In explaining secularisation and the decline of religious faith, scholars of religion suggest that one of the major contributing factors is what they call “the eclipse of community” .
By this they mean the diminishing importance of community in our lives and the fragmentation of our society. Whole neighbourhoods have vanished in town centres and the inner city, tightly-knit local communities have often disintegrated or been infiltrated by socially destructive forces.
This has inevitably had an effect on our church life and particularly perhaps in big city parishes, but not only these. The phenomenon is now recognisable even in small rural towns with changing work patterns and lifestyle choices.
Our churches risk becoming simple providers to a declining customer base, religious supermarkets where we come to meet our personal spiritual needs packaged in a style that suits us. While the personal side of faith is surely important, a simply consumerist approach to our church life would diminish it and take away one of its most important functions: the creation and maintenance of a sense of community.
Faith communities still play a significant role in bringing and keeping people together. This is perhaps particularly so in moments of local tragedy or crisis, when it is simply called to be there and to say something when other words fail.
It is not uncommon to hear people say: "Wouldn't it be great if we could get back to being like the first Christians?", referring to the simplicity of their shared life together as we find it in the Acts of the Apostles.
It is indeed an inspiring vision and one we need to keep in mind. However, we also know that patterns of behaviour and living have changed and that, for most people, this kind of lifestyle is simply not an option. But it does not mean we are not called to community. Church is about community whether we call it “the people of God” or “the family of God”; we are called to pray and to celebrate our life together as a Christian community engaged with the world.
This engagement with the world, however, has not been without its problems and it seems it will always cause tensions when faith communities seek to express themselves on areas of wider concern.
It can be argued it would be much more convenient were faith groups to retire to private spaces and practise their piety in a quietist way. This is at the heart of secularist theory as it has developed in Europe, particularly in France.
But this, of course, can never be the case since, in effect, it would turn faith communities into sects, withdrawn from the world, living in and for themselves.
The greater good
Like many other groups in civil society, faith communities have their view of how the world should be and a right to express it, not simply for themselves but for what they can contribute to the wider society. The fact is that they have played an important role in the imagining of Europe even if it is now more politically convenient to ignore this.
Recent polemics in Ireland have sought to characterise interventions from a faith perspective in public debate on abortion legislation as a church/State conflict. This is unfortunate and, in my view, an attempt by certain elements of alternative hierarchies to muddy the waters.
American theologian David Hollenbach suggests the view that a free society is a thoroughly secularised society needs be challenged. He makes the point that the theological compatibility of Christian faith with support for the civic good is an important issue both for Christians and non-Christians alike. It is certainly not served by emotive polemics.
Hollenbach argues persuasively that exploring the public role of Christianity from both secular and theological perspectives is essential to revitalising the pursuit of the common good.
Politics itself is in serious difficulty as it is widely perceived to be increasingly sidelined by more nebulous forces that may well not have the common good high on their list of priorities. We are living through a period of deep existential crisis and questioning, as the European project faces up to its limitations and failure to win a place in the imagination of its citizens.
Civil society is called to challenge politics if democracy is to be healthy and the needs of our citizens are to be heard. It needs all the help it can get.
Fr Patrick Claffey is parish administrator at St Mary’s, Haddington Road, Dublin, and adjunct associate professor in the department of religions and theology, TCD