My nineteen-year-old son has worked several jobs while in college, and he has saved some modest funds. I have spoken to him about the benefits of investing in stocks or mutual funds rather than just a low-interest savings account, primarily because he is young and time is on his side. Because these higher yield investments can be riskier than a savings account, I also told him: “Don’t look at the day-to-day … because it is going to be bumpy. Think about the long term.”
I think this approach can also be applied to how Catholics should view the Church. We should not get thrown off by negative trends or controversies in the Church. Rather, we should look at the big picture, at the long term. We need to remember that God is guiding the Church according to his plan. He is creating a tapestry. If, however, we look too closely at one part of the tapestry, we can easily miss the image that is being woven.
To this end, I think we would benefit by looking at the recent history of the Church, and see where it has travelled over the past fifty years, since the end of the Second Vatican Council. I think we will come away with a clear sense that not only is God producing a beautiful tapestry, even if there are “knots” in it that make us wince.
(Note: The ideas I present below are my own; they certainly are not official “Church speak.” They have, though, been assembled from my study of various Catholic thinkers, as well as my general observations over the past twenty-five years of working in full-time ministry.)
I divide the past fifty years into six periods, and I offer bullet-point descriptions that seek to capture the essence of each period. The names of the periods are mine, and you will note that the dates of several periods overlap. So here goes …
The Discerning and Hopeful Church: (1960–1970)
The 1960s brought a tidal wave of skepticism towards traditional beliefs, values, and lifestyles, and many young people rejected the worldview their parents sought to instill in them. The sexual revolution quickly gained momentum, drug use boomed, and authority became the enemy.
Many young Catholics of this generation began to rebel against the rote—and seemingly meaningless—version of Catholicism of their parents and grandparents, opting instead for the creed, “Do whatever feels right to you.”
At the advent of this era, Blessed John XXIII announced the opening of the Second Vatican Council in hopes to usher in an aggiornamento, or “opening” of the windows, that would allow the Holy Spirit to revitalize the Church and strengthen it to meet the challenges and needs of the modern era.
The Uncertain Church: (1965–1980)
The wheels of the Vatican II reform began to turn, perhaps so quickly that it was difficult for some leaders and teachers within the Church to steer the fast-moving bus or understand where it was headed.
Some pastors felt emboldened to make decisions about their parish’s workings that made one parish’s “version” of the Church vastly differ from its neighboring parish’s “version.”
Much emphasis was placed on increasing lay parish involvement, and some weren’t sure if there should even be a discernible difference between priest and congregant.
A combination of many factors, both secular and religious, led to a serious decline in religious vocations.
To practicing Catholics, and those who recently left the Church, the Church herself seemed to be “uncertain” about who she was and what she taught.
The Secularized Church: (1970–Present)
Relativism and secularism became pervasive in the West. Internal debates arose about theological and, more so, moral issues. The Church grappled to effectively communicate her teachings on these moral issues.
To add to the confusion, the priest sex-abuse scandal hit the Church, leaving many ordained, religious, and laity disillusioned with and even ashamed of the Church.
During this period, many more loosely affiliated Catholics stopped attending Sunday Mass, and fewer, proportionately, led their children through the sacraments of initiation than did the previous generation.
Overall, the Catholic Church in the developed West saw a rapid decline, proportionately, in church participation.
The Internally Solidifying Church: (1980–2012)
Not everything was amiss in the Church during this time, however, as the Holy Spirit is always guiding and protecting the Bride of Christ.
This period saw the influential pontificates of St. John Paul II, the philosopher, and Benedict XVI, the theologian.
For the first time in centuries, a new Catechism of the Catholic Church was compiled and published and an updated Code of Canon Law was also released.
Many engaging and theologically rich encyclicals were given to the Church during this time, such as Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth,” John Paul II, 1993), Fides et Ratio (“Faith and Reason,” John Paul II, 1998), and Caritas Veritate (“Love in Truth,” Benedict XVI, 2009).
The Rising Church (1990–Present)
As these great leaders of the Church steered her according to the inspirations and insights of the Holy Spirit, new lay apostolates enthusiastic for the Faith began to spring up.
During these two decades, the dust that stirred in the aftermath of Vatican II began to settle, and the Church began to articulate the newest manifestation of “who we really are” as a post-Vatican II Church. Though the Church’s appropriation of the Council’s vision has not been fully implemented, and the atrophy of the faithful continues, hope has sprung forth in the form of many zealous, bright, and savvy people within the Church.
The Continually Maturing Church (Present)
The last four years under Pope Francis have been both exciting and, in some ways, bumpy, as the Holy Spirit guides the Church through his pastoral leadership.
Well-catechized Catholics know that the pope, due to the charism of infallibility, cannot ultimately depart from the Faith. So they have concluded that this current period is one where the Church is further honing her understanding of her mission and teaching—all for the purpose of bringing the unchangeable Tradition to an often jaded, and usually ill-formed laity.
Among other things, Pope Francis insists that the “self-reverential” Church must give way to a church that is a “field hospital,” a Church that isn’t afraid of encountering people in their messiness and “leading them with love” towards a life more fully integrated within the Church.
Those in the Church who responded to the uncertainty and oscillations of the Church over the past two decades by “bunkering down” and resurrecting traditional marks of Catholic identity are being challenged to stretch their application of Catholic orthodoxy.
Those in the Church who, guided by more secular standards, have hoped for a thoroughly progressive pope and a departure from the unbroken Tradition, are challenged by a pope whose statements reiterate the impossibility of women’s ordination and decry the dangers of gender theory.
Christ Assures Us…
When we stand back from the headlines and place our faith in the Holy Spirit, we do not have to be afraid when we see individual moments in the Church’s story that cause us alarm or that we don’t understand. We can be confident that the Church is going through healthy self-examinations that—as has been the case so many times over the past 2,000 years—will result in a more “prudent and mature” Church. As noted, the ride may be bumpy, but it was always meant to be bumpy. Christ warned us of this, and then assured us that we don’t have to worry, giving us the gift of the papacy in Matthew 16:18: “‘I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.’” And he also tells us, “I will be with you, even until the end of the Age” (Matthew 28:20).