Reality check for the Church

Christianity becomes compelling when it is refreshingly different from the surrounding culture, writes Thomas Casey SJ

A number of years ago, while helping out in the main Catholic parish in Denmark’s second city of Aarhus, I paid a courtesy visit to the pastor of a large Lutheran church in the city. He was one of a team of four pastors, both men and women, working in that particular parish. I asked him how many people went to church on Sunday, figuring that he would say at the very least 40 or 50, but he replied, “between seven and 11”.

I looked at him in astonishment. I hadn’t expected the sentence to end after the number 11. I thought he would add “hundred” to the end. But this benign and unassuming pastor misunderstood my startled expression: He thought I was shocked that the number he gave was too high. And so he added, “but sometimes the number does in fact drop below seven”. 

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin described the results of the marriage referendum as a reality check. There’s a lot of truth in that. The Catholic Church in Ireland has to look at itself and ask some searching questions. It needs to be concrete like the Bible, which speaks through stories and experiences, not through abstractions.


It needs to take its cue from Pope Francis and present its message in a fresh and vibrant way. But some people are expecting a reality check that changes not only the language and approach the Church uses, but also the very content of what the Church teaches.

They feel that the Church should make sweeping changes because it is out of touch with today’s world. They point to how it is losing young people at an alarming rate, because so many have already adopted the secular position on contraception, divorce and same-sex marriage.

One thing that struck me forcefully from my experience in Denmark was how much the Lutheran community there has changed its teachings and how little it has gained as a result. For instance, just a few years after World War II, it had its first women priests.

Three years ago, pastors received the official go-ahead to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies. Speaking of wedding ceremonies, a Danish friend of mine tied the knot with his fiancée before a (now-retired) pastor called Thorkild Grosbøll, who announced 12 years ago that he did not believe in God. Like many of his fellow Danes, Grosbøll is convinced that Jesus is a nice person and a good role model, but little more than that. How did Shakespeare put it? “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” 

The Church of Denmark, the largest denomination in the country, has bought into popular morality and popular practice. But this move has not put Danish Christianity on the winning side of history. In fact, it has made the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark more pointless than ever. Why bother with a Church which is no different from the society around it?

Danish people feel it’s enough to be Danish: The Church does not add anything new or different, just the reassurance of the occasional ritual such as baptism and the old familiar hymns sung at Christmas. That’s why only 2% of the members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark attends weekly services. Religion can become so terribly relevant that it ends up being totally irrelevant.

{{The whole point of the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience is to go beyond a life based on wealth,
sex and power”

But the truth is that Christianity only thrives when it is counter-cultural, when it is in some sense out of step with its times. Christianity becomes compelling when it is refreshingly different from the surrounding culture. For instance, the whole point of the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience is to go beyond a life based on wealth, sex and power, to be different from those who aspire to being rich, famous and appearing on reality TV.

Thorkild Grosbøll, the non-believing Danish pastor, regards Jesus as a ‘nice guy’.  Jesus is nice and Jesus also warned the rich about being attached to their money. Jesus rebuked adulterers and even those who look lustfully at women. Jesus told his disciples not to be anxious about this life but to strive to have their names written in Heaven. This is not keeping in step with the times or yielding to the morality of the majority.

Certainly Jesus was tremendously compassionate to all those who suffered pain, whatever the reason. He welcomed the unwelcomable and although he judged intentions and actions, he was extraordinarily kind to persons. While he called sinful actions by their names, Jesus always reached out to sinners. But for all that, Jesus did not feel the need to make religion hip and exciting. He already knew it was great news, and he knew how to connect the vision of faith with the struggles of ordinary people. 

Jesus places a radical reality check before all of us, priests and lay-people. As Christians we need to rediscover a simpler way of life. We need to support each other in community, instead of living our Christian lives as isolated individuals.  We must return to the Gospel, which is full of freshness and challenge.

We need to educate ourselves about the riches of our faith. We need to reach out to the poor, the sick and the disadvantaged in ways that conventional society is failing to do. 

We need to lead lives of prayer and people need to know we are praying, so that they can count on our prayers. The 19th-Century Danish thinker, Søren Kierkegaard, felt his contemporaries were watering down the Christian message. This temptation is still alive today.  We need to highlight the sacred, not to sideline it, to praise the spiritual, not to apologise for it. 

{{Our moment in history is our moment of grace, it’s our chance to figure out anew who we are”

Without doubt we offered inadequate answers in the past. But it would be sad if we got misled in the future into asking the wrong questions, such as “how can we be more relevant?”, because then we’ll have little hope of arriving at any kind of adequate answer. A helpful question to ask is this: how can we be different in a Gospel-like and constructive way, in such a way that people see and taste this difference?

Our moment in history is our moment of grace, it’s our chance to figure out anew who we are, what we are doing and why we are doing it.

We’re not yet the Christians we want to be, but that should not discourage us. Søren Kierkegaard says we are kidding ourselves if we imagine that we are already Christians, because Christianity is a life-long journey, a constant striving, a continual quest. 

However long the journey takes, the challenge for each of us is to follow in the footsteps of that ‘nice guy’ Jesus, who willingly laid down his life for us, instead of opting for a Church that endorses the way of life that is easiest for us.