The number of Catholics continues to drop in Germany. More than 216,000 of them decided to “leave the Church” last year alone by ceasing to pay the government-mandated church tax. This is just the latest example of what has become a slow, but steady pattern of defections from the Catholic Church in the Western world. Baptized members already began leaving in the first half of the twentieth century, but they have done so in even greater numbers over the past 60 years.
This does not mean Christianity is disappearing. But, almost everywhere, it shows that the Church is losing its tight control over the faith.
Karl Rahner’s prediction of a ‘diaspora Christianity’
It is tempting to wonder what the late Jesuit Karl Rahner (1904-84) would make of this.
The great German theologian, who was a major figure at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and extremely influential in the first decades following it, wrote a far-sighted essay in 1954 on what he called “diaspora Christianity.”
This pre-dated by four years the election of John XXIII (1958) and the “new” pope’s shock announcement three months later of convening of the Council.
Now 65 years later Rahner’s essay can throw much light on our present situation; that is, the current phase of post-Vatican II Catholicism under the pontificate of Pope Francis.
In fact Rahner’s 1954 essay is at the center of the latest issue of the respected French theological journal, Recherches de Science Religieuse. It’s titled “Doing theology in diaspora Christianity.”
Christoph Theobald, a German-French Jesuit and leading contemporary theologian, is the editor of this particular volume, which includes several essays by various authors. In his own contribution, Theobold explores ways of applying Rahner’s insights on diaspora Christianity to the Church of today.
He begins his piece by pointing out that, in addition to representing a minority, the current global Church is also undergoing a process of fragmentation and sectarianization.
Furthermore, this Church is being confronted by cultural pluralization and the weakening of institutions. And it is being forced to grapple with structural changes over who does what within the Church.
All this, says Theobald, requires a new way of doing theology and of being Church, part and parcel of how we understand the fundamental mission of the Church.
He points out that the diaspora of Christianity is not necessarily a catastrophe because it does not mean the disappearance of “spirituality.” On the contrary, the weakening of the ecclesial, social and political instances regulating Christianity can allow for the emergence of new “religious” or “spiritual” currents.
In his 1954 essay Rahner called the diaspora “a necessity inherent to the history of salvation,” rather than an accident of history. This is pertinent to the current pontificate and the tensions it has brought to the surface.
Rahner was very critical of the Christendom model that dominated the relationship between Church, state and society in Germany after World War II (1939-45).
He saw already in 1954 that as long as the Catholic Church remained institutionally and theologically dominated by Europe and the Western world, the contradictions were bound to be exposed only from the outside.
Once the Church becomes global, Rahner wrote, the contradictions will emerge from within the Church itself in the form of acute dissidence.
It is in that moment – when the Church begins to be a Church of all, because it has liberated itself from the identification with Europe and the West – that it will also begin to be a Church in mission to all.
But this conversion from an establishment Church of the West to a global Church in mission does not happen automatically. This is where Theobald’s reflection on how we can apply Rahner’s insights today takes a prescriptive turn.
Theobald helps us connect Rahner’s lucid prognosis from 1954 to what is happening under Pope Francis. It is nothing less than attempting to create space for a new theological and institutional framework in a theology of history.
It is one that does not complain “politically” or “sociologically” about the pluralization and fragmentation of the Church in our multi-cultural and multi-religious societies, but reads this situation “theologically” in light of Scripture and tradition.
Three steps for a Church in diaspora
Theobald says the first step in dealing with this diaspora is discernment, which is different from an automatic self-defense of the institution or the culture supporting it.
It is an affirmation and defense of the possibility of the faith going through the present crisis, based on intelligence of our own situation and of the world.
It means reading “the signs of the times” in a way that includes a critical approach to the world, but also self-criticism.
The second step for a Church in diaspora is acceptance of the idea that the Church is a minority.
This means rejecting the temptation to sensationalize the ever-present obstacles to the Gospel; that is, the anti-evangelical forces at work in our world and in the Church.
Sensationalism creates a warriors’ mentality, which itself is a contradiction of the Gospel.
The third step for a Church in diaspora is a rethinking of the relationship between academic theology and the Church.
Local churches need to become protagonists of a theological thinking that leads to a missionary reform of the institutions.
