The State of the Church

Perhaps the neatest thing in Lander this week was that J.D. Flynn gave a lecture for Wyoming Catholic College. That’s J.D. Flynn, co-founder of The Pillar and former editor-in-chief of the Catholic News Agency, the man whose website seems to have changed Vatican policy—that J.D. Flynn, right here in Nowhere, Wyoming.

I actually met and shook hands with J.D. in a coffee shop this morning. It came about this way. My favorite coffee joint is run by an old friend, Andrew Whaley, and one day Andrew joked that he would like to make every Wednesday “Bollywood Day,” meaning that staff are required to sing their interactions with customers and customers get a discount for singing their orders. Ever since then, I’ve made a point of singing my order every Tuesday, and Andrew always says no, it’s not Wednesday, and warns that on Tuesdays people who sing their orders actually pay more, etc. It’s our thing. Anyhow, I walked in this morning and noticed that the place was almost entirely empty, so I launched into my order with amateur baritone zeal—and only then, out of the corner of my eye, saw J.D. Flynn sitting at a table.

Yep, J.D. Flynn, the journalist, the maker and breaker of reputations, just sitting right there watching a WCC professor sing for his caffeine. Well, I thought, he has dedicated his life to the truth, so he might as well know the truth. I kept singing. But getting cream for my wife’s coffee took us right next to his table, and at that point I could either pretend I hadn’t been making a spectacle of myself in a public place or I could meet his eye boldly and introduce myself. So we shook hands.

J.D.’s lecture this evening was well done. He is funny, takes his topic seriously without taking himself too seriously, and he focused on telling great stories. The title was, “What Is the State of the Church? Hint: It Isn’t What You Think”. He began by describing the anxiety he encounters constantly about the state of the Church, and he recounted the reasons for it: scandals among the clergy, the Synodal Way, corruption in the Vatican, etc., etc. But then he told the story of a recent Nigerian martyr under Islamic persecution, and the story of a heroic Nicaraguan bishop who may soon be a martyr under the persecution of a corrupt government, and he advised his listeners that these are the real stories in the Church right now. There is in fact a kind of clericalism, he said, about assuming that stories about Rome are the only really important stories. He concluded by quoting John Henry Newman to the effect that in every age people make the mistake of thinking their age is the worst one yet, when in fact things are bad in every age.

The bottom line: You should get J.D. Flynn as a speaker. He’s great.

If I am asked to put on my professor hat and take a critical stance, then I would say that the lecturer needed to define terms more clearly. What precisely does “the state of the church” mean, and what does it mean to say that this state is good or better or bad or worse?

J.D. seemed to be addressing people who think of “the state of the Church” as “the probability that the Church will collapse soon”. Since our faith tells us that the Church will never collapse, then from the point of view of faith the probability that the Church will collapse is zero in every age, and so the Church is doing equally well in every age. But humanly speaking it is helpful to have encouraging stories to reassure us that in our age, too, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the next era of the Church.

However, I expect that most of the people in the audience in Lander tonight would not define “the state of the Church” that way. Our faculty and students have no fear that the Church will collapse. For this audience, I expect that “the state of the Church” means something like “the probability that a given Catholic will stay Catholic and be saved” or “the probability that a given non-Catholic will become Catholic”, or perhaps simply “the probability that any one of my children will stay Catholic and be saved.” A higher probability means a better state, and a lower probability means a worse state. One could put this the other way around: “the probability that my child will be eaten by the surrounding secular culture,” and then a higher probability means a worse state for the Church. These are reasonable definitions, because the Lord’s mandate to the Church was to make disciples of all nations, and fundamental to making disciples is keeping the disciples she has. If the Church is not fulfilling her commission well, then in some real sense she is in a bad state.

Taken this way, it is immediately obvious that the Church has been in a better state in some centuries than others. Some centuries have seen great growth in the numbers of believers, while others have seen a precipitous falling away. From this point of view, the state of the Church in the United States right now is worse than other times, i.e., the probability that a given Catholic will stay with Christ, or that his child will stay with Christ, is much lower.

A further distinction has to do with the reason for the probability. If the probability of a given individual remaining Christian is low because of government persecution, then one can argue that the Church herself is doing well, i.e., carrying out her mandate well, but the effect is being impeded by external factors. But when the probability of a given individual remaining Christian is low precisely because of things the Church is doing, then the Church is indeed bearing her mandate badly. In this sense, J.D. Flynn’s opening litany of woes is not entirely answered by his ensuing stories of heroism.

In the end, I think J.D. Flynn knows all this and would agree with it. He said that he does what he does, including exposing corruption in the Church, because he thinks that public accountability is good for the Church’s governance and that good governance is crucial for the Church. In other words, he thinks that times when we have lacked public accountability have been worse for the Church and so not all eras have been equal in some sense. His lecture was great on the assumption of a certain definition of “state of the Church”, but he could have reached his audience better tonight by clarifying his definition and distinguishing it from other valid definitions.

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