In 1969, long before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger made a prediction about the post–Vatican II Catholic Church. Instead of a growing and dynamic Church reaching all cultures, he envisioned a smaller and less influential Church: “She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges.” Today, with priestly vocations and attendance in steady decline, accompanied by an ongoing retreat from moral and cultural controversies, this statement has proved to be accurate—even prophetic.
In the age of Covid-19, many predict that steady decline will enter freefall. With bishops throughout the developed world imposing restrictions on distributing the Eucharist and celebrating Mass, many Catholics have stopped coming to Mass—some, no doubt, permanently. This can be seen with many parishes reopening only to see a small fraction of members return. It was assumed a signup sheet would be necessary to respect mandated capacity limits, but this has not been necessary for many churches that frequently have only a handful of people attending Sunday Mass.
While one could attribute such a contraction in church attendance to fears over catching the virus, it would probably be more accurate to say that the virus may expose a serious weakness in the Church itself. For decades, convenience and compromisehave been the guiding lights of Catholic evangelism. Enterprises claiming to advance the New Evangelization were frequently accompanied by a focus on positive emotions and a vapid “family friendly” atmosphere. As soon as serious adversity struck and these conveniences were momentarily removed, many Catholics left (and continue to leave) the Church without a second thought.
On one hand, this contraction of the Church represents a massive drawback for individuals and communities. On the individual level, the loss of faith endangers the soul in this world and the next. Without the grace of the sacraments, the wisdom of Holy Scripture, and the example of the saints, many will fall into serious emotional and psychological hardship. The vacuum left in people’s hearts will leave them vulnerable to crippling addictions, narcissism, and despair. The absence of transcendent values will result in mediocre lifestyles devoid of accomplishment or meaning.
As individuals suffer, so too will communities. Already, radical ideology is espoused by a large portion of Americans. This ideology teaches them to hate their neighbors, their heritage, and their country. Seeing parallels between today’s angry mobs and those in revolutionary France, Father Bevil Bramwell warns in a recent essay for The Catholic Thing that “the alternative to that Gospel message is political fanaticism. And recent history shows, beyond question, that will not end well—for anyone.” Absent Christianity, religion will not simply fade into irrelevance, leaving a neutral irreligious society in its wake. Rather, it will morph into a different kind of faith, one that is mostly political and highly destructive.
Although it is undeniable that such a Catholic exodus would be disastrous, a smaller Church would present an opportunity for real reform. With so many “cafeteria Catholics” leaving, and so many clergy from the baby boomer generation passing away, it’s finally possible to reintroduce rigor into the spiritual life and demand more from Church leaders. The elderly cliques who have ruled local parishes and robbed them of their relevance will have to give way to young, fruitful families who crave authentic worship and courageous leadership. And that cabal of corrupt bishops who waste so much money (on synods, bureaucracy, mansions, court settlements, etc.) while protecting their equally corrupt peers will finally be too poor and powerless to do so any longer.
All this has been happening on a small scale with the recent rise in more traditional parishes. Not surprisingly, these churches continue to reach capacity and have suffered little loss in membership, despite sometimes onerous local restrictions. Even before Covid, these parishes were growing as the rest of the Church declined because they offered a serious alternative to the unserious, touchy feely, self-centered culture prevailing everywhere else.
More importantly, traditional Catholicism offers something all people (and particularly young people) crave: a sense of identity. The medieval aesthetic of the liturgy, the ancient language spoken by the priests, the veils and dresses of the women, the suits and ties of the men, the long lines for Confession, the (sometimes dry) homilies quoting Saints Thomas Aquinas and Alphonsus Liguori, and the many squirming children filling gaps in already crowded pews all work to make congregants feel authentically and uniquely Catholic. This sense of identity reinforces their Christian faith and liberates them from the typical insecurities of more mainstream Catholics. Having truly removed themselves from the general culture, they will be able to handle being a countercultural minority when the time requires it.
And for those who are paying attention to the current collapse of Christianity, that time is now. The traditional model should start replacing—not just supplementing—the increasingly passé Novus Ordo model. This means that dying churches should consider making the following simple yet powerful changes: they should institute worship ad orientem, install Communion rails, remove all extraordinary ministers from the altar, offer Confession during Mass, reintroduce chant and traditional hymnody, and encourage modest, respectful, and reasonably formal attire for both men and women. In the long-term, we need to once again teach priests Latin, train them in the Extraordinary Form, and encourage them to deliver quality homilies. The other changes can happen right now and this will immediately create an atmosphere of prayer, reverence, and charity.
Ideally, this transformation into a smaller, more traditionally-minded Church would be carried out by the bishops and priests. Unfortunately, they continue to unfairly antagonize traditional Catholics—for reference, consider the recent prohibition of Communion rails and ad orientem worship issued by a bishop in Boise, Idaho. Bishop Robert Barron epitomizes this view when he characterizes traditional Catholics as “radical traditionalists” who create a “culture of contempt” on social media. Meanwhile, while he holds an invitation-only conference with other Catholic media members on how to deal with the one group of Catholics actually growing in number, churches all over the country are being abandoned. Although it is fair to say that certain traditionalists take their criticism too far, Bishop Barron and other Catholic leaders would make a much stronger case for themselves by ignoring these trolls and focusing their efforts on the much bigger problem at hand.
In such cases, it falls upon the lay Catholics and the priests to pick up the pieces and fill the emptied pews, or at least start this process. Fortunately, there are cardinals and bishops, not least Pope Emeritus Benedict himself, who have championed traditional worship and stricter religious practice. They should be involved in this renewal, not rebuffed as out-of-touch elites. Not all Church leaders belong to the secular progressive cliques or agonize over online provocateurs, and it is neither fair or wise to assume that they do.
Recovery will start by remembering what brought down the Church in the first place. It wasn’t the virus—which only accelerated the decline—but a widespread complacency that saw no reason to address liturgical abuses and a culture of mediocrity. Like Noah coming off the Ark, these traditional Catholics who endured the long storm will need to re-evangelize their disenchanted brethren and build the Church anew.