Closed churches are foretaste of the future, warns Tomas Halik
2014 Templeton Prize winner predicts catastrophe if Catholicism is not reformed
Monsignor Tomas Halik, the renowned Czech intellectual and former Communist dissident, has warned that the temporary closure of churches due to the coronavirus should actually be seen as a wake-up call for the very future of Catholicism.
In a five-page guest article for the Christ & Welt supplement of Die Zeit, a major German national weekly, he said more and more churches would be closed for good in the not-too-distant future – not because of outside forces like the current pandemic, but because of an unwillingness to reform.
“Have we not been warned enough by the developments in many countries where churches, monasteries and seminaries continue to empty and close?” said the 71-year-old theologian and philosopher.
Don’t blame outside forces for empty churches
“Why do we keep on blaming external factors like the ‘tsunami of secularism’ instead of acknowledging that yet another chapter of the history of Christianity is coming to an end and that it is thus necessary to prepare for the next chapter?” he said.
Halik, who was clandestinely ordained to the priesthood in 1984 during the former Czechoslovakia’s harsh Communist dictatorship, said the Church should be what Pope Francis wants it to be: namely, a “field hospital”.
“What the pope means by that is that it should not withdraw from the world in comfortable ‘splendid isolation’, but venture out beyond its own limits and help those who are being physically, psychologically, socially and spiritually hurt,” he said.
Among other things, this could begin to atone for the fact that, until recently, it allowed its representatives to violate people – even the most defenseless among them, Halik added.
Diagnosis, immunization and rehab
Besides offering medical, social and charitable assistance – as it has done since its foundation – the Church must now go further. Like every good hospital, he said, it must offer a diagnosis.
The Czech priest, who was the 2014 recipient of the Templeton Prize for science and religion, said discerning the signs of the times also includes offering a type of “preventative medicine” aimed at immunizing society against the deadly viruses of fear, hatred, populism and nationalism. And, finally, it also entails “rehab”; that is, healing the traumata of the past through forgiveness.
Return to the heart of the Gospel
Halik suggested that the churches standing empty right now because of the coronavirus lockdown might symbolically show us what the future would be like if the Church did not seriously try to present the world with a totally different form of Christianity.
“We have been far too convinced that the world – that is “the others” – must convert. And we have not thought about the need for our own conversion,” he said.
“But not only that. We didn’t only fail to think of how we could improve ourselves, but above all of how to become ‘dynamic’ Christians rather than ‘static ones’,” he continued.
Halik proposed that we use the present time, when the churches are closed because of the pandemic, to think far more deeply about Church reform.
He said that cannot be a return to a world that no longer exists or a mere modification of external structures. Rather, it must be a more profound reform that turns decisively to the core of the Gospel message, “the necessity of which Pope Francis is always speaking about”.
Seekers of the new wine
Halik, who is currently professor of sociology at the Charles University in Prague, said sociological studies show the number of those who feel at home in a traditional religion is in decline. So, too, is the number of convinced atheists.
Conversely, the number of “seekers” and those who are apathetic to religious issues is growing.
He said seekers could be found among believers and non-believers alike, who “feel a longing for a source that will quell their thirst for the sense/meaning of life”.
The seeker’s time has now arrived, Halik insisted. But that means Christians must stop proselytizing. “We must not try to ‘convert’ the seekers as quickly as possible and confine them to the already existing institutions and mental limitations of our Churches,” he pointed out.
He noted that when Jesus did not seek out the lost sheep to try to bring it back into the then existing structures of the Jewish religion, because Jesus knew that new bottles were needed for new wine.
Halik said Christian communities, parishes, movements and religious orders should try to achieve the same goal that led to the founding of the European universities – “that is a School of Wisdom where free disputation and profound contemplation is sought”.
“A healing power for our sick world could flow from such islands of spirituality and dialogue,” he said.