New Evangelization: listen to the laity
Nobody could accuse the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI of lacking in ideas and initiatives. There is the Year of Faith, just beginning, which commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Second Vatican Council and also the twentieth anniversary of the publication of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church. And there is the New Evangelisation, which has not only acquired its own pontifical council, but is the subject of a full meeting of the International Synod of Bishops in Rome, now taking place. These may all combine to make a whole, indeed they may eventually change the course of history. But it is fair to say that that critical point has not yet been reached.
The phrase "New Evangelisation" was coined to refer to the situation in mainly European countries that have long been Christian at least nominally, but where the practice of the faith is in decline and the future may belong to various types of secularism, either neutral with regard to faith or hostile to it. The preliminary synod documents, and some of the contributions to it, treat those who have stopped weekly attendance at Mass as the first - and perhaps easiest - target of the initiative.
There are millions of Catholics in Europe who received a Catholic education and went regularly to Mass, but no longer do so. They are traditionally called "lapsed Catholics", though the term is an awkward one. Many such Catholics do lead lives of exemplary and sometimes self-sacrificing devotion to those in need; many others live conscientious and upright lives in their chosen trades and professions. To dismiss them simply as "lapsed" is hardly fair. Indeed, many of them would give highly moral reasons why they reject an explicit place for the Catholic Church in their lives. They may dislike its treatment of contraception, women, homosexuals and the divorced, its sorry record over child protection, or its authoritarian style of government.
As Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham told the synod this week, the first step has to be an act of "profound listening". There can be no effective proclamation of faith, he said, "without an attempt to understand how the message is likely to be heard, how it sounds to others". To millions of women, homosexuals and the divorced, how does the message sound? It is likely to be heard as "go away, we do not want you". Does that Church show the face of Christ, or of authoritarian disapproval?
Equally, to define a secular society simply as one where organised religion does not pull much weight is misleading. Alongside the decline of church power and influence since the Second World War, there has been a range of positive developments in Europe that Christians ought to celebrate - the spread of democracy and human rights, extraordinary economic growth (despite recent setbacks), even the absence of war, make the past 60 years a period of unparalleled human progress. And lay Catholics, "lapsed" or otherwise, have been involved in all of that.
If the re-evangelisation of Europe is to mean anything, it is the laity the bishops need to listen to rather than each other, and not just carefully selected conformists from conservative lay movements. They may not be part of the solution. Indeed, they may even be part of the problem.