Throughout the history of the Catholic Church we have seen inclines and declines in the number of Catholics and it brings to mind the thought of what is better: A small church filled with devout members or a large church filled with luke warm believers? Before Christmas break my Church history class was at the point in the story where Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire. While all Christians rejoiced, it also brought some negatives, such as a large mass of converts, many who were not properly catechized and a large group of people converting, because it was the cool thing to do. Today, we are seeing the opposite occur, we are seeing a decline in membership instead of an incline.
On one side of the coin you have those who argue the Church needs to change in order to stop people from leaving, and to bring those who have left back. Yet, to change we would have to water down much of the faith, and really make it a moral relativistic like faith in order to really draw those same people who have left. This I don’t believe is the right approach. I don’t believe it would draw people into the faith. We can look, for instance, to Christian denominations who have changed to reflect the attitudes of the secular culture and they don’t seem to be getting higher church attendance. The Catholic Church can’t bend on her faith in morals because she holds them to be absolutely true. She stands in stark contrast to the secular world, unmoving, even when people leave the pews. I think that is why she is so appealing to those people who do stay and who wish to convert. Truth isn’t something that changes over time, it is something that was, is and always will be, it is eternal.
While we can do more and greater good in large numbers, you still can not cheapen the truth in order to draw a larger audience. While it might seem depressing, Pope Benedict in this excerpt gives us reason to hope.
“The church 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 … she will lose many of her social privileges…. As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members….
It will be hard-going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek…. The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution — when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain…. But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.
And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.”
— Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), from his book Faith and the Future
We may be encroaching on tough times as Catholics, but it is not something new that we have faced as a Church. History demonstrates that we have these periods of decline but, we always emerge stronger, because of it, and defy the naysayers who say that the Church is finished.