A suggestion for Church reform

A polemical initiative for reform of the Catholic Church in Germany is under way, as reported by the Deutsche Welle. The context is all the recent scandals about child abuse and sexual misconduct by priests, as well as a continuing, significant decline in Church attendance. The latter has been going on for decades, but is now reaching a point where the very survival of the Church is at stake. Many parishes have already closed. In my country, even the Cathedral of Utrecht, home of the archbishop, has had to close last year. It is fair to say that the situation is coming to a head and the future of religion in the Western world looks bleak.

In my book, More Than Allegory, I have stated my views on religion: I think it is a valid and important part of human life that we neglect at our own peril. Religious mythology, although obviously not literally true, is symbolic of something that, while transcending our rational faculties, is integral and critical to being human. The primordial religious impulse reflects, in my view, a true, transcendent aspect of reality; it must be nurtured if we are to be complete human beings. As such, I believe the Catholic Church, whose history has been inextricably intertwined with that of the West since Constantine, has a critical role to play. The European collective mind, obfuscated by the rational and secular spirit of the Enlightenment as it may have been, continues nonetheless to rest on Christian mythological foundations. The continuing erosion of these foundations will exert—well, is already exerting—a heavy toll on our psychic balance and health, as the modern epidemics of depression, anxiety, ennui and despair attest to.

I am thus very interested in the survival and revitalization of the Church. Without extensive institutional support (more specifics on this below), it is difficult to see how the flame of a religious life can be kept alive in the West. However—and to merely state the obvious—the Church can only be saved with uninhibited, extensive, far-reaching, courageous reform, for it is completely out of synch with the spirit of this time. Should it continue on its present course, it doesn't take a genius to see that the Church will be relegated to irrelevance and become, at best, a kind of museum or tourist attraction (anyone visiting e.g. Cologne Cathedral for Sunday mass will see that this, in fact, is already happening). In this post, I dare to offer a suggestion for what this reform should entail; must entail.

In times past, the Church has performed the function of social control through its moral dogmas. Priests used their Sunday sermons to keep people straight, so to speak. Religious moralizing may have had a role to play in those times, absent the proper rule of law. Today, however, things are very different. Ever fewer people will take that kind of moralizing seriously, and many will think it pathetic. To be judged and absolved for their alleged sins is not what people today are looking for. They have a whole new attitude to life in which the very idea that they are sinners doesn't resonate. I don't feel like a sinner; do you? I do feel confused, but not guilty. I miss a more personal relationship with transcendence, but not judgment. I would like to experience a deeper meaning in my life, but not to be given an outdated list of behavioral norms. Moreover, we have perfectly good, secular rationales for our laws, as well as law enforcement. We don't need the Church to keep society working at an operational level.

What we do need the Church for is meaning, contact with something transcendent. Our daily, secular lives lack in depth and true purpose. Ordinary goings-on are banal and ultimately pointless. Consumerism offers an ostensive escape route, but it doesn't work for long, for mere things do not have the numinous power of religious symbols. We've replaced the altar with cigarettes, alcohol, porn and new pairs of shoes, but it didn't work quite well for us, did it? A doorway to transcendence and meaning is what the Church could help us with, if only it would drop the moralizing and focus on liturgy, i.e. the ritualistic part of a religious life.

So here is my suggestion for the Church authorities: drop the focus on moral codes, judgment and guilt trips. Nobody is looking for that today and nobody will go to the Church on Sunday to get that. Jesus Himself did not focus on judgment, so why should those who labor on His name do so? Replacing judgment and moralizing with the attitude of tolerance and understanding characteristic of modern psychotherapists is, in my view, entirely consistent with Christianity.

Focus on liturgy, on the ritual of the mass. Be conservative in that regard, go back to using Latin and the elaborate rituals of times bygone. The mass doesn't need to be understood, for it is not meant for the intellect. Goodness knows we have enough stuff keeping our intellect engaged already. The mass should be precisely a way for us to defocus from the intellect and open space for other psychic faculties, such as transcendent intuition and feeling. If the mass achieved such goal, I, for one, would attend it every Sunday and contribute more to the Church. For then the Church would nurture an aspect of my humanity that nothing else in this secular society can.