Today there is a great gap between the increasing fragmentation of a hyper-specialized theological profession on one side, and the lived culture of the Christian communities on the other side.
Theobald talks about the need of a “Christian communalization of theology” – a new partnership between theologians, Church leaders and communities.
Theological and institutional challenges
But there are a number of theological and institutional challenges that must be overcome before these three steps can be taken. The first and most important challenge that Theobald identifies concerns the concept of tradition.
“Traditions today are delivered through an act of reception, which is at the same time also an act of re-creation,” he says.
And in order to hold together the complexity and unity of the tradition, he says the Vatican II constitution on divine revelation, Dei Verbum, constitutes “the internal axis of a theology serving a Church in diaspora.”
The problem of tradition has indeed emerged during Francis’ pontificate.
For example, the pope’s insistence on developing synodality is another way of describing the need to rethink the way an ecclesial consensus can be found on the basis on the “sensus fidelium.” This requires a new balance, a new center of what is the meaning of “being Christian” today.
This is not just an intellectual issue, but also a spiritual challenge for all contemporary Christians. This also means balancing the global turn of theology towards a new catholicity and the need to cultivate close attention to the myriads of different, particular situations of individual communities and human groups.
A second challenge is the role of culture. Rahner does not avoid the problem of “exculturation” – the fact that Western society has separated itself from Catholic and Christian culture as articulated by the ecclesiastical institutions.
But is this “exculturation” constitutive of Christianity or is it a problem that can be resolved? Can the Church survive the disappearance of Christian culture in historically Christian countries? Or, on the other hand, can Christian culture become an obstacle to an evangelizing Church?
In other words, a minority Catholicism that is exculturated risks becoming a sect (among many others). But it also has the potential of becoming a significant missionary community.
A third challenge for a Church in diaspora entails a “democratization of theology” – an expansion of the number and kinds of Christians who do the thinking of the Church.
Part of the hierarchy and the clergy is firmly opposed to this, as we can see from the preemptive polemics against the upcoming Synod of Bishops’ assembly for the Pan-Amazon region.
The recent debates over women and preaching in the Church are only a small part in a much larger context concerning the need to de-clericalize the Church in a situation of diaspora.
From a Western, establishment Church… to a global, missionary Church
Theobald’s re-reading of Rahner’s 1954 essay shows us the comprehensive nature of the current Catholic crisis.
It is institutional (the role of the priesthood, formation to ministry in the Church), theological (sexuality and gender), social (sectarianization and fragmentation) and political (Catholic politics between passive assimilation and neo-integralism).
All these factors present us with a challenge that cannot be separated from the situation of diaspora – which is not the opposite of the globalization of the Church, but actually its flipside.
“The major challenge is the acceptance of the historical contingency of the Christian tradition, which today is in need of a global re-composition,” writes Theobold.
But this requires a missionary Church that goes forth in a lived sharing of the Christian experience with our fellow human beings. It also requires the elaboration of a polyhedric vision of the Church, and new forms to regulate Christian identity.
The whole debate around Francis’ pontificate has to do with the dissonance in the perception of the situation of the Church.
Those who see the Church in the context of diaspora and globalization are embracing – or at least open to – Francis’ pontificate. But those who still believe it’s possible to return to the age of Christendom do not see why there is the need to shake things up.
This dissonance has manifested itself differently around the world. The diaspora and globalization of the Church is much more evident in some countries rather than in others.
But the condition of diaspora affects all Christians and all Catholics, including people (like those in the United States) where secularization arrived some decades after its debut in Europe.
The disagreements around Francis’ pontificate are also a matter of different degrees of readiness to leave behind particular forms of Christendom Catholicism that have survived until today: a theological thinking dominated by European and Western academic or intellectual elites, and an ecclesiastical polity ruled by clerical hierarchies or clericalized laity.
There is no way to go back to the system created in the 11th and 12th centuries, with one form of international Catholic liturgy, one unified model of clergy and one single theological canon.
The Church today is living in a very different world. It cannot return to a bygone era. That is done and over with.
Meanwhile, the sexual abuse crisis and the financial scandals that have emerged have been revealed thanks to the end of Christendom and the effects of the diaspora. Denying the diaspora and the globalization of the Church can easily become just another way to deny the scandal.
Published in La Croix International 30.7. 2019