Are the pope and the Church irrelevant?
Mainstream news analysts, talk show hosts, bloggers, and the like, have been offering a plethora of answers to this question over the past month or so. I’d say that the majority lean toward, “Yes.” While many Catholics have been quick to argue against such assertions (very understandably), I wonder if we’re actually considering what this question’s really all about.
Perhaps we should re-visit our Church’s lengua and the etymology of “relevant.”
From the Latin relevare “to raise, alleviate,” from re-, intensive prefix, + levare “to lift up, lighten,” from levis “not heavy” (source)
Then, literally speaking, “The Church is irrelevant” means that it ‘weighs lightly on’ people’s minds and lives, or that it has little bearing on public life.
Considering the entire history of the relationship between Church / organized religion and the state, and the visibility of the Church in public life, I think we could all agree that – relatively speaking – today the Church is indeed irrelevant, most certainly in the West. One could point to a few exceptions, but overall, our hyper-connected society rarely refers to the Church. Why?
Among Marshall McLuhan’s major contributions to communications studies is his observation of the relationship between media and our human senses. In the connected and electric age, McLuhan predicted an atmosphere of ‘global theater.’ He said:
Further improvements in travel and communication brought the pontiff into more immediate personal relation to his subjects…. What, therefore, is called the de-Romanization of the Roman Church is quite simply its electrification. When things speed up hierarchy disappears and global theater sets in. […]
I think today that we have to say that it’s the pope’s spoken word that counts, the word that he utters, not the encyclical. In the electric age, live speech comes back to its own: it no longer needs to be hardened into documents. (Source)
How many non-Catholics do you know who regularly read papal encyclicals, bulls, etc.? How many of them form their impression of the pope from soundbites and Facebook memes?
We’re living in a global theater, and the Church is fighting a hard battle: We’ve had a hierarchy since the time of Christ. We’ve had a Curia and a bureaucracy for hundreds of years. Those are a few, major reasons why the Church appears so backward to a world that prefers immediate, one-to-one connection, and where emotions run high. I’m not suggesting anyone scrap current Church structure. I am, however, pointing to the necessary reality: Church officials must consider the “global theater” and take appropriate action.
Among the Cardinals who have successfully done so, in my humble opinion, is Cardinal Timothy Dolan. I know…I’ve heard so much about Cardinal Dolan’s ‘possible pope street cred’ that I’m beginning to wonder whether it will amount to anything. Surprisingly, however, Fr. Robert Barron isn’t counting out His Eminence for the papacy quite yet. “My own view,” says Fr. Barron, “is that what the Church needs now is someone like Cardinal Dolan, to give us a new face—that kind of exuberant, life-affirming, joyful orthodoxy.”
In this trailer of Fr. Barron’s forthcoming major project, Catholicism: The New Evangelization, he calls Cardinal Dolan “the greatest evangelist in the Church today.” Why? Watch:
Whomever the good cardinals choose, I pray that our new pope will be a man who can make a positive, lasting impression in the global theater.
What do you think?