A smaller church

The HBO series, The Young Pope, casts Jude Law as a youthful pontiff who turns the church inward, roots out those who are compromised in one way or another, and presides over a smaller, tighter institution. There's much to quibble with, but the core idea was a hit with young Catholics and young Christians more generally. In part that's because we have the salutary example of organizations like the United Church, which has chased openness to the point where some of their 'clergy' no longer profess a belief in God, and has consequently descended into irrelevance. Many Protestants fear their denominations may not be far behind. Pope Francis' Catholic church also tends in this direction, but fans of The Young Pope hope for a change in his successor.

Turning the church inward would be satisfying, but you might wonder whether it would be good. Wouldn't it mean leaving a lot of fence-sitting Christians behind? Well maybe there's a case to be made for doing that. And failing to turn inward leaves churches locked in a conflict they are bound to lose. They are trying to present Christianity as liberating and open minded. But compared to popular culture in the West today, Christianity is nether of those things. Consider, for example, this Mitchell and Webb skit. In it, Jesus tries to tell the parable of the good Samaritan to a group of followers with contemporary sensibilities. They take offence at the suggestion that there is anything surprising about a Samaritan being the good guy. To presume so would be bigoted, they say, and by today's standards they are right. The parable of the good Samaritan has fallen short.

Let's put this in context. The first Christians said that they were bringing a gospel, i.e. good news. Why good news? Because in pagan religions, although man might through good luck and great personal effort touch the divine, the divine was not particularly interested in man. From Homer to the Neoplatonists, one's odds of reaching the disinterested gods are not good to start with, and are greatly reduced if one is not healthy and free and financially comfortable. Christianity taught that the divine reaches out to help us, that the good shepherd comes in search of the sheep that wander. Jesus didn't walk by the sinners, he went after them - and showed them how to live better lives.

It's this last bit that is out of step with our time. Helping people is OK, but demanding that they change how they live entails judging that their lives are bad. It’s good for Mother Theresa to help the poor, but an outrage that she attempted to evangelize them. It's good for priests to counsel those in need of relationship advice, but the priest had better not suggest that the relationship was disordered to begin with. It's fine to believe that religion is instituted by the all-powerful creator of the universe, but appalling to suggest it might therefore be good for everybody. In other words, the pendulum has swung away from the dour view of the pagans and kept going right through Christianity to the view that we live in an impersonal, benevolent universe and that after death one goes to a vague place of unconditional love. It's not that a few good men scramble into virtue, or even that the divine assists and sanctifies many more, no, everyone (or pretty much everyone) is deserving of respect right from the start. Chesterton called the view that was emerging even in his time 'Christian virtues gone mad', and when you look it isn't hard to recognize in contemporary morality the distorted face of the Christian original.

And that is why the Church would be wise to turn inward. Trying to compete with Christian virtues gone mad is like getting into a price war with Walmart. Don't race to the bottom, United Church style. A better strategy is to compare the relative quality of the products. There is some fact of the matter about how the world works. The world either is or is not a place filled with evil and suffering, where good men sometimes fall tragically. Does the view that every life choice is equally worthy of respect comport with our experience of the world? A look around at the fading Western polities, medicated and increasingly suicidal, might well make us wonder. The Christian answer is an alternative, more restrictive, yes, but with some chance at getting things right.