By Henri Boulad, S.J.
Editor's Note: This open letter to Pope Benedict XVI was originally written in 2007. It remains, however, highly topical and relevant, and was recently republished in The Washington Post.
I dare to speak directly to you for my heart bleeds upon seeing the abyss into which our Church is falling. Hopefully, you will forgive the filial frankness, inspired by the liberty of the children of God to which St. Paul invites us and for my impassioned love for the Church.
I will be pleased also that you forgive the alarmist tone of this letter for I know that little time remains and that the situation remains dire. Let me first tell you a little about myself. I am an Egyptian Lebanese Jesuit of the Melkiterite. I will soon turn 78. For the last 3 years, I have been the rector of the Jesuit school in Cairo. I have also carried out the following responsibilities: superior of the Jesuits in Alexandria, regional superior of the Jesuits in Egypt, professor of theology in El Cairo, director of Caritas-Egypt, and vice president of Caritas International for the Middle East and North Africa.
I am well acquainted with the Catholic hierarchy of Egypt having participated over many years in meetings as president of superiors of the religious orders of Egypt. I have very close relations with each one of them, some of whom are my former students. I also personally know Pope Chenouda III, whom I saw frequently. As far as the Catholic hierarchy of Europe goes, I had the opportunity to meet personally with some of its members such as Cardinal Koening, Cardinal Schonborn, Cardinal Daneels, Cardinal Martini, Archbishop Kothgasser, Bishops Kapellari and Kung, other Austrian bishops and bishops of other European countries. These encounters occurred during my annual trips to give conferences throughout Europe, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, France, Belgium, etc. During these visits, I spoke and engaged with diverse audiences and the media (newspapers, radio, television, etc.) I did the same in Egypt and the Near East.
I have visited 50 countries on 4 continents and have published some 30 books in 15 languages--mainly in French, Arabic, Hungarian, and German. Of the 13 books in German, perhaps you have read Sons and Daughters of God which was published by your friend, Fr. Erich Fink of Bavaria. I say this not to brag, but rather to tell you simply that my intentions are grounded in a realistic knowledge of the universal church and its current situation in 2009.
Returning to the reason for this letter, I will try to be as brief, clear, and objective as possible.
In the first place, there are several topics [the list is not exhaustive].
Number 1: Religious practice is in a constant decline. A continually shrinking number of seniors [who will soon disappear] are those who frequent the churches in Europe and Canada. The only remaining remedy will be to close these churches or change them into museums, mosques, clubs, or municipal libraries as is now being done. The thing that surprises me is that many of these churches are being completely renovated and modernized at great expense with the hope of attracting the faithful. But this will not stop the exodus.
Number 2: Seminaries and novitiates are emptying out at the same speed, and vocations are in sharp decline. The future is very somber and one has to ask who or what will bring relief. More and more African and Asian priests are in charge of European parishes.
Number 3: Many priests abandon the priesthood. The few who remain - whose median age often is beyond that of retirement - have to be in charge of many parishes in an expedient and administrative capacity. Many of these priests, in Europe, as well as in the Third World, live in concubinage in plain sight of the faithful who normally accept them; this occurs with the knowledge of the local bishop who is not able to accept this arrangement, but who needs to keep in mind the scarcity of priests.
Number 4: The language of the church is obsolete, out of date, boring, repetitive, moralizing and totally out of synch with our age. The message of the Gospel should be presented in all its starkness and challenges. It is necessary to move towards a "new evangelization" to which John Paul II invited us. But this, contrary to what many think or believe, does not mean repeating the old which no longer speaks to us, but rather innovating and inventing a new language which expresses the faith in a meaningful way for the people of today.
Number 5: This is not able to be done without a profound renewal of theology and catechesis which should be completely reformulated. A German religious priest whom I met recently was telling me that the word "mystic" was not even mentioned once in "The New Catechism." I could not believe it. We have to concede that our faith is very cerebral, abstract, dogmatic, and rarely directed to the heart and body.
Number 6: As a consequence, a great number of Christians are turning to the religions of Asia, the sects, "new-age," evangelical churches, occultism, etc. This is not unexpected. They go to other places to look for nourishment that they don't find in their own home. They have the impression that we give them stones as if it were bread. The Christian faith in another age gave a sense of life to people. It appears to be an enigma to them today, the remains of a forgotten past.
Number 7: In the moral and ethical areas, the teachings of the magisterium repeated " ad nausaeum," about marriage, contraception, abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, married priests, the divorced who remarry again, etc. etc., no longer affect anyone, and only produce weariness and indifference. All of these moral and pastoral problems deserve something more than categorical declarations. They need a pastoral, sociological, psychological and human treatment that is more evangelical.
