The fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris (April 15, 2019) is a symbol of the church that burns in secularized Europe and, more generally, in the globalized world. Andrea Riccardi’s book, La Chiesa brucia: Crisi e futuro del cristianesimo (The Church Burns: Crisis and Future of Christianity) (Bari-Rome: Laterza, 2021) starts with the evocative image of the burning Notre-Dame.
Riccardi is well-positioned to bring forth his analysis, being professor of Contemporary History at the University of Rome III and a biographer of John Paul II. He is also known internationally for having founded, in 1968, the Community of Sant’Egidio, one of the most active ecclesial lay movements within the Roman Catholic Church. In addition to his social commitment and his many development projects in the southern hemisphere, Riccardi played a role in mediating various conflicts and contributed to attaining peace in several countries, such as Mozambique, Guatemala and the Ivory Coast. In 2003, TIME magazine included him onits list of thirty-six “modern heroes” of Europe, individuals who stand out because of their professional courage and humanitarian commitment. He is an insiders and scholarly voice on the inner dynamics of Roman Catholicism.
The Notre-Dame cathedral is in the center of Paris, in the heart of Europe, embedded in its history and an emblem of its culture. It burned and, by burning, it represents the state of profound crisis in which (Roman and institutionalized) Christianity finds itself. This is not fake news, but a factual observation. Practitioners are declining across the continent, vocations are collapsing everywhere, traditions are eroding and entering the tunnel of oblivion, adherence to belief and morals are plummeting, and local parishes are in an identity crisis. The processes of secularization seem unstoppable and are dismantling the bricks of institutional religiosity one piece at a time. The church is certainly experiencing a period of decline. Does it even risk disappearing?
In painting this fresco in dark colors, Riccardi documents the indicators of the crisis of Roman Catholicism and he does so keeping in mind the various national quadrants (France, Italy, Spain, Germany) with their particularities. He also dwells on the forms of “national-Catholicism” (Hungary and Poland) which are attempts to intertwine religion and national identity to make Roman Catholicism and cultural Christianity a sort of religious-civil bulwark in the face of contemporary disorientation.
The crisis, according to Riccardi, starts from afar. In fact, the question of whether European Christianity was about to die had already been posed by Jean Delumeau in 1977 (Is Christianity about to die?) and, even earlier, by the French cardinal Suhard in 1947 when he spoke of “decline”. From this point of view, Vatican II (1962-1965), with its “pastoral” focus, was a response to the crisis. Indeed, Vatican II was an attempt to embrace the modern world by re-understanding it on the side of the enlarged catholicity of Rome, rather than stubbornly bringing it back to the Roman canons from which it seemed to have taken leave. With Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) Paul VI launched a call to “evangelization” as a method to regain ground after having lost it with Humanae Vitae on sexual morality (1968). The effort did not produce the results hoped for. The long wave of the 1968 revolution actually dug deeper the gap between Europe and the church (and inside the church itself). While Roman Catholicism has proven equipped to tackle the social question (e.g. mitigating Capitalism) and political ideologies (e.g. against Communism), it has not been able to stand up to contemporary individualism, sexual libertarianism, and unbridled and globalized consumerism.
The long and energetic pontificate of John Paul II seemed to make up ground, but, in reality, it covered the crisis rather than solved it. With Benedict XVI, the crisis reached a culminating point with the shocking resignation of the Pope. Following the pastoral “spirit” of Vatican II, Pope Francis is trying to further widen the mesh of catholicity to build bridges with the “first unbelieving generation” (p. 116) on the basis of mercy for all, universal brotherhood, and care for the environment, all themes very distant from traditional “Roman” and institutional Catholicism. How effective this strategy will be remains to be seen, though it does not appear to have reversed the course.
As a Catholic scholar, Riccardi talks about the crisis and points out some ideas for a different future. He takes up the argument by French sociologist Hervieu-Léger that Roman Catholicism has characterized itself as a “cold religion” (top-down and moralistic) and should melt, learning to become “warmer”. This means, for example, living in the contemporary world with “multiple ecclesial presences, capable of charismatic, diversified, close encounters, and in dialogue with the people” (p. 207). It is not surprising that the founder of Sant’Egidio supports the role of ecclesial movements as horizontal Roman Catholic players, capable of interfacing with different niches of secularized society, intercepting particular needs, “freeing” the relationship with religion with respect to the only channel represented by the institutional church and, therefore, offering a range of different and more contextualized “Catholic” responses. Given that Roman Catholicism has the Eucharist at its center and that it takes a priest to administer the sacrament, to remedy the lack of priests Riccardi goes so far as to support the possibility of recognizing married priests (pp. 199-203).
The analysis of the crisis suggested by the book is honest and without reticence. And yet, the imagined way out remains within the intangible framework of the pillars of Roman Catholicity. It seems that, for Riccardi, in the face of the ongoing fire, the answer must beat the level of a “pastoral” attitude, without providing for a doctrinal rethinking of the self-understanding of the Church of Rome.
The Church is burning, to borrow Riccardi’s language, but in the end is untouchable in its core elements. The hierarchical structure, the sacramental framework, the theology founded not on Scripture alone but on Tradition (that both includes Scripture and is bigger than Scripture), the non-biblical dogmas, the absorbed spurious devotions, etc., all this cannot be changed. In the end, faced with a very serious diagnosis, the imagined cure seems to be a placebo. If the church burns, the best minds of Roman Catholicism (and Riccardi is one of them) are not compelled by the need to go deeper into understanding the reasons for the crisis. They are not open to a biblical reformation.
For all churches and for all Christians, the turning point is not a greater pastoral attention nor a new missionary strategy (however important these factors might be), but a return to the Word of God accompanied by repentance from sin and a response of faith ready to call into question all the compromised structures built over time. These are the steps towards the “future” of Christianity as is evoked in the subtitle. The fire of secularization risks incinerating the church, but to borrow the title of a book by Michael Reeves, the unquenchable flame of the reformation according to the Gospel can eliminate the accumulated toxins and open the way to a path of conversion. The ultimate issue is not to switch from a “cold” to a “warm” religion; it is to faithfully respond to the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ in truth and love.