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The expression “going viral” may not be in the average theological dictionary, but perhaps it ought to be. It represents the fact that there is a new stage on which the gospel message of God’s unconditional love is being acted out: that of the social media. Pope Francis’ loving embrace of a man with extreme disfigurements to his face and body went viral almost instantly, which means it was reproduced as an image with a message many millions of times all over the world. Nor was this the first time Pope Francis had supplied the social media with vivid material: he seems to understand the medium. In the new world of Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, the medium is indeed the message, just as the Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan, himself a convert to Catholicism, prophesied.
While images of Pope Francis’ latest symbolic act were being multiplied exponentially, a more negative tone was being struck by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey. Christianity, he warned, could be extinct in Britain in another generation. He was mainly lamenting the fate of the Church of England, where ageing church congregations suggest that the usual reinforcements, as one generation hands the torch on to the next, are no longer waiting their turn. This problem is even more worrying for the Free Churches.
The demographic prospects of the Catholic Church in Britain are more optimistic, as Professor Linda Woodhead’s research, published in last week’s Tablet, seems to indicate, though immigration has been a significant factor. At the same time, Catholicism is proving more adaptable, and adaptation is the key to survival. The “Francis effect”, while injecting new enthusiasm inside the Church, is just as remarkably transforming its public image in unlikely places – “Atheists for Francis” appears to be emerging as the new New Atheism. What Lord’s Carey’s jeremiad amounts to is the not-so-subtle truth that the Church of England needs a Francis effect of its own.
On the other hand, some of the factors that in Lord Carey’s view threaten the viability of the Church of England are also present in the Catholic Church. Evangelical Protestantism tends to treat Scripture as a rule of life rather than as an inspiration for Christian living – which may be why in modern Britain “religious” is commonly regarded as a synonym for “respectable” or even “strict”. The same could be said for a certain brand of authoritarian Catholicism, which liked to think of itself until recently as the only one allowed. In that case, it is the current prohibitions of the Magisterium rather than the censures of St Paul or Leviticus that are used to bind; but both produce an interpretative framework that is legalistic and cerebral. They are about words on the page rather than deeds on the screen. More theologically, they lack sacramentality. Not ten thousands words could say as much as the one image of Pope Francis’ embrace of Vinicio Riva, the man ravaged by neurofibromatosis, about God’s love for humanity. That is a God people might actually want to believe in.
The very adaptability that Catholicism seems to be undergoing at the grass roots, which disconcerted church authorities are in danger of interpreting as laxity or rebellion, can be seen as a necessary reordering of priorities away from soul-destroying rule compliance and towards emphatic forms of solidarity. That paradigm shift is what ordinary people like in Pope Francis. It explains why many lay Catholics feel instinctive sympathy for homosexual men and women in the difficulties they face. They feel it equally for those whose marriages have ended in painful divorce and who are rebuilding their lives through remarriage. They seem to be saying that if the rules stand in the way of the solidarity that the Gospel demands – for which mercy may be another name – then the rules come second. Seeing the Eucharist as par excellence the visible sacramental expression of Christian solidarity, it feels an insufferable contradiction to use it to express exclusion.