A PRIEST FRIEND recommended Father Louis J. Cameli’s new book “Church, Faith, Future: What We Face, What We Can Do” (Liturgical Press: Collegeville, Minnesota, 2017, pp. 104). Out of respect for my friend’s judgment, I almost immediately ordered the book. But when I received the thin paperback, I didn’t expect much, probably because of the book’s small size and the fact that I had never heard of the author. I was in for a wonderful surprise. “Church, Faith, Future” is a gem.
Indicating in his preface that he is hoping to start a conversation among the hierarchy, the clergy and other ecclesial ministers, but also among many others who may share their experience of spiritual realities, Father Cameli writes the following:
“When this conversation takes place, it will surely spark our imagination and we will begin to see freshly what faith can mean in our circumstances. Our conversation will offer designs for believing today and tomorrow. Even more, our Spirit guided conversation will strengthen our shared resolve and commitment to do something. And that means nothing less than bringing our faith into the future.” (p. x1)
My hope is the same as Father Cameli’s but having the conversation is not going to be easy, especially when we realize what we are facing. Temptation to discouragement may be strong and persistent.
In reporting on the secular atmosphere that surrounds Catholics in our country, Father Cameli presents a detailed picture, so detailed that any hopes to influence our culture through our Christian faith can seem naïve. What also makes this new book so valuable is that Father Cameli can still present the power of Christian hope to transform society even when he has made the obstacles in our society seem almost insurmountable.
Father Cameli poses four questions and devotes a chapter to each: 1.What can we expect? 2. Is there anything unexpected that we could possibly expect? 3. What can we do? 4. What ought we to do?
I am in awe at how much important information the author has communicated in his slim volume and communicated it clearly. Every year in philosophy classes at St. John’s University, I give lectures on the philosophy of secular humanism, which I think I understand fairly well, yet I feel that I have profited from reading Father Cameli’s treatment.
In dealing with the first question, Father Cameli, who has a wonderful talent for summarizing scholarly works and lifting from them important data, relies on “A Secular Age” by Charles Taylor to convincingly argue that, for the first time in history, self-sufficient humanism – or secular humanism – has become a widely available option. Taylor, a giant among Catholic philosophers, examines four centuries that have brought us to the secular milieu in which we now live.
Using James Davison Hunter’s “To Change the World: the Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World,” Father Cameli pulls no punches in presenting the findings from sociological and cultural studies.
For the Christian believer, the news is bad. And using the data now available, it will continue to be bad in the future. What I found especially startling is that roughly 60 percent of Catholics raised in America are no longer practicing Catholics.
After reflecting on data from various sources, Father Cameli offers this succinct response to the first question regarding what can be expected: “The short answer, based on the philosophical, historical, cultural, and sociological studies we have considered, is decline. We can anticipate such a decline because of trends that have long been in motion.” (p. 25)
Responding to Secular Culture
While Father Cameli’s treatments of the second and third questions are very interesting and definitely worth reading, it is his response to the fourth question that I want to stress in this column. Believing that evangelization and its dynamism – correctly and completely understood – is the best response to the difficult and challenging secular culture that surrounds Catholics, he writes the following:
“It is very important to note that being evangelized and evangelizing are not sequential and linear events, as if once we were evangelized we can then go forward to evangelize. Rather, being evangelized and evangelizing are both continuous, in the sense that they are permanent states of the church, and simultaneous, in the sense they are distinguishable but never separated from each other.” (p. 59)
I confess that before reading this book, I did think of evangelization as linear and sequential. My initial reaction to Father Cameli’s response to the last question was disappointment – the experience of a kind of letdown. That soon changed to agreement and even a kind of excitement. There are no magical answers for a Christian living in and trying to transform a secular culture. The only miracle we can expect is the miracle of grace.
Put very simply, we try to allow the Holy Spirit to transform us and that process will be the greatest and strongest aid we have in trying “to bring our faith into the future.”
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).