Priests already receive extensive training on philosophy and counseling. They are already well equipped to play the role of helping, understanding, non-judging guides to a life of meaning, without all the moralizing that puts people off. They could play a role that no secular psychotherapist today could, for priests can navigate the waters of metaphysics. They are also invested with the formidable energy of tradition; an energy that constantly circulates—unnoticed—through the deepest layers of our psyches and, if mobilized properly, could have a huge positive impact in our lives.

So here you go: priests as counselors. But priests also as actors in a symbolic drama staged as a ritual—the mass—whose purpose is to reawaken within us our dormant but innate link to transcendence; a symbolic ritual that evokes transcendence in us, so the attendants of the mass can have a direct religious experience facilitated by the Church. This, in my view, is the vital role of the Church: to point to transcendence, as facilitators, so we can find our way there. The notion of the Church and its priests as intermediaries, or spokespeople for God, is not one that will thrive in the 21st century. We don't need to regard priests as superhuman beings with privileged access to God; they have never been that anyway, and today we all know it. Trying to maintain that implausible image is a dangerous waste of time for the Church. Yet, priests have vital roles to play in our society; and they can play those roles at the drop of a hat—for many are already equipped to do so—if only the Church would reform its orientation and purpose accordingly.

Will my suggestion be heard? Of course not. It won't even be noticed. More than likely, the Church will die a slow, agonizing, sad death into irrelevance, because those in it who pronounce themselves adherents of tradition fail to see that the core of the tradition has itself been buried under layers of social moralizing. Christianity became the foundation of the West's spiritual life not on account of its dogmatic prescriptions, but because, originally, it touched something alive deep within us. Now it will only survive and thrive if it, once more, re-learns to touch us again.

This post is not an attempt to patronize anyone. I am no authority in these matters anyway. But I am very sincerely interested in seeing the vitality of the Church restored, while I despair at being confronted with its decline everywhere around me. So this is my somewhat clumsy attempt to do something about it, for what it's worth. Whatever faults this post may contain, it is at least sincere and heartfelt.


  1. The church should only be seen as a method and not a means. The means comes from the person seeking the transcendent experience. The church should exist only as a convenient way for a person to achieve this. The priesthood should exist only to serve this direct experience, to keep the meaning of the ritual alive - and not to mediate it and attempt to speak for God.

  2. New spiritual traditions have already been forming with intermittent spurts of growth in the late 19th century, the 1920's, the 60's, the 90's, and most recently around 2011 or so.

    What are often referred to as New Age ideas, practices, etc., seem to have arisen from nowhere, looking at it historically, drawing inspiration from every available tradition. Seen that way, it's really quite fascinating, and though it has some problems regarding cultural appropriation and some woolly-headedness, at its core is a reaching for transcendence through symbols.

    It didn't emerge from any one tradition, but it doesn't abandon tradition, either. The image of a New Ager meditating with a bit of celestite, sage burning before an image of the Green Man, seeking advice from angels bursts with all the arational ritual and transcendent symbolism you seem to be seeking, even if not with the deep traditions of the Catholic church.

    Hoping for a revival of Christianity seems futile. I suggest rather nurturing the traditions seeking transcendence already growing globally, which do speak to people with modern sensibilities. What it needs is not an impossible reform but a bit of structure and guidance away from pseudoscience and intellectual shallowness. A shimmering orb of orthoclastic feldspar does resonate with people somehow as a transcendant symbol. Welcoming that impulse without accepting silly claims about the electromagnetic properties of crystals seems a more useful effort than seeking an admittedly impossible reform of the dying Catholic Church.

    1. I agree with much of what you said, but the rest of your post is veiled in your own ignorance.

      What you call pseudoscience is perhaps something you should inquire into more and seek to understand not only intellectually, but through your own experience as well.

      To say something about the one example you do cite - crystals without any doubt in my mind, through my now decade long intense experience in meditative practices have electromagnetic properties (if not electromagnetic then some other properties that exert influence outside on a subtle level) - every single type of crystal having different such properties. I have experienced this by myself in depth and know many others that have as well. I can easily feel what aspect of the body/mind (or rather its subtle elements) which crystals influence (including which element of the subtle body - also referred to as energy vortexes or chakras in the East - yes these exist as well, in this I literally have zero percent doubt through my experience and practice).