Number 8: The Catholic Church, which has been the great teacher of Europe for many centuries, seems to forget that this same Europe has arrived at its maturity. Our adult Europe does not wish to be treated as a child. The paternalistic style of a church "mater et magistra" is completely out of touch and no longer works today. Christians have learned to think for themselves and are no longer inclined to swallow just anything that someone else proposes.
Number 9: The most Catholic nations of the past, for example, France, "the first-born daughter of the church," or ultra-Catholic French Canada, have made a hundred and eighty degree turn and have fallen into atheism, anti-clericalism, agnosticism, and indifference. Other European nations are proceeding down the same path. We are able to state that the more a nation was dominated and protected by the church in the past, the stronger is their reaction against it today.
Number 10: The dialogue with other churches and religions is in a worrisome decline today. The great progress made over the last half century is on hold at this time.
Facing this almost devastating situation, the church's leadership reacts in two ways:
1. They tend to minimize the seriousness of the situation and to console themselves by focusing on a resurgence of the most traditionalist factions and on growth in the Third World countries.
2. They appeal to their confidence in the Lord who has sustained the church for over 20 centuries and who is able to help them overcome this new crisis.
To this I respond: Neither relying on the past nor holding on to its crumbs will solve the problems of today and tomorrow. The apparent vitality of the churches in the Third World today is misleading. It appears very probable that these new churches eventually will pass through the same crises that the old European Christianity encountered.
Modernity is irreversible and having forgotten this is why the church today finds itself in such a crisis. Vatican II tried to reverse four centuries of stagnation, but there is an impression that the church is gradually closing the doors that it opened at that time. The church has tried to direct itself backwards towards the council of Trent and Vatican I rather than forward toward Vatican III. Let's remember a statement that John Paul II repeated many times, "There is no alternative to Vatican II."
How long will we continue playing the politics of the ostrich hiding our heads in the sand? How long will we avoid looking things in the face? How long will we continue turning our back and rejecting every criticism rather than seeing it as a chance for renewal? How long will we continue to postpone a reform that has been neglected for too long a time?
Only by looking forward and not backward will the church fulfill its mission to be the light of the world, salt of the earth, and leaven in the dough. Nevertheless, unfortunately what we find today is that the church is the caboose of our age after having been the locomotive for centuries.
I repeat again what I said at the beginning of this letter. Time is running out! History doesn't wait especially in our era when it its rhythm flows ever more rapidly.
Any business when confronting a deficit or dysfunction examines itself immediately, bringing together a group of experts, trying to revitalize itself, and mobilizing all its energies to overcoming the crisis. Why doesn't the church do something different? Why doesn't it mobilize all its living forces to have a radical aggiornamento? Why?
Because of laziness? Lethargy? Pride? Lack of imagination? Lack of creativity? Culpable passivity in the hope that the Lord will take care of things and because the church has weathered other crises in the past.
In the Gospels, Christ warns us that "the children of darkness manage their affairs better than the children of light."
So then, what needs to be done? The Church of today has an urgent and compelling need for a three-pronged reform.
1. A theological and catechetical reform to rethink our faith and reformulate it in a coherent way for our contemporaries. A faith that has no significance and gives no meaning to life is nothing more than an ornament, a useless superstructure that eventually implodes upon itself. This is the current situation.
2. A pastoral reformulation that re-thinks from head to toe the structures inherited from the past.
3. A spiritual renewal to revitalize the mystical and to rethink the sacraments with the view of giving them an existential dimension, one that connects with life.
I would have much more to say about this. Today's church is too formal, too formalistic. One has the impression that the institution suffocates its charisma, and in the end what one finds is purely external stability, a superficial honesty, a kind of facade. Don't we run the risk that Jesus will describe us as the "whitened sepulchres"?
In conclusion, I suggest convoking a general synod at the level of the universal church in which all Christians would participate-Catholics and others-to examine with openness and clarity the issues raised above and their ramifications.
Such a synod would last three years and would conclude with a general assembly-let's avoid the word council-which would synthesize the results of this exploration and draw its conclusions.
I end, Holy Father, by asking your pardon for my outspoken boldness and I ask for your paternal blessing. Let me also tell you that in these days I live in your company thanks to your extraordinary book, Jesus of Nazareth, which is the focus of my spiritual reading and daily meditation.
With the utmost affection in the Lord,
Henri Boulad, S.J.