In the 1980s, there was a flurry of debate and protests about a tactical nuclear weapon popularly known as the neutron bomb. The unique characteristic of the bomb as it was popularly understood was that it would kill people but leave structures relatively intact.
The Catholic Church is facing three neutron bomb crises today, crises that if unchecked could — indeed are already — diminish the people in the churches while leaving the buildings intact.
The first neutron bomb issue is the looming priest shortage. While there are reports of an increase in vocations, the overall statistical landscape remains bleak for the next two decades. Priests ordained in the 1960s and early 1970s are now retiring, and the pace of retirement will quicken in the next five years. Young priests are being rushed into pastorates earlier than ever before, which carries its own stresses and costs.
Foreign priests are helping, making up 25-50 percent of the presbyterate in some dioceses. Deacons are helping as well. But the lack of priests is forcing parish closures and affecting the availability of the sacraments. This is a shortage for which Catholics are not well prepared.
The second is the faith formation crisis: a collection of challenges ranging from parish religious education to teen youth outreach to adult faith formation. Despite the efforts of parishes, dioceses and publishers to meet these needs, the lack of trained catechists and the battered condition of the family have made it difficult to pass on the Faith in a way that converts both heart and mind. Confusion about what the Church teaches and a shallow understanding of discipleship are both symptoms of this crisis.
The third neutron bomb issue is the plight of the divorce and remarried. Only 15 percent, at best, of Catholics who have been divorced even attempt to get a decree of nullity. The collapse of marriages, which impacts the Catholic population at the same rate as the general population, can lead to the loss of two generations of Catholics: the spouses themselves and their children. The toll has been enormous. While the power of the annulment process to heal can be testified to by many Catholics, the problem is that so many never even attempt it.
Pope Francis appears to be seeking ways of addressing the crisis of the divorced and remarried. It is likely to be a significant topic of conversation at the upcoming synod on the family, and it was a primary theme of a speech given by Cardinal Walter Kasper to the cardinals assembled in Rome for the consistory in February.
There are no easy solutions here, as the cardinal made clear in his speech: “The indissolubility of sacramental marriage and the impossibility of a new marriage during the lifetime of the other partner is part of the tradition of the Church’s binding faith that cannot be abandoned or undone by appealing to a superficial understanding of cheapened mercy.”
At the same time, there may be alternatives to the current juridical processes that will allow the divorced and remarried in certain circumstances to return to the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist.
No doubt any solutions proposed will be fiercely debated. The mandate given by Christ himself — what God has joined together — and the merciful solicitude of God for those most in need of his healing are the parameters within which the synod fathers must deliberate.
In vocations, faith formation and the pastoral crisis that is divorce today, Catholics are challenged to find solutions that will not only leave the structures standing, but fill them with disciples. There are no easy fixes, but as a recent Gospel reading reminded us, faith, not fear, and trust, not worry, must characterize our search for solutions.
Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.