      I know many others that feel the same. I would be prepared to do (and engage in) double-blind studies to show without a doubt that this is indeed true. But indeed I do not really have the time, money or indeed the will to engage in this science. Hopefully someone will (or maybe they have already? It is quite possible that the existence of research and their influence on biological and other organisms exists already).

      Until then, everyone will have to prove these subtle aspects of reality to themselves...if they so choose to of course.

      P.S.: I have just searched around a found an intriguing article on the science of the healing properties of crystals. There might be more of such science, there might not be, but I'm sure if one looks more can be found, I just did a quick search to be honest. Definitely more research needs to be done, without a doubt. As said, until then, one will need to rely on their own intuition and create their own science experiments (to really verify whether the crystals influence a person or whether it is self-suggestion - in my experience it is without a doubt not simply self-suggestion). Anyway, the article:


    2. Personal attacks are not welcome. I'm placing a bet that what you found does not cite any scientific literature at all. I do not devalue the spiritual value of the use of crystals by separating that from an attempt to justify that value within a materialist framework.

  3. Bernardo, your posting, like all your work drives right to the depth of what is fundamentally important and true. When one walks into some of the cathedrals and churches throughout Europe, and spends some time quietly and sitting in silence, one can sense something deeply transcendent and timeless. The places are like pointers to something deeper that underlies the core of consciousness. This lies outside the social "religion" and structure of the organization. A restoration of vitality is so needed. I have read almost all your books and working on the last two. Your words may be expressed by your head but they emerge from a heart that seeks truth. For that, I am deeply grateful and appreciative.

  4. I do not agree with everything here, but you definitely make the best case for Latin and ritual. It is not clear at all to me that the faithful suddenly understood the prayers or their beliefs better once the mass went to the vernacular (which by the way was not mandated by Vatican II, but left to the discretion of the local ordinaries, i.e. the bishops). If anything, the vernacular encourages the very thing you seem to wish to transcend: the limits of the localized consciousness of the ego.

  5. Hmmm... I agree, but the case is more involved. Yes, there is a place for something like a church, and with advancing secularization, we've seen the clear trend towards people self-reporting as "spiritual, not religious." and I think that is really a key to the trend.
    In my early 20's I studied Hebrew Bible with rector Tom Naastenpad in Rotterdam, who was a bit of a rebel in the RC church - his girlfriend had a front-row seat in his services. Eventually, he left the church though, as did free thinkers like Malachi Martin, Ivan Ilich, and many others, though I always loved the comment of Arthur Edward Waite, who said that while he was not a member of any church, if he had to choose one it would be catholic, not because he agreed with them, but because there could only be one church.
    It seems to me that his however goes much deeper. First of all, in order to return to the spiritual roots of the whole thing, which must come to grips with the fact that Christianity in its entirety is a reaction formation against the threat to the thought system of the world that Jesus represented, with his "My Kingdom is NOT of this world." Christian theology in its essence is Pauline theology and is diametrically opposed to what Jesus taught. Can the church revert to the true roots of it all? Or even allow the contemplation thereof? The way they have dealt with the Gospel of Thomas and the whole apocryphal literature tells the story. Malachi Martin explored this when he focused on the scriptural character of this body of literature - in vain. He complained that Vatican II did not go far enough.
    In a way, it all goes back to St. Paul's decision when, contrary to what some understood at the time - that the resurrection was a spiritual event - he decided single handedly that resurrection must be of the body. That is the original choice of materialism over idealism in the Christian tradition and that was the start of making Jesus suitable company for caesar. Interesting explorations of the whole development can be found in G.J. Heering's "The fall of Christianity." (De zondeval van het Christendom), and James Carroll's "Constantine's Sword."
    Martin Luther's mission, for all its flaws, was an attempt to go back to the source. If the church could ever liberate itself from all its hypocrisy is doubtful. The truth is that the Jesus from before the editorializing of St. Paul, was a teacher of non-dualism, as is still in evidence in the Thomas Gospel (I wrote a book about that with the title of "Closing the Circle: Pursah's Gospel of Thomas and a Course in Miracles." It was Paul's role to definitely give a dualistic interpretation to Jesus's non-dualism, as always happens in all formal religion.
    Clearly, there is a true spiritual hunger in humanity, but i doubt that the Church could open itself to contemplating that and allowing it to come out in all its forms.
    From a standpoint of non-dualism it is clear that truth is one, even if the forms are different for different people. It is not altered by what people think of it. So from that standpoint, whenever we have a position to defend, we are not speaking the truth, as Jesus witnessed to by not defending himself before the Sanhedrin. The church is very much an institution of this world, and has too many vested interests to defend to ever even tolerate such a position. Jesus has long since left the building, and no, he is never coming back. I might disagree with a lot of what Malachi Martin writes, but in concept he had that right. See his book "Jesus now," or, as A Course in Miracles expresses it "bitter idols have been made of me." The church has been too wrapped up in the idols, to allow an honest contemplation of the truth behind it all, even if it recognized as saints some of the souls who did, such as Theresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross.

