Faith & Reason: Something new in a million at a Mass

The Pope seems to draw ever larger crowds. Yet Catholicism, like all major denominations, is ever less popular. Andrew Brown explores the paradox and concludes that people want spirituality, not religion.
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The Independent Online
The Pope's visit to Paris last month was quite extraordinary. Probably over a million people turned out to hear him at the Longchamp race course. It is possible that there were as many people in that one congregation as there were in all the Church of England congregations in England that weekend. What made it all the stranger was that the Catholic Church in France seems to be an empty husk. The shortage of priests is immense and growing: there are fewer than 100 vocations every year, and only one in 20 of the priests in France is under the age of 40. I do not know how many are over 70, but it would be surprising if there were not more of them than of the comparative whippersnappers of 35 or so.

What this means in practice can be seen by wandering into a countryside church and seeing how huge is the number of ancient parishes amalgamated into the care of one priest. In one place I tried in August, it appeared that one priest was looking after 35 villages. This is not exceptional; and nor is it a situation that can be long sustained. Either the number of priests must rise, or the number of faithful will diminish to match the number of priests available.

So how is one to reconcile the huge personal triumph of the Pope with the picture of a retreating church? One answer, which used to be heard more often and more loudly, was that the Pope was bringing renewal to a demoralised church, and that with his fresh and vigorous certainties we would make the institution as attractive as he is himself. But he has been there for 18 years now, and the promised renewal is not apparent. If a tightening up of discipline had been all the Church needed, there would surely have been some progress made by now in restoring the ground lost since the Sixties. But there has not been.

In America and Germany there have been struggles of the utmost bitterness between Left and Right within the institutional church over its relations with feminism. And it is tempting to suppose that it is the Church's difficulties with feminism and with sexuality generally which lie at the heart of its problems in the modern world. But this may be simplistic. Actually the Pope's response to feminism has been far more sophisticated and flexible than he is given credit for.

The real difficulty for the Catholic Church in the modern world may lie in the fact that it is a religion. The extraordinary separation of religion from spirituality is one of those facts so obvious as to be almost invisible. One of the reasons it is difficult to notice is that it is difficult to define. Of course, everyone is against "religion", "dogma" and so on. But the spiritual movements to which they may flee demand usually far more credulity and far blinder obedience than mainstream religions. Those sects which manage to be simultaneously traditional and religiously anti- establishment, like the Anglican cult of Holy Trinity, Brompton, are distinguished from the more conventional parts of the Church precisely by the greater conformity they demand of their worshippers, the more abundant miracles with which they supply them - and by their relative success.

Damian Thompson, the author and former religious affairs correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, has an elegant theory which points out another and perhaps vital difference between "religions" and "spiritualities". This is that religions are spread vertically, through families; and spiritualities horizontally, through friends. Religions are what our parents believed: spiritualities are what our contemporaries believe. This distinction is a purely sociological one. It says nothing about the content of beliefs. But it does make a prediction: that as families become less and less important as means of cultural transmission, so religions will necessarily decline. The religious imagination will remain a human faculty. It will simply find new expressions, and call these spirituality.

The Pope is a figure who straddles in some respects the divide between religion and spirituality. He is respected as a "spiritual" leader and rejected as a "religious" one. In these circumstances, gathering practically the entire Catholic population of France to one Mass is not just an impressive feat. It is a wise one. For in a crowd of a million people, Catholicism will seem to the young worshippers something new, something that young people do together, something spiritual. That may be its only hope to survive as a Western religion.

`Faith & Reason' is edited by Paul Vallely

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