As an outsider, I look at the Church in the United States with a certain amount of envy. Compared to the United Kingdom, you’re stronger and more blessed than you probably know.
However, despite the distance between our two countries, we share many of the same challenges. So we need to understand and support each other for the sake of the people God puts in our care.
The realities we face in Scotland offer some lessons for the Church in America. Scottish Catholic history goes back a long way. It starts with the missions of St. Ninian to the Picts, an ancient Scottish people, in the fifth century. And it grew steadily into the vigorous faith of the High Middle Ages.
The medieval Catholic Church began the great Scottish universities at St. Andrew’s, at Glasgow, and at Aberdeen. Through the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320, the Church was instrumental in confirming Scotland’s status as an independent sovereign state.
The Scottish Reformation changed the Church’s role dramatically. It completely suppressed the country’s Catholic religious and cultural patrimony.
By the end of the eighteenth century, barely a dozen Catholics lived in Glasgow. But factories need workers, and with the Industrial Revolution, immigrants began to arrive from Ireland and Italy. (The Tartaglia family, as you might have guessed, is not an ancient Scottish clan.)
As Catholic numbers grew in the nineteenth century, restrictions on the Church began to ease. The Catholic Emancipation Act was passed at Westminster in 1829. And Pope Leo XIII restored the Scottish Catholic hierarchy in 1878.
However, old-style religious hostility still exists here and there throughout the country. And, while that kind of old-style discrimination has largely faded, there is still a vague suspicion that Catholics don’t really belong, and if they are there, they should not make too much noise about their faith.
Today there are around 750,000 Catholics in a Scottish population of 5 million; about 17 percent of the population. That’s the same as the proportion of Catholics globally. And since Protestant Churches have declined very sharply in Scotland over the past fifty years, Catholics are now, ironically, the most active religious community in the country, in the sense that more Catholics worship on a Sunday than any other Christian denomination, including the numerically dominant Church of Scotland.
Now that may sound odd. But it’s worth examining. On the surface, Britain has always seemed like a deeply Christian — and since the time of Elizabeth I, a deeply Protestant – nation, with the Church closely supported by the state. In fact, at the end of World War II, religion in the UK had about 15 years of very strong revival. When Billy Graham preached in London in 1954, nearly 2 million people turned out to hear him. When he led a crusade in Glasgow the next year, another 1 million heard him speak, and 100,000 filled the football stadium for a single worship service.
Then, in the 1960s, it all started to collapse.
In his book The Death of Christian Britain, Callum Brown of the University of Glasgow notes that less than eight percent of people attend Sunday worship in any week, less than a quarter are members of any Church, and fewer than a tenth of children attend a Sunday school.
Fewer than half of couples get married in church, and about a third of couples cohabit without marriage. In England only a fifth of babies get baptized in the Church of England, and in Scotland one estimate is that only about a fifth are baptized in either the Church of Scotland or the Catholic Church.
There has also been a collapse of the basic Christian beliefs and Christian culture that were internalized by nearly all individuals in the UK for centuries, forming their identities whether or not they were churchgoers.
Human beings are instinctively religious creatures. When we discard one religion, we put another in its place – even if we call it something other than a religion.
The new “religious” consensus in the UK is a combination of skepticism, consumer appetite, and political intolerance. It masks itself with progressive vocabulary, but its targets tend to be practicing Christians.
Old-fashioned Protestant “No Popery here” slogans may have faded, but today’s discrimination is much more sophisticated. Atheists and secularists in the 1960s and 1970s were content to ignore or mock the Catholic Church, but today many see her as the single most formidable threat to their notions of justice and equality, particularly when it comes to matters of human sexuality.
This hostility shows itself in different ways in the UK and in the States. Campus protests are worse in America, but the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and freedom of expression much more concretely than ours.
Nonetheless, some version of the problems we face today in Scotland will be heading your way tomorrow – the UK can be seen as the canary in a coal mine.
The chief errors of our time are anthropological, and when a culture becomes global, so do its problems. If the Church dissents from today’s new rulebook for the human person – and she must — then she should expect rough treatment.
So, what are the strengths of the Church in our current environment and what are her weaknesses? Where do we need to rebuild the Lord’s house?
The Scottish philosopher John Haldane sees three common features in today’s Catholic life that need to be remedied for the Church to grow stronger.
First, too many believers no longer act like they really believe in anything supernatural; in anything they can’t see or touch or experience; or in anything beyond modeling and encouraging decent behavior. Too many believers no longer talk about Jesus winning salvation for the sinful but instead point to him as a moral ideal of what humans should strive for.
This is good as far as it goes. The trouble is that it doesn’t go nearly far enough. The Catholic faith teaches that we’re saved by the grace of God. Any merit in our works is itself the fruit of a free, unmerited gift of grace. But how many believers today can even define that word “grace”?
Second, Haldane sees a chronic sentimentalism in how we deal with moral matters that demand clear, exacting thought. There were problems with scholasticism and the old moral manuals, but we used to preach on morals from training in rigorous moral argument.
Finally, for Haldane, too many of us have become “preoccupied with means of forestalling secular criticism, rather than engaging confidently with it, in part by means of ingratiating ourselves with dominant groups and classes.” We accommodate. We compromise. We avoid conflict – even when conflict is the only proper course. We are too wishy-washy, as we would say in Scotland.
Once upon a time, Catholics longed for and worked for the conversion of others, including a nation’s cultural elites. Now many of our Catholic leaders, intellectuals and academic institutions bend over backwards to assure the gatekeepers of culture and prestige that they’re just as right-thinking as they are.
For Haldane this results in “the displacement of Catholic faith and sacramental practice understood in terms of a rigorous theology of grace and salvation, and their substitution by good works, identified and sustained typically through emotive rhetoric, with an eye to seeking approbation or at least minimizing exposure to criticism from secular critics of religion.” It’s a kind of virtue-signaling.
So, is there any good news? Or should we just take “the Benedict Option” and head for a religious bomb-shelter in the mountains? I have two answers.
First, there’s quite a lot of good news. And second, Augustine is a much better model for our times and our work as pastors than Benedict.
Augustine stayed with his people. He loved them and fed them and led them like the great pastor he was, even while the Roman world fell apart and even with an army of barbarians at the gates. The Church in the United States is in vastly better shape than anything Augustine could have imagined, but his life is still a lesson. A good shepherd never leaves his sheep. He loves and defends his people, even when some of them don’t love him back.
As for the good news: The Church in the United States is doing exceptionally well.
In Europe, in the so-called Catholic countries like Italy, Spain, France, Belgium, Ireland, and parts of Germany – the Church often dominated society. She also too often tied herself to the state.
Over time that did three things. It invited an abuse of Church privilege. It created resentment and indifference among many of our people. And it allowed the state to use and misuse the Church for its own purposes. (This may have been the case in Scotland and England before the Reformation but probably not since.)
In America, Christianity is still a living force. It can be attacked, but it can’t be ignored. Christians still practice their faith at high levels of participation.
Christians still matter – sometimes decisively – in the political, economic and social life of the nation. Catholics were always a minority, but they were always renewed by immigrants, always building, always growing, never dominant, and never captured by the state.
The result is that you have the resources, organization, freedom under the law, and breadth of imagination that exist almost nowhere else in the Christian world.
For 15 years in this country, your mass media have hammered away at the Church on the abuse issue, often fairly, but often not. But most of your people haven’t wavered. They support Catholic schools. They support your Catholic charitable ministries. They love their parishes, and they trust and respect their pastors with a high degree of confidence. That doesn’t stop them from complaining, but people complain when they want to belong and believe that it’s worth staying. It’s part of a normal family life.
The Church in the United States, like the Church in Europe, faces some very serious challenges in the coming 20 years. But for all of its challenges, the American Church’s strengths and energies give it a unique ability to influence the life of the Catholic Church in a deeply positive way and on a much wider level.
The Most Reverend Philip Tartaglia is Archbishop of Glasgow. This article is adapted from a lecture the archbishop gave at the Convocation of Priests of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in May 2017.