  6. A couple of years back I sent an ex-Archbishop of Canterbury a letter along these lines. All over England our beautiful old churches are being turned into flats and furniture repositories. The Church of England is dead and waiting to be buried. It is a tragedy. I share your view and have the same low expectation of any kind of revival. The Church will take its dogma to the grave and is too blind to see it could have saved itself. I blame Constantine and his inadequate anthology.

  7. While you have right to your own vision of transcendence and the absolute, I think that you should look more into the Church. Passages like these "In times past, the Church has performed the function of social control through its moral dogmas. Priests used their Sunday sermons to keep people straight, so to speak. Religious moralizing may have had a role to play in those times, absent the proper rule of law. Today, however, things are very different" are worrying because they are precisely the kind of atheo-materialist myth that you declare you're against. The idea that institutional religion is an illusion maintained for social control is the exact type of fabrication you should be skeptical of. The problem with a sort of ad hoc, individual spirituality is that it devolves into a kind of anchorless hedonism or futile pursuit. Sermons are not to scare people into damnation, but to explain how to be a good person and live in accordance with the Good. Wanting to "drop the focus on moral codes, judgment and guilt trips" while keeping the spiritual parts is trying to have your cake and eat it too. Most philosophers are moral realists; we have to acknowledge the reality of moral truths and a good life. Trying to make Christianity just a kind of spiritual symbolic romp will lead it to become the kind of vapid and vacuous New Age that so many people are repulsed by. Attending to the individual's moral dimension along with mystical experience is the best way to develop and lead a good life; otherwise, one becomes superficial and selfish. The Aristotelian-Thomistic worldview that Catholicism espouses is actually much deeper and beneficial than you seem to suggest in the article.

    1. Perhaps you'd like to read the piece attached to this comment thread now that you've commented on it. You might have some interesting thoughts about it.

  8. Hi Bernardo.

    As I read you, it seems almost everything you are calling the Catholic Church to do (drop the focus on moral codes, judgment, and guilt trips) would be accomplished if they would only put first the message of the gospel and New Testament epistles. Sadly, powers that be within the Church all too often favor communicating the condemnation and judgment of the letter (the Old Testament) over the righteousness and grace of the spirit (the New Testament).

    The Old Testament is a ministry of death, and the New Testament is a ministry of life. The former gave us the law and with the law knowledge of sin, and the latter gave us faith and with faith liberation from sin. Today, the former has no glory because the latter glory of Christ has surpassed it. Because of these things and more, the Church should turn to and focus on Christ.

    I'm not sure how well versed you (or others reading) are in the Bible, so I've included a justification for the claims I've made about the Old and New Testament in the scripture below.

    1 Corinthians 15:22
    22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.

    Romans 5:19
    19 For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.

    Romans 3:19-20
    19 Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; 20 because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.

    Romans 7:6
    But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.

    2 Corinthians 3:4-10
    4 Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, 6 who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

    7 But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was, 8 how will the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory? 9 For if the ministry of condemnation has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory. 10 For indeed what had glory, in this case has no glory because of the glory that surpasses it.

    2 Galations 3:19-28
    19 Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made. 20 Now a mediator is not for one party only; whereas God is only one. 21 Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. 22 But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

    23 But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. 24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. 26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

    Matthew 5:17
    17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.

    John 5:24
    24 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.

    NASB 1995