Saturday, April 24, 2010

How Authoritarianism Hurts Religion

By Rev. Howard Bess
April 25, 2010

The drain of young adults from churches has been verified by surveys and studies – and as one who cares deeply about the health of Christian churches, I ask the question: “Why are people leaving our churches in such great numbers?”

Read on.


Dean Taylor said...

Assuming, for the moment, that you are correct in assuming that the lack of enthusiasm in Church services is a modern--or post-modern--phenomenon, is it, though, authoritarianism per se, or catechetical teaching that the faithful find to be galling or, rather, a profound, noticeable disconnect between the preaching of Christianity and its ostensible purpose, i.e., praxis?

For example, in France after the second world war, Catholic priests became intimately involved in the lives of the workers in France, to the point of joining them at their labors in the factories and farms, a very real presence of the Christ indeed to the laity.

The point is that the faithful--i.e., the faithful of the working class, to be sure--may be less concerned about this or that theological academic point than about sheer survival. Grace, we are told, presupposes nature. This is an essential feature of Thomistic teaching, i.e., that school of theological argument built upon Aristotelian thought. If one's "nature"--physical well being--is being destroyed by the depredations of the investor class concerned solely with the profit margin how and why would the working class give a damn about theological niceties?

No, sir--and let us be clear about this (once again): there was a class antagonism afoot even when Christ taught and preached, i.e., between an elitist/moneyed class and the poorest of the poor--poor in spirit and poor in material necessities. The poor were beholden to the Jewish--and later, Roman--authorities, and suffered their whole lives long because of it. The advent of Christianity offered the promise--the opportunity--of a sea-change in well-being, both spiritually and materially.

But this was only the first blush of Christianity, i.e., its yet-untested unfolding in the world in the West. There was a settling-in period to undergo, where the gospel as praxis had its first tentative trials.

Eventually, of course, the Church experienced growing pains--as did the civilization undergoing development in Europe. There was a shared control for the lives of the faithful poor, i.e., between an allegiance to the monarchs and nobility of Europe (who ruled, it was said, by Divine right)--and the feudal system of controlling the masses--and an allegiance to the one source of spiritual teaching in a Church itself undergoing change.

With the coming of capitalism--and the subsequent undoing of the old feudal order, and the emergence of a new "class" in Europe, there was a gradual easing of the old controls upon the lives--and, therefore, minds--of the masses still not experiencing the promises of Christ in their lives. That is, the fullness Christ's promise was taught as a good to be encountered in the next life, not here. This is what was taught to the priests--who, for the most part, accepted it as practical Christianity--and, in turn, taught it to the faithful.

Dean Taylor said...


In a word, once the Church had experienced its quantum leap forward in size Christianity, for the most part, for centuries had moved in tandem to the prevailing system of controls of the masses, the Church as only one of the three authoritative tiers. And this, as opposed to the very early Church, where highly circumscribed numbers allowed for a more fluid give and take in the nascent collective of faithful.

Once sheer numbers came to the fore that "fluid"--and, therefore, "creative"--aspect of religion was shunted to the side (for the time being). A spiritually-grounded, spiritually-focused Christianity was coming to terms with--finding its place in--the material world. The first blush of Christianity ended as the Church was undergoing a maturation--and how could it be otherwise that there would be a progression in the reality of Christ's presence in the world at large?

The point being that the great body of humanity, the disenfranchised masses, had yet to come into its own within the Church. The members of the three tiers--monarchy, nobility, and bishops--enjoyed the fruits of the age, while Christ's beloved--i.e., the poor--were marginalized, even, to a great extent, by the Church (and now, post-Reformation, by the Churches).

With the political and socio-economic teachings of, e.g., the 19th C, however, the Weltanschauung of the masses had advanced, whereby--and finally!--exclusion and economic disparity as a fait accompli (i.e., underwritten by both Church and State) were seriously challenged. Political and socio-economic praxis as limned by theorists like, e.g., Proudhon, Marx, Fourier, etc., actually mimicked--irony of ironies!--the Christian ideal of love to all--i.e., without espousing preference--or entitlements--to the privileged and the elite.

One of the pre-eminent messages we learn from the Gospels is that entitlements--of every stripe--would, henceforth, be challenged. The message is there, in the spirit of the thing, not in the rationalization of it. Love--i.e., caritas--cannot be codified. It is a wholly internalized ethic, written on the heart, so to speak, to be given expression in praxis--acts of kindness, sharing, mercy, etc.

Yet, socio-economic disparity, exclusion, disenfranchisement, etc.--i.e., rationalization--not only can be codified, that is where they actually exist--"on the books"!

It has taken humanity twenty centuries of struggle for Christ to be realized in the world at large, i.e., by the masses. That is, Christ as praxis, not Christ as a theoretical construct. And, it still hasn't been fully realized. Talk is cheap--whereas Christianity as praxis is, as you say, "unsettling." However, that is where Christ is to be found, i.e., to be realized--in action--not pieties. Pieties may have their place eventually, but NOT before the fact of caritas and justice.

As to the questions of authoritarianism and religion--i.e., "the health of Christian Churches"-- Christ is not there. People are leaving in order to locate the Christ. The Church will always be "unhealthy" when Christ is not present. The pastor/priest is present, the hymns are present, protocol is there, matters have been codified. Now, tell me: where is the Christ?

Dean Taylor said...


As said, with the advent of political and socio-economic theories espoused in the 19th C., the possibility of social equity came to the fore. What has been happening for twenty centuries is a dialogue between Christ--or, more specifically, the Holy Spirit as Third Person of God--and the world. This dialogue is readily demostrated in the notorious Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. With thesis, an idea (ethic, philosophy, belief system, etc.) is posited. It, in turn, receives a challenge--as antithesis--which then compels a novel third term: synthesis. And within this fluid dialogue there is the possibility of change.

For example, "living" is espoused by the pre-Socratics as the sole reality to be reckoned with. The Church may then posit the idea of the eschaton, i.e., "dying" as the essential point to keep before us. The synthesis then compelled is seen as "becoming," i.e., the possibility of change, learning, development, evolving, improvement, etc. This third term may then become the "thesis" for a new dialectic.

In the 20th C., we see the "synthesis" of, e.g., Marx, and Christ's preferential option for the poor in the praxis of the worker priests in France after the second world war. The wiki article is worth quoting at length:

Worker-priest was a missionary initiative by the French Catholic Church in particular for priests to take up work in such places as car factories to experience the everyday life of the working class. A worker-priest was any priest who was "freed from parochial work by his bishop, lived only by full-time labor in a factory or other place of work, and was indistinguishable in appearance from an ordinary workingman".

Although the movement did spread to many other countries such as Belgium and Italy, the French were always the most prominent.
The movement was an attempt to "rediscover the masses" of industrial class workers who had become largely disaffected with the church.

Father Jacques Loew, who began working in the docks of Marseilles in 1941, effectively started the worker-priest movement. Loew had been sent by his Dominican Father Lebret to "study the condition of the working classes" but not to actually join the workers.

In 1944, the first worker-priest missions were set up in Paris, and then later in Lyons and Marseille. The Church hoped, by "putting young priests into secular clothes and letting them work in factories, to regain the confidence of the French working class, which [had] almost completely abandoned the Catholic faith."

Gradual suppression

In 1945, Pope Pius XII "approved (reluctantly) the daring social experiment of the French worker-priests."[3] However, in the early 1950s, the worker-priest movement fell out of favor with the Vatican due to their role in left-wing politics and perceived abandonment of the traditional priesthood. The Worker-Priest movement was "severely constrained by a series of measures taken by the church in the 1950s".

In 1950, Pius XII in an apostolic exhortation on the priestly life expressed "reservations and suspicions of the worker-priests …" Loew's May 1951 report defending the movement, written to Giovanni Montini (future Pope Paul VI), the assistant Cardinal Secretary of State, was not well-received.

Many of the priests joined in campaigns for improved pay and conditions and the movement became prominent in the industrial unrest of 1952 and 1953. This resulted in the factory owners complaining to the Catholic Church that the priests were being divisive by supporting the unions.

Dean Taylor said...


The French bishops informed the worker-priests that they must return to their parishes. About 50, however, chose to stay on at their work.

Moreover, by 1953, of some 90 priests, 10 had married, and about 15 were working with the communists. "the Pope sent verbal orders that the movement be suppressed, but the French cardinals managed to persuade the Pope to allow the worker-priests to continue 'in principle,' after some major changes in the setup."

In November 1953, all worker priests were recalled and required to leave their work and unions. In 1954, Loew acquiesced to the Vatican and quit his job; he then established the Saints Peter and Paul Mission to Workers, which trained priests from among the working class. Loew then travelled to Africa, then worked in the favelas of São Paolo, Brazil from 1964 to 1969, and then established the School of Faith in Fribourg, Switzerland. The theology of the Worker-Priest is in part contained within Loew's publications: Les dockers de Marseille (1944), Un mission proletarienne (1946), Les Cieux ouverts: chronique de la mission Saints Pierre et Paul (1971), and Face to Face with God: the Bible's Way to Prayer (1977).

In 1963, priests were allowed to return to the industrial workplaces, and in the 1990's there were about 2,000 priests of the workers mission in France, although they were ageing in line with the wider population of Catholic priests in that country.

Later influence

However, the worker priests had gained certain insights about the alienation of the Church from the modern world and the poor from their experience as workers. These had been shared with many others including the Bishops by means of letters, newsletters, books and meetings and the then Papal Nuncio to France, Archbishop Angelo Roncalli. When Roncalli became Pope John XXIII in 1958, he called the Second Vatican Council, at least partly as a result of what the worker priests had revealed. During that Council, the French and Belgian Bishps in particular were very influential in shaping its direction towards renewal and engagement with the modern world.

On the advice of his mentor Cardinal Sapieha, Karol Wojtyla (future Pope John Paul II) and a fellow Polish priest studying in Italy, Stanislaw Starowieyski, travelled to France and Belgium to acquaint themselves with the worker-priest movement. Wojtyla, who had also performed hard labor during his time as a seminarian, reportedly admired the worker-priests. On his return in 1947, Wojtyla wrote a piece on the worker-priests for the Tygodnik Powszechny. Wojtyla wrote: "Father Loew came to the conclusion that the [Dominican] white habit by itself does not say anything any more today."

A similar movement emerged in the Church of England in the 1960s

Michael said...

You neglected to provide any evidence of your analysis of "home" churches, and I suspect your analysis of them is wrong: that people at home are there because they perceive their previous church as being too liberal, too inclusive, too positively social.

People do not isolate themselves out of benevolent social feelings and expansiveness. Let's call them what they are: "loners".