Catholics can’t retreat from the world

Pope Francis is calling us to look at the world in a new way, writes Phil Lawler

In more than 30 years as a journalist covering Catholicism, I have found that the most exciting signs of vigorous life in the Church often — I am tempted to say always — come from unexpected directions. Official renewal programmes, launched by diocesan committees under the guidance of expensive consultants, begin with great fanfare but end with meagre results. Meanwhile far from the limelight, prayerful Catholic individuals, without formal credentials and without financial support, working alone or in small groups, quietly work wonders.

Age of the laity

The Second Vatican Council boldly proclaimed that we are living in ‘the age of the laity’ (Immediately after the council, thousands of priests and religious rushed out to take posts in the secular world, doing the work of the laity, and leaving lay men and women to run the parishes and schools they were neglecting, in a thorough inversion of the council’s message.) If the Holy Spirit was speaking through the council fathers, then it should come as no surprise that the most conspicuous signs of growth in Catholicism since that time have come through the movements founded by and/or dedicated to the laity: the charismatic renewal, Opus Dei, the pro-life movement, Cursillo, Focolare, L’Arche, the NeoCatechumal Way, and many more. The growth of these movements has been uneven, marked by occasional missteps and some serious wrong turns. But the vigour of the movements is undeniable. John Paul II referred to the movements as “the finger of the Holy Spirit on the Church”.


So let me ask the question again. Could there be something stirring within the Church: a subterranean rumbling, a movement for renewal that could burst forth to change the religious landscape? Since his election in March 2013, Pope Francis has prodded us all — not only Catholics, but the whole world — to look upon the work of the Church in a new way. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Pope Francis wants the Church to look at the world in a new way: with eyes fixed resolutely outward, concentrating first on the needs of our neighbours rather than on the internal housekeeping of Catholic institutions. His unconventional approach has caused some confusion — even a sense of disorientation — among faithful Catholics. But his popularity is undeniable. Thanks to ‘the Francis effect’ many more people are interested in the Catholic Church. People are asking questions about the Church, wondering if there is something about Catholicism that they have not quite understood. Yes, it is a time of great uncertainty; but it is also a time ripe for evangelisation.


Some Christians, believing as I do that our society’s future is in jeopardy, have chosen, in effect, to secede: to drop out of the mainstream, live in community with like-minded friends, and preserve their families from the dangers of a corrupt society. But the radical option of separation from the secular world is, I fear, impractical for several reasons. First, few people are willing to sacrifice all the comforts of modern living, and even the doughty few cannot be sure that their children will make the same decision. Second, isolated communities tend to rouse the resentment of their neighbours. Sooner or later the people who ‘just want to be left alone’ will not be left alone, and their safe havens will no longer be safe. If society grows increasingly hostile to Christians, then Christians who live in isolated communities will become easy targets. Third, and most important, seceding from society is not an option for a lay Christian who plans to live his vocation: the vocation proclaimed by Vatican II, to transform the social order through the power of the Faith.


Short of actual withdrawal from society, there is another timid option: to lie low, to muddle through, to avoid conflicts, to practise the Faith quietly without offending one’s secular neighbours. That approach, too, is doomed to failure. The famous words of Martin Niemöller expose the problem: “First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

But again, the tactical futility of this approach is not its greatest defect. Far worse, the failure to preach the Gospel — to advance the cause of Christianity — is a refusal to answer Christ’s command.

The call to transform society is all the more powerful if that society is troubled. Christians who voluntarily confine themselves to ghettoes, at a time when society is disintegrating, are imitating the priest and the levite, rather than the good Samaritan. Our neighbours are hurting. We can and should help them; actually we are the only people who can help them, given present circumstances. Our withdrawal deprives them of that help. Jesus did not instruct his disciples to retreat, to circle the wagons. He told us to “preach the Gospel to the whole creation”. [Mark 16:15] As Pope Francis constantly reminds us, the Church exists to evangelise. Withdrawal is not an option.

In military affairs a strategic retreat is sometimes the best option; in religious affairs that is rarely the case. The logic of compromise does not fit with the idealism of apostles; the instinct for self-preservation conflicts with the willingness to sacrifice. The Catholic Church has never been very good at ‘playing defence’. Nor should it be, since a Christian community that hunkers down and hopes merely to survive is acting against its own nature — against its divine mandate. If faith does not spread, it shrivels.