In the second season of The Crown, there’s a scene where Queen Elizabeth is in a factory giving a speech that is being broadcast over the radio. The speech is poorly written and her delivery is terrible. A group of patients in a dentist’s waiting room are listening, but as the Queen natters on ineffectually they begin to shake their heads and chuckle at her platitudes and clichés. Finally someone changes the channel to some pop music. She is a vestigial organ. Irrelevant.
That’s where the Catholic Church often finds itself today. Take Austria for instance, a very Catholic country where in 2001 73.6% identified as Catholics. By 2016 that had dropped to 58.8 % as reported by the Church itself. Now a new poll shows that church going has dwindled to just 4.5 times a year on average. That would probably include the two big holidays of Christmas and Easter, so just two and a half times more a year! On the other hand people reported they got drunk 7.5 times during the year (10 times for men, 5 times for women), and had sex with 2.4 different partners (5 for the 14-19 group) so in the age-old struggle between the Creator and the Prince of Darkness it looks like Satan is doing pretty well for himself in the Alpine Republic.
There are other signs that all is not well with the Church in Austria. Three years ago a priest near the city of Linz wrote a book, complaining that the Catholic Church in Austria had become a complete mess. The word he actually used was Saustall, which literally means a “pig sty”. He noted that the sacrament of confession was dead in some parts of Austria and blames some of the problems on the out-of-touch bureaucracy of the Church. This is supported by a questionnaire from the Vatican in 2014 showing that a majority of Catholics in Austria were greatly disturbed at how distant the teachings of the Church were from the realities of their lives. Many said they wanted an end to celibate men (i.e., priests, bishops, and cardinals) making all the decisions about private family matters. As an example, the Church’s position on birth-control is completely ignored: Austrians, like many other Catholics around the world, are taking the pill and using other forms of prophylaxis, contrary to the Church’s prohibitions. Does this mean they think the Vatican’s teaching is just plain wrong or is it simply that the pleasures of sexual union are worth the risk of damnation? We don’t know, but whatever the reason, the authority of the Church has apparently been reduced to some annoying background noise.
What this means is that Austrians, like most Europeans, have rejected the idea that the Vatican alone knows what God wants. They are turning their backs on the authority of the Church and are following their instincts. Instinct is powerful, but it can be misleading. If the Church is no longer holding the moral compass, what’s someone to do? Here is where the seven universal sacraments come in. We can find the road to the Divine through profound human experiences that are happening around us all the time.