September 5, 2013
Cluttered Complexity! That’s our world today. TVs with hundreds of options. Phones that double as cameras, web cams or notebooks. Blenders that cook. So many gadgets that are meant to simplify life, yet are complex themselves. Even the directions on medicine bottles, tax forms, vacation club memberships require more than a quick once-through reading. In 1980, a mere 400 words explained a credit card contract. Today, it takes 20,000 words. (cf. Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn, “When Simplicity is the Solution,” March 29, 2013).
In his July 27, 2013 meeting with the bishops of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis spoke directly to those frustrated with the ever-increasing complexity of our technological age. He called for simplicity. In the longest speech of his pontificate at this point, he courageously faced the complex reality of Catholics leaving the Church. He offered simplicity as a needed remedy.
In Brazil, the number of Catholics has dropped from 74% to 65% of the total population. Yet, the numbers of less traditional churches, such as the Pentecostals, have been skyrocketing from 15% to over 22% of the population. Even within America, we see a similar trend. Among the various religions, Catholicism has suffered the greatest net loss. One out of every 10 Americans is an ex-Catholic. If ex-Catholics were to form their own religion, they would be the third-largest denomination in the United States, after Catholics and Baptists.
Two-thirds of former Catholics who remain unattached to any church say they left the Catholic faith because they stopped believing in its teachings. Half of former Catholics who are now Protestants give the same reason. Pope Francis could not be more on target when he challenges the Church not simply to face the exodus of Catholics, but to respond to it by teaching the faith with the language of simplicity.
Addressing the bishops of Brazil, but intending his words for all of us, he said, “At times we lose people because they don't understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity…Without the grammar of simplicity, the Church loses the very conditions which make it possible to fish for God in the deep waters of his mystery.” The Pope’s cleverly coined phrase “the grammar of simplicity” unlocks for us a basic thrust of his pontificate. He wants to breathe fresh life into the Church.
There is a time and a place for deep theological speculation on the faith. After all, the truth of the faith engages us on every level, reason not excluded. Great theologians who have pondered the faith have also been great saints. Athanasius. Augustine. Aquinas. With his call for “a grammar of simplicity,” the Pope is hardly swiping away the vast, rich and much needed wisdom of the Church that has come from theologians meditating on the Word of God. Rather, he is calling for all of us to present the faith in such a way that it is clear and understandable. The secret of simplicity is not dumbing down the mystery of the faith. Rather, it is making that mystery attractive to others.
In the world of marketing, success depends on simplicity. Marketing is not so much about providing facts about a product as it is creating a vision of how life would be improved by buying that product. What sells a product is the clear message that it meets the needs of the buyer for a better life. For a message to be simple, it first has to resonate with the real need of an individual and then clearly respond to the desire for a better life. Perhaps in the world of religion, this is where we are failing.
What is it that Catholicism offers and we need? Redemption. The gospel is Jesus Christ. He does not teach us moral truths that any Buddha or Marcus Aurelius could teach. No. Jesus is the eternal Son of God made man, who suffered, was put to death and rose from the dead as Lord of all creation and all time. The Risen Christ offers us forgiveness of our sins and a share in his own divine life here within the Church and more fully in the kingdom of heaven.
Even those who deny sin cannot deny its effects in their lives: failed relationships; broken marriages; selfish exploitation and manipulation. We instinctively know that our wounded hearts and divided homes need healing. Does the message from the pulpit really address us as sinners in need of redemption? Is the message sounded from the pulpit that Jesus truly saves us? Or is it a “do good, love everyone and be happy” message?
The very first sermon that Peter delivered on Pentecost impresses us with its utter simplicity. He proclaimed Jesus as Lord, called sinners to repentance in his name, and offered them a share in God’s life within the Church. And (take out this and.) On that day, three thousand who heard his message understood it. They believed in Jesus Christ, repented of their sins, and were baptized (cf. Acts 2:41).
Simplicity of language means the boldness of speech to proclaim the basic truths of the faith. It does not turn Jesus into a moral teacher, an ally in our political struggles or the source of happiness and prosperity in this world. No. it proclaims him as the Savior whom each of us desperately needs today. This is how the Church first grew. This is how the Church will grow today.