Religion in Upheaval

January 4, 1967

Report Outline
Christian Churches in Period of Stress
Tension and Conflict in Catholic Church
Religious Faith and Changes in Churches

Christian Churches in Period of Stress

Unsettling Effects of Pressure for Change

Christian churches in the United States, in all their denominational forms, are undergoing a time of trial and stress with unforeseeable consequences for the religious life of the nation. In some ways the situation recalls the upheavals of a century ago when Christianity faced up to new scientific discoveries concerning the origin of man. The churches at that time were shaken, but the major denominations eventually solved the theological dilemma by incorporating the “new science” into their traditional doctrinal positions. So the crisis was weathered with minimum