George Weigel has a fascinating article "On the Square" at First Things yesterday which surveys the the situation of the Catholic church in Ireland. In short, that church—massive, deeply connected to the political elite, and seemingly prone to moral and other types of corruption—is in trouble. And as such, Christianity in Ireland is in trouble. To wit:
Clerical corruption and disastrous episcopal leadership have collided with rank political expediency and a rabidly anticlerical media to produce a perfect storm of ecclesiastical meltdown. The country whose constitution begins "In the name of the Most Holy Trinity . . ." is now thoroughly post-Christian.
His response is fascinating, not least because the situation in Ireland seems so familiar to Canadians concerned with the vitality of their faith. Ireland today is almost identical to Quebec in the 1960s and '70s. In both places, the church and clergy played the role of a social adhesive in an embattled culture. In both places the adhesive became brittle and the society, almost overnight, simply ceased to care about the institution which had for centuries guided its citizens through birth, life, and death.
Weigel's realization that "while there has been no one cause of that radical secularization, the Church in Ireland had best look to itself, its sins, its errors, and its unbecoming alliance with political power as it considers how to begin anew" suggests that the lessons of Quebec have been learned. It will simply not do to place blame on the doorstep of those outside of the church or to erect barricades to protect privileges which actually serve to prevent the church from exercising her mission. Such a response is the way for complete irrelevance and institutional death.
Instead, Weigel proposes removing the dead wood to get to the green; consolidating administrative structures, relieving corrupt or ineffective leaders of their posts and, most importantly completely, re-orienting the institution. "It is not so much a matter of reforming the Church as of re-founding it: and re-founding it as a vibrant evangelical movement, not as a clericalist institution."
One can only say "amen" to such a call. But behind my amen are two thoughts, one of admiration and one of concern. I admire Weigel's call for reformation so much because it is a call for a re-founding and re-orientation of the church, not its destruction. It recognizes—as so many who wish the church to change do not—that clerical structures, buildings and the like are integral to its mission, because they are receptacles of meaning. But it does so while maintaining the firm conviction that such things are not its mission. Means matter, but they are not sufficient. The church must relentlessly pursue her end or cease to exist.
I also have a nagging suspicion that it is not only Catholic churches in Ireland which need such re-founding. What might churches which self-identify as "evangelical" have to learn from the twin situations of Ireland and Quebec? Will churches which are so intent on evangelizing that they deem the institutional trappings of the church—clerical structures for instance—worthless become more driven to pursue the church's end? Are their characteristics of such churches—now thriving in places like Quebec and elsewhere—that are so brittle that they in turn are setting themselves up for a catastrophic collapse in a few decades?