Can the laity save the church?

Greg Erlandson’s column “Amid the Fray” appears monthly at OSV News.

By Greg Erlandson | OSV

There’s a good chance that Russell Shaw is one of the most prolific contemporary authors and commentators on the Catholic Church that you may never have heard of.

Defiantly unretired, in just the past seven years Russ has written “Catholics in America” (Ignatius), “Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity” (Ignatius), “The Life of Jesus Christ,” (OSV) and now “Revitalizing Catholic America: Nine Tasks for Every Catholic” (OSV).

In the course of his more than six decades in service to the church and numerous Catholic institutions, he has authored 25 books and countless articles for a wide variety of Catholic and secular publications.

In addition, he has worked for several Catholic institutions, from the U.S. bishops’ conference and the National Catholic Educational Association to the Knights of Columbus. He was a longtime consultor to what was then called the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

If you haven’t heard of him, it may well be because Russ does not bask in the limelight. At a time when everyone seems to be pimping his or her “brand” and getting as many “clicks and eyeballs” as possible by tossing what Russ called “red meat” to the readers, he is none of that.

He isn’t a flamethrower. He doesn’t pander. He is what is becoming increasingly rare: a quiet, thoughtful observer of Catholic life today, understood through the prism of Catholic history.

A composite photo of “Revitalizing Catholicism is America” and its author Russell Shaw (inset). Writer Greg Erlandson observes that Shaw’s book argues that involvement of the laity is essential to the health of the church. (OSV News photo/OSV Books/Chaz Muth, CNS)

His institutional experience may explain his tempered tone, but it may also explain the fact that he was a critic of clericalism long before Pope Francis. His book, “To Hunt, to Shoot, to Entertain” (the only tasks one bishop said were appropriate for the laity) may not have warmed the cockles of episcopal hearts when it was released in 1993, but he was way ahead of many in deploring how the laity have been sidelined, sometimes by their own clericalist attitudes. He has also been a quiet activist going back to his days with the bishops’ conference in arguing against secrecy and for transparency, particularly during the bishops’ national meetings.

In his newest book released this year, “Revitalizing Catholic America,” Russ, with coauthor David Byers, is his Eeyore best. He looks at trends in the U.S. church with a baleful eye, describing it as being challenged by a “devil’s stew of hostile mindsets and aberrant behaviors, all coming together under an umbrella called secularization and producing deeply disturbing results.”

The book, citing a wide range of literary and theological sources, walks us briskly through the growth of secularism and the decline of the Christian churches in the West. Like many recent analyses of the state of the U.S. church, he cites a series of dismal trends in sacramental practice, Catholic school attendance and vocations.

He quotes then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s prediction of a future church that “will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.”

For Russ, whatever path leads to the church of tomorrow, it depends on the laity getting involved in its revitalization. His “nine tasks for every Catholic” includes “heeding the universal call to holiness,” ridding ourselves of clericalist thoughts and actions (and yes, laity can be the worst clericalists), and recovering a sense of the “lay apostolate.” He defines this as “the renewal of the temporal order,” bringing “Catholic values into settings where secularist values currently go virtually unchallenged.”

Russ, who has been a friend for many years, would probably distinguish between optimism and hope. His view of the church may be judged unduly bleak by some, but his is not a voice of despair, but of faith. He ends with a quote from Blaise Pascal: “There is a pleasure in being in a ship beaten about by a storm, when we are sure that it will not founder.”
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Greg Erlandson is an award-winning Catholic publisher, editor and journalist whose column appears monthly at OSV News. Follow him on Twitter/X @GregErlandson.


Author: OSV News

OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics.

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