Attempts to make the church smaller and more pure will only achieve one of the two—and it is probably not the latter.
That was the message from Cardinal Joseph Tobin in a talk at Villanova University on April 12, during which he urged Catholics to resist allowing “the individualism that permeates our culture” to infect the church.
“Even from ancient times, there have been individuals and movements who have tried to define and delimit what is means to be a Catholic Christian,” the Newark archbishop said. “Nevertheless, the universal church has always repudiated such attempts. It is only the Lord who ultimately judges who belongs or does not belong.”
Cardinal Tobin: “It is only the Lord who ultimately judges who belongs or does not belong” to the Catholic Church
The cardinal’s comments were part of a conference at the Pennsylvania university exploring the impact of Pope Francis on the church.
The notion of a smaller church based on faithfulness and obedience to church teaching has become more popular over the past couple of years.
In 2016, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput said in a speech delivered at the University of Notre Dame that the church should “do everything we can to bring tepid Catholics back to active life in the church.” But, he continued, “we should never be afraid of a smaller, lighter church if her members are also more faithful, more zealous, more missionary and more committed to holiness.”
And before he was elected pope, Benedict XVI suggested in an interview that as the role of Catholic culture diminishes in the wider culture, the church itself may grow smaller. But Cardinal Tobin said a closer examination of the former pope’s theological works goes against the notion that the former pope would welcome this development.
“No circling of wagons here,” the cardinal said of Benedict’s theology.
Cardinal Tobin said that engagement with the world is a Christian principle that dates back to the earliest followers of Jesus.
More recently, Rod Dreher, an editor at The American Conservative, wrote a popular book called The Benedict Option, in which he argues that civil society has become overly hostile to Christian belief, requiring believers to separate themselves from the dominant secular culture.
Cardinal Tobin seemingly condemned this approach to faith, characterizing it as an effort to form “small enclaves” of believers who will somehow “safeguard the treasure of the Christian tradition in its purest form from the corrosive intrusion of a corrupt society.” He said instead that engagement with the world is a Christian principle that dates back to the earliest followers of Jesus.
Cardinal Tobin said that the church is still learning how to live out the missionary call laid out by the Second Vatican Council, and he said both St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI offered examples of how to invite believers and nonbelievers alike to engage with Catholic teaching.
Reading his remarks from an electronic tablet, the cardinal said Catholics must not be afraid of engaging with the world.
“The church has no other option but to turn outward,” he said. “This turning outward extends to the human condition in its heights and depths.”
Some of that engagement may be difficult, he conceded.
During a question-and-answer session following the talk, the cardinal, who made headlines when he welcomed a group of gay and lesbian Catholics on pilgrimage to the Newark cathedral, addressed the firing of L.G.B.T. people from Catholic institutions. He said that the place of L.G.B.T. people in the church is not an easy topic for some church leaders, but they must grapple with it.
“The church has no other option but to turn outward. This turning outward extends to the human condition in its heights and depths.”
“I think it’s a very difficult question,” he said of the termination of such church employees, often after elements of their private lives are made public. He added that “the church is moving on the question of same-sex couples,” albeit not as quickly as some people would like. Dialogue, he said, is key.
“What I say to people in same-sex relationships and want to teach, I say, ‘How do you do it?’ Help me understand. How do you communicate the fullness of the Catholic position on the moral question and justify...the choices you’ve made with your life? Just help me understand that,” he said. “Sometimes people do.”
He said another form of engagement involves partnering with groups on shared priorities, even if there are differences in other areas. Pope Francis’ teaching on the environment and the partnerships between the church and secular partners it has generated, he said, serves as an example of the kind of engagement envisioned by Vatican II—even when partners hold disagreements about other issues.
“The church in recent decades has been somewhat marginalized by many for what they see as a preoccupation with sexual ethics. The church cannot reverse itself on its sexual ethics, but Pope Francis has shown that there are other issues on which the church and world can work together,” Cardinal Tobin said. “This, too, is a step in the trajectory that leads back to Vatican II.”
During his talk, the cardinal also appeared to give a signal of support to backers of Pope Francis who say his teaching on family life, “Amoris Laetitia,” represents another “paradigm shift” in the church’s pastoral ministry. The phrase became a shorthand method to signal support for the pope back in January, when Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, said Pope Francis had initiated a “paradigm shift” in the church. Critics took issue with the line, saying the true church does not change with the times.
Cardinal Tobin appeared to refute that claim, employing the phrase not only with respect to “Amoris Laetitia” but also calling the Second Vatican Council “one of the many paradigm shifts” in the history of Catholicism. (His comments echoed those of another American archbishop, Cardinal Blase Cupich, who in a February speech spoke favorably of a “paradigm shift” in the church.) “As with all paradigm shifts, especially after some ecumenical councils, it provoked controversy,” Cardinal Tobin said of “Amoris Laetitia.”
Wrapping up his talk, the cardinal said the church may indeed become “smaller.”
“But there will also be the adventurers,” he said, “as there have been since the beginning, who perhaps timidly at first but then boldly, driven by the Gospel and their conscience, will go to the margins—maybe close by, maybe far away—and engage themselves in the struggle for justice, for equality, for the recognition of the infinite dignity of every human being, and for peace.”
In that way, he concluded, “the church might indeed become purer.”