The Crown and Empty Churches 

Should the Church “modernize” by becoming more like everyone else? Or, should she hold fast to her ancient, otherworldly beliefs, morals, and rituals?

Struggling dioceses and parishes would do well to reflect upon a recent episode of the Netflix series The Crown. For those who don’t know, The Crown is a fictional depiction of the life of the late Queen Elizabeth II and her dysfunctional royal family. I generally do not watch or recommend the series given its occasional sexual content, but recently someone assured me that there was a particular episode that was clean and worth my time. So, I gave it a shot. Spoilers follow.  

The episode is called “Ruritania.” It was released on December 14, amid The Crown’s sixth season. The episode takes place at the turn of the century and focuses upon the diverse public perceptions of the royal family and the British Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair. In sum, the polls indicate that the British people love Blair but are less keen on the royal family, particularly following the dramatic death of Princess Diana. So, the queen consults Blair for advice on how she can strengthen the monarchy’s public image and ensure its longevity. 

Blair and his advisors respond by presenting the queen with a detailed list of recommendations, most of which involve doing away with costly, ancient ceremonial positions and practices. For instance, Blair questions why the royal family needs a “Warden of the Swans” and “Yeoman of the Glass,” among other seemingly excessive and unimportant ceremonial aspects of their royal life.   

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The episode features two crucial scenes. In the first, Blair’s wife, Cherie, a baptized Catholic, tells Tony how she doubts that the queen will act on his recommendations. Tony replies that the queen “must know that they have to change in order to survive.” But Cherie isn’t convinced: “No, they don’t want to change, Tony. I mean, she probably thinks the only way to survive is to double down on the madness. Like the Catholic Church.” 

Tony asks what she means, and Cherie explains: “Well, they [the Church] modernized. And the old guard has never forgiven them for it. Why? Because they got rid of the Latin and the incense and the miracles and the mystery, and people stopped coming.” Tony insists that the situation with the royal family is different, to which Cherie replies, “Is it?”

Yes, you read that. A major Hollywood production which has won Golden Globes and Emmys makes a character admit that people stopped practicing Catholicism when the Church did away with her most distinctive and ancient ceremonial rituals. The fact that the character herself thinks those rituals were “madness” is beside the point.  

The second significant scene depicts Elizabeth discussing the Prime Minister’s recommendations with her family. Her son, the now King Charles, recommends implementing Blair’s requests, saying, “I just don’t feel there’s anything wrong with running the monarchy on more rational and democratic lines.” The context suggests that by “rational” Charles appears to mean merely “naturalistic” and “relatable.” But the queen rejects this line of thought, explaining:  

But monarchy isn’t rational. Or democratic or logical or fair. Haven’t we all learned that by now? People don’t want to come to a palace and get what they could have at home. When they come for an investiture or a state visit, when they brush up against us, they want the magic and the mystery. And the arcane and the eccentric and the symbolic. And the transcendent. They want to feel like they’ve entered another world. That is our duty. To lift people up and transport them into another realm, not bring them down to earth and remind them of what they already have.

Elizabeth rejects the attempt to modernize the royal establishment by throwing out its ancient and countercultural traditions. These traditions are essential to the purpose of the royal family: to put people into contact with something transcendent, something beyond the ordinary and mundane, a world beyond the dark cave of our own.

The comments of the queen and Cherie Blair clearly apply to the contemporary debate within Catholicism regarding how the Church ought to evangelize the modern world. Should the Church “modernize” by becoming more like everyone else? Or, should she hold fast to her ancient, otherworldly beliefs, morals, and rituals? Which approach is more likely to convert souls, lead people to the pews, and fill the seminaries? Which approach is more likely to keep the Church in existence? 

The answers to these questions may appear obvious to most Crisis readers, but they do not appear to be obvious to many priests and bishops. My own view is that excessive modernization in the form of desacralization has negatively impacted the Church’s liturgy, vocations, theology, and morality. 

Liturgically, the Roman Rite abandoned the Traditional Latin Mass in favor of the more accessible, simplistic Mass of St. Paul VI. In practice, that Mass has been perpetually abused and accompanied by the rise of appalling Church architecture. Consequently, Catholic belief in the true presence of the Eucharist has plummeted, and so the pews are empty. 

This impacts vocations as well. The priesthood and religious life are tough sells by nature, but they are a particularly daunting prospect when you know you will have to say a stripped down, anthropocentric form of the Mass and do so in an ugly building. How many young men have the courage to sacrifice marriage for that? Many religious orders were modernized when they ditched their habits, contemplative prayer, and works of mercy for pants suits and politics; such orders are now entering extinction.   The priesthood and religious life are tough sells by nature, but they are a particularly daunting prospect when you know you will have to say a stripped down, anthropocentric form of the Mass and do so in an ugly building.Tweet This

The Church’s theologians used to practice rigorous philosophical, historical, and literary analysis in order to seek, explain, and defend the truth about God contained in the books of nature and Scripture. During the high Middle Ages, theology was considered the most “noble” (i.e., important and valuable) of all branches of knowledge (see Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae I, q. 1, a. 5). But then theologians were modernized; rather than making challenging truth claims about otherworldly realities, they began to limit themselves to describing the religious views of diverse peoples, without regard for whether or not such views were true or false. They call it “contextual” theology. No one wants to waste time on such a relativistic discipline, so the number of theology majors and even required theology courses at most Catholic universities has been plummeting.  

In terms of her moral message, the Church’s modernization has been present at the parish level for decades and has now gained momentum in Rome. From the pulpit, many clerics avoid calling people to repent of specific sins and to embrace the Church’s sacrificial moral code. How often have you heard homilies discuss the specific evils of fornication, contraception, masturbation and pornography, abortion, divorce and remarriage, drunkenness, drugs, and so on? Instead, one often hears bad jokes, rambling, and vague calls to “love your neighbor.” Now in Rome the constant emphasis is on a distinction between the objective moral order and subjective culpability as well as on the need to bless people who engage in gravely sinful sexual practices. I’ll pass.  

Perhaps The Crown’s Cherie Blair is right: parishes and dioceses ditched the Latin, the incense, the miracles, and the mystery, and that’s why people ditched the Church. Perhaps it is time to bring those things back. Perhaps, as the queen put it, the Church’s liturgy, religious life, theology, and morality need to renew her efforts to lift people up and transport them into another realm. What do we have to lose?  

Finally, it is worth noting that the makers of Season 6, episode 6 of The Crown seem to want viewers to agree with Cherie Blair’s and the queen’s logic. The episode suggests as much through its ending: Tony Blair gives a speech to a large gathering of women, who promptly interrupt his remarks and boo him off the stage. Earlier in the episode, the queen had addressed the same assembly and owned the room. The message is clear: the Prime Minister’s modernizing message does not apply to every situation. For some circumstances and institutions, royal transcendence and otherworldliness are needed.  

[Image Credit: “The Crown” (Netflix)]

Author

  • Daniel Waldow

    Dr. Daniel Waldow is an assistant professor of theology at St. Francis University in Loretto, PA and the Associate Director of the Alta Via program, which is an intentional Catholic community for undergraduate students.

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