Volume > Issue > The False Hope of a “More Apostolic Church”

The False Hope of a “More Apostolic Church”


By Robert McTeigue | March 2023
Fr. Robert McTeigue, S.J., is a member of the U.S. Eastern Province of the Society of Jesus. He is the producer and host of The Catholic Current, a radio talk show that airs on The Station of the Cross Catholic Media Network, and he is on the National Ethics Committee of the Catholic Medical Association. His latest books from Ignatius Press are Real Philosophy for Real People: Tools for Truthful Living (2020) and Christendom Lost and Found: Meditations for a Post Post-Christian Era (2022).

Here’s a misleading phrase: “You can’t turn back the clock.” At face value, it’s unobjectionable. Apart from science fiction, humans experience time only as flowing forward. Time cannot be undone.

As part of a rhetorical strategy, “You can’t turn back the clock” can be deployed to show that however intense the nostalgia for the putative original innocence of the “Good Old Days,” we can’t get there from here. Fair enough. In this sense, history is replete with instances of people trying — and failing — to “turn back the clock.” A perusal of the list of “communes,” both religious and secular, that ostensibly were established to show the human race how to return to Paradise would suffice to illustrate the point.

The clock-turning admonition can also be part of an unwittingly foolish rhetorical strategy. On this view, we’re being asked not to bother trying to learn from the past. Such an error is as easy to spot as it is to dismiss.

There is, however, a use of the phrase “You can’t turn back the clock” that is calculated, misleading, and insidious. It’s found in cultural and ecclesial commentary that runs something like this: “The age of Christendom is over! It’s time to return to the Church of the Apostles. It’s time to learn to live as a more apostolic Church.” What’s being suggested here is “Yes, in fact, you can turn back the clock — you just have to know how.”

The previously existing context that could be construed as a “merely cultural Catholicism” (as opposed to Catholic life that is lived at once intentionally, broadly, and deeply) is not now available to us. If Christendom is understood in that sense, then we may rightly say, “You can’t turn back the clock.” For example, the urban, ethnic Catholic ghettoes in which my parents grew up are certainly gone. The time when Hollywood would say, “You can’t put that in a movie. The Catholics won’t stand for it!” is long gone. And if by “Christendom” we mean the cultural inertia that carried along even drifting and indifferent Catholics — yes, that’s gone too.

Appeals to “a more apostolic Church” are, at a minimum, code for “Let’s acquire amnesia about the wisdom Catholics have accumulated over the centuries because that wisdom could prevent us from convincing people to like us or at least to leave us alone.” And in the rush to become more “apostolic,” we might be inclined to avoid awkward questions like, “How did our institutions and cultural capital collapse seemingly overnight, with little notice and even less mourning?” So, rather than being a call for Christian individuals and communities to be more resourceful and adaptive, the call for a “more apostolic Church” is an occasion for offering excuses, hiding behind culpable silences, cutting corners, making compromises, and avoiding responsibility.

A “more apostolic Church,” properly understood, would not turn first to words such as vibrant, welcoming, inclusive, or nonjudgmental, even though these words (and others like them) can be found in many reports of the recent diocesan synods. The synthesis of the diocesan synodal reports for the United States can be found at the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, where these foamy and soporific words abound.

The historical Apostolic Church (in contrast to the “apostolic Church” of current whimsy) had the good sense to go to the catacombs in response to the lethal toxicity of the ambient culture. In the catacombs, the Apostolic Church looked to the past, specifically, to what Christ said, did, commanded, and forbade. The Church in the catacombs demanded rigid adherence to doctrinal and moral norms, and she prepared people to suffer martyrdom rather than make compromises with a world at war with Creator, Christ, and Church. The Apostolic Church also took sin and penance very seriously. Is that what the present would-be pallbearers of Christendom mean when they speak of a more “apostolic Church”? I’ve seen nothing to support such an assertion.

Calls for a “more apostolic Church” bring to mind the current state of the New Evangelization. Few speak of the New Evangelization in terms of the context in which it was originally spoken. The New Evangelization instead has become one of those infinitely plastic phrases (like the spirit of Vatican II or synodality or justice) that are bandied about and deployed as expedience suggests. Even in its original sense, the New Evangelization was a call to seek out and reincorporate fallen-away Catholics. In that context (inaugurated by Pope St. Paul VI and expanded by Pope St. John Paul II) there is little discussion, much less curiosity, about how the fallen-away fell away. Instead, it seems that the New Evangelization is used as a means of refilling a leaky bucket without taking responsibility for how and why the bucket sprung its leaks.

It seems that the call for a “more apostolic Church” is, in fact, an instance of the doomed Refill the Leaky Bucket strategy. It is a convenient and expedient maneuver for avoiding awkward discussions about how institutions and communities were lost. Worst of all, the call for a “more apostolic Church” is really just a call for a self-induced cultural and moral amnesia. On this view, the Christendom that’s being discarded is the network of community memory, cultural achievement, and moral standards that are getting in the way of our being liked, applauded, and (most importantly) financed by the Caesars and court jesters of this present darkness (which has alternatively been called “the new springtime,” “the second Pentecost,” or “the Catholic moment”). The high standards for artistic achievement (especially artistry in the service of worship) were betrayed in my lifetime. The monuments to the new standards, as exemplified by ugly and banal churches, are embarrassing and, not surprisingly, have been abandoned. Evidently, not many want to “sing a new Church into being” within the halls of a barren structure that looks like it was furnished by IKEA.

Likewise, high moral standards, rooted in the natural law (e.g., men are men, women are women; men and women are obviously made for one another) and summoned to unimaginable heights by the Incarnate Word, are being conveniently forgotten lest advocates of what used to be called “perversions” be discomfited. Finally, what the wisdom of Christendom (accumulated at great cost over centuries) knows regarding the demands of sanctity is being scoured away so that faith, hope, and love can be diluted into credulity, utopianism, and enthusiasm.

It’s true: “You can’t turn back the clock.” Since the Fall, there are no “Good Old Days” to which to return. For our times, the lesson to be learned is that we can’t turn back the clock to a “more apostolic Church” that never actually existed. What we can and must do instead is retrieve, retain, and reapply the lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi of true Christendom in our own impoverished times.


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