The suppression of the monasteries was a remarkably pragmatic decision. It forsook the role of monasteries to promote and preserve local Christian communities and (over)valued the power of the state—a secular manifestation of the Church—to provide all value for the common good more efficiently. The dissolution of the monasteries was a fruit, not a catalyst, of the bishops’ assent to Henry’s practical regime.
In our day, it’s not monasteries that have been suppressed but instead our parishes. Their political undoing might not be far off (think denied tax exemption). Yet this situation has not come to pass in a vacuum. Instead, it will occur by the same utilitarian logic and confidence in the power of syncretism. Bishops—and many other ecclesial decision makers—in the United States and other Western countries have become and often remain complicit in the sort of pragmatization of the faith that historically drives the Church toward less and less defensible options for preaching the entire, integral Gospel. The Christian kerygma is and can be practical only so far as it glorifies God; and corporal and spiritual works of mercy are always incompatible with bureaucracy.
If parishes continue to dissolve—and I’m afraid they will—their political suppression will be merely the fruit of an untenable proposal to manage them as secular institutions, and of a complicity amongst many bishops to have them operate principally by the rules of worldly governance. In other words, what legal pragmatism continues to kill, ecclesial pragmatism has already poisoned to the point of infirmity.
We can see this problem—a manufactured problem—in the life of our parishes and the accepted role of our pastors. Pastors are shepherds and in most parts of the country missionaries, yet their charge is less to “feed my sheep” through liturgy, preaching, and pastoral care, and less to “set the world on fire,” and more to maintain accountability and administrative oversight. This platform has been slipping out from under their feet for a generation. It’s hard to imagine anything but a cynical response from long-standing parishioners when a green, newly ordained priest is charged—and deemed miraculously capable—to run one of these multi-million dollar enterprises. And so too when he prefers to buck the administrative mantle to indulge a zeal for souls and liturgy that he was taught to nourish in the seminary.
One especially poignant example of the effects of pragmatization is the ballooning crisis in parochial education. There’s more to Catholic education than bottom lines and self-directedness. Yet it’s uncommon to see parishes that know how and can manage to operate as centers for the education of their youth and for continued adult faith formation. A leading factor, here, is the decades-old project of cultural syncretism, which is now “flowering” among ranks of Catholic school teachers who openly reject the doctrines of the Church. The stability and sustainability of parochial schools is a function of their commitment to preach the Gospel, which a parish makes vivid and believable through a rich liturgical and communal life. When this is absent, schools—and the structure that supports them—will inevitably fail.
Another example is a pervasive lack of concern for the well-being of pastors. More than a handful of priests dealing with serious vocational problems—some illegal or immoral but many not—have been effectively swept under the rug by bishops who are preoccupied with public relations rather than a pastoral long game. The other side of this coin is a shortsighted approach to “vocations awareness.” A spiritualized sense of priesthood is touted as a remedy to very real presbyteral problems. There’s a certain amount of spiritualization that’s permissible, even necessary, to nurture young vocations to the priesthood, especially in a “gnostic” modern age. But it’s easier and often tempting to give a splash of milk rather than hearty meat. The result, sadly, is continued presbyteral attrition even in the best of dioceses alongside a preoccupation with counting the number of the newly ordained.
In many parishes—perhaps even most—pockets of the faithful see and swim against these trends. They pool resources for teaching as best they can, either in the form of adult ed, CCD, or higher learning (usually paid to and presented by a third-party organization). They nurture their pastors, most often physically rather than spiritually. But only so much can be done with a tenuous infrastructure.
One important difference between our age and 1534 is that bishops today face the jury of public opinion much more directly than did their predecessors. But the public relations sword cuts both ways: while one could easily blame the bishops and a handful of noblemen for the collapse of English Catholicism, we are all to blame for the dissolution of parishes—so far as each of us has failed to give of ourselves to revive the rightful, autonomous role of the Church among the body politic. A long-term solution will be invasive and painful, but for now we can start by investing our much prized “human capital” in developing that of others in our parish community, heavily mediated by the liturgy, family, and care for the marginalized.
Things will likely get worse before they get better. The best chance for parish life to survive in the West involves even now building the sorts of institutions we’d like to see through a fundamental commitment to the Gospel, community, and poverty. After all, these are the things—through the political dissolution of parishes—that will be thrust upon us anyway.