A bold diagnosis of a declining Church

Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit has published an interesting document called Unleash the Gospel. It is the fruit of a diocesan synod in a climate of severely declining sacramental practice, vocations to marriage and priesthood, and the closure of parishes.

It is a decline in the practice of the faith that is replicated to a greater or lesser extent in huge parts of the world – even in Africa.

I was speaking to a Religious from Zambia who was telling me about the vocations crisis in her country. The comforting thought that the Church in Africa is growing is only true in a few parts of the continent. In Zambia and elsewhere they are losing huge numbers of Catholics to Pentecostal sects.

Unleash the Gospel offers its own analysis of the roots of the present crisis. It begins by quoting Benedict XVI’s statement that even among those who believe that God exists “many are living a ‘practical atheism’ ” – that is, they are living as if God did not exist. The document also identifies “false or pseudo religions”, or belief systems based on misguided assumptions. The first is “scientific fundamentalism”: the idea that science can answer all human questions.

The presupposition is that the universe is a closed system in which, by knowing the laws of science, one has exhausted the mysteries of the universe – or at least, it’s inevitable that we will do so. Professor Stephen Hawking is on record as saying that it is only a matter of time before physics will come up with a “theory of everything, and then we shall know the mind of God”. This is a claim that one is required simply to take on the authority of the one making it. It is therefore just as much an article of faith as of science, a pseudo-religious claim, but one ardently espoused by most students at my local Catholic sixth form. Yet empirical science cannot account for many of the most important aspects of human existence, including ethical and aesthetic values, love, friendship, sacrifice, knowledge “and even science itself”.

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