Renewing the Church after COVID

As lockdown levels during the Covid-19 pandemic drop around the world, we hear calls from religious leaders to return to (or closer to) normal services. We are even hearing in the Catholic Church the familiar language of ‘Sunday obligation’. Will this happen? At least one senior prelate, Cardinal Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg (and current president of the European Union Commission of Bishops Conferences) doesn’t think so.

Speaking to the Vatican newspaper L’Ossservatore Romano, Hollerich commented that – at least in Europe – “the number of people who go to church will go down.” This was already happening before Covid-19. More and more people saw little or no point in going to mass or the sacraments. He suggested that Covid-19 had simply sped up the process by about 10 years.

People leading comfortable lives seem not to need organised religion. Other observers have further noted that much religion seems dry, formulaic or simply out of touch with real issues people faced. Many who still participate out of ‘cultural’ nostalgia have probably realised during lockdown that they can do well without it.

One must not generalise too quickly. Europe may be exceptional compared to the rest of the world. Why? Very likely because religious communities are in many countries (where government institutions are incompetent, corrupt or non-existent) primary providers of health, education and welfare. If, as evidence suggests, the general global trend today is towards more health, nutrition, education and welfare, does this mean that we are at best facing a ‘delayed secularisation’ in these places? I think so. I also think Hollerich’s observations may well hold, albeit less dramatically, in parts of the more ‘believing’ world. So what is to be done?

I don’t think churches should endorse greater inequality and injustice – historically this is a recipe for anti-religious pushback when popular revolt overthrows tyranny. (Think of France 1789 or Russia 1917 and all that). I agree with Hollerich’s vision of a Church that gets even more involved, but it should go further.

He sees such action not only as morally right but also as a means to re-engage those alienated from the Church. This is rooted in a contemporary European phenomenon: as religious practices collapse, many have redoubled support for secular organisations promoting justice, welfare and development (e.g. Médecins Sans Frontières [Doctors Without Borders]). They capture imaginations the way missionaries once did.

Let me add a further observation. A multitude of ideas challenge some religious beliefs that appear hard to accept at face value. Many face a hard choice: blind belief (fundamentalism in different forms) or outright rejection. If religious communities continue with the former after Covid-19 – a situation exacerbated by struggling with a God who ‘allows’ suffering – even the most energetic pursuit of development, welfare and justice may prove insufficient.

We need the actions Cardinal Hollerich prescribes – but we also need religious communities that move from authoritative command-based faith to rigorous and open theological dialogue, a dialogue that speaks to and about real questions believers face.

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for spotlight.africa. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.

a.egan@jesuitinstitute.org.za
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