Rodney Stark, the sociologist of religion, has pointed out in For the Glory of God that the more demanding, high-intensity faiths also give their adherents more benefits, both in terms of self-esteem and spirituality. Vacuous religion, such as the cliché of the trendy Church of England vicar, does not give people what they want. Paradoxically, therefore, most attempts to make religion more accessible or open are likely to drive potential converts away.
It seems that the Catholic Church is beginning to understand this. The Vatican knows Catholicism’s core selling points. As well as standing firm on moral issues, Pope Benedict XVI has promoted the Latin mass and more traditional liturgy. This point was made to the Guardian’s Religious Affairs correspondent when she suggested in Rome that “it was the church's position on issues such as abortion, stem cell research, euthanasia and contraception” that deterred people from being Catholics. On the contrary, she was told, people prefer a religion that takes a firm moral line.
I think there is some truth in this. Although I am very much a liberal on many (but not all) moral issues, it seems to me that the Church should take an idealistic rather than a pragmatic line. Besides, the pressures coming from the other direction are now so strong that a certain amount of uncompromising resistance is a good thing.
To make an uncharitable comparison (uncharitable to the Church, that is), I believe most Greens are as crazy as a bag full of starving ferrets. However, I still think that there is a place for their extreme rhetoric on the environment, if only to keep the rest of us honest. Likewise, you don’t have to agree with all the Catholic Church’s moral teaching to feel that it is a valuable counterweight to the Peter Singers of this world.
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