Our world tends toward manufactured experiences. We focus on the end result of any activity and devalue the process of how we get there. Think of an amusement park. The experience of a roller coaster is the thrill of the ups and downs, and the exhausted exuberance as you pull into the station. Anything less and it “wasn’t fun at all.”
American Catholics seek similar thrills, and exhausted exuberance, in the lived expression of our faith. Sometimes we call it “therapeutic” — we allow our faith to solace the problems of daily life, and we seek it precisely for that comfort. Sometimes it is a comfort, allowing us to see how we are set apart from the corruption of the world, and we leave church knowing we are “safe.”
Of course, the lay faithful are being led down this path. It’s a constant temptation to manufacture an experience of our Catholic faith, to elevate the end result over the process of being or becoming faithful. The administration of our local churches contributes largely to this. Bishops are moved from diocese to diocese, making smaller fields launching pads for larger, more influential metropoles. Every Catholic experiences at some point the reassignment of the priests in his parish. Such moves are justified as part of the bishop’s charge to “keep things fresh” and are viewed as essential to the priestly vocation, since they remind the priest that like the Son of Man who has no home, he has no permanent family here on earth. Beyond this sort of ceremonial pastoral decapitation, parishes are largely divided and siloed into ministries, each taking care only of the definite, discrete portion of the faithful in its charge. Catechesis is reduced to Sunday school and fellowship is tantamount to pancake breakfasts.
None of these prudential choices is necessarily bad. But they do point to a particular expression of Catholicism that’s largely coextensive with the morally and socially degenerate West. This administrative vision is meant to keep the local church within a mean of mediocrity. It maintains parity amongst parishes and promotes a native congregationalism, something that harmonizes with the broader American experience of church.
The downside, however, is two fold. First, "the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t,” and pastors and bureaucrats who harm the faith tend to make a career of it. Second, Sacred Tradition is lived and not experienced. And to live Tradition properly takes longer than the time we have on earth. While we are handed on the faith by our fathers to then hand it on to our sons, it’s hard to think and to act on this reality when the present seems always and necessarily in a state of change.
At the same time, those who relish administrative myopia and the security it appears to give would probably describe the church as better ruled by democracy than aristocracy. While direct control of the church by the people seems not to work well, appealing to a lowest common denominator and providing an “experience” keeps the masses content — at least helpfully agitated, if not satisfied and happy. Maybe unbeknownst to its curators, however, this type of authority is thoroughly aristocratic, and unhelpfully so. The Sacraments are efficacious on their own, provided we’re properly disposed. They are, in a way, profoundly “democratizing” elements of the faith. But the transformation they offer entails constant conversion, which is simply inconsistent with the structures of an on-again-off-again, experience-driven version of the church. Attempts to make the faith “accessible” and the church “contemporary” undermine the surest, most timely access we could ever have to the efficacious grace of God.
Maybe we just can’t have nice things. But it's not a problem of desire. The heart strives for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. All three in this life are fragile. If the church is going to plant deep roots of faith, it needs to begin by abandoning the structures of a manufactured Catholicism. The rub lies in producing an openness that recognizes the problem. Parishes are too large. Sacraments are dispensed rather than lived. Priests are moved with little regard to reason. Bishops and pastors are not given appropriate periods of time to grow and to cultivate their fields. All of these deficiencies, so readily and easily justified by the bureaucrat, do real damage by holding back from the faithful the fullness of the Tradition and ultimately threaten to root out the historical, lived experience that makes our Catholic faith one and holy.