intensity of the crisis.

After the publication of an Australian national catechism, the 'culture' of teacher training must be radically revolutionised, and the content of the revolution 'enforced', if such a concept as "enforcement" still pertains. Nothing in the history of Australian Catholicism in the past quarter-century encourages any optimism that this will actually happen. Nobody will defy the Pope or the Holy See. On the record of the past, whatever the wishes of individual bishops, those who actually exercise the power, in many cases will simply ignore them.

Even if, as the result of a miracle, the opposite happens, the fact is that time is rapidly running out.

Mass attendance

The 1991 figures for weekly Catholic Mass attendance in the Archdiocese of Melbourne - Australia's largest - from the Catholic Research Office for Pastoral Planning (CROPP) provided a figure of 22-23%, down from 25% in 1986. This is down from around 50% in the early 1970s. The pattern is broadly similar in other metropolitan dioceses. As the steep fallaway from religious practice among young Catholics continues, the result must invariably be felt in further declines in general church attendances and in other indices of belief and practice.

Everything thus suggests that by the end of the decade, regular religious practice will be in the vicinity of 15%, at which stage there will be an 'implosion' at every level of the Church's life.

Since all the allegedly 'scientific' approaches to the catechetical question have proved abject failures, perhaps there is little to be lost by trying what will certainly be condemned by the experts as a silly solution. Despite all the alternative methods, for primary school children, at least, there has never been a more effective catechetical text than the "Penny Catechism." It is there. It could be re-published. It could be made mandatory, at least until a better alternative has emerged.

Of course, the idea will be dismissed. Nothing will be done. The lines of the graph will continue to point downward.

The real tragedy - as those who were present at the Thomas More Centre's Winter School which attracted 100 young, intelligent people can testify - is that there does exist a representative minority of young Catholics who are thirsting for knowledge of the Faith, as long as what is presented is competent, intelligent and orthodox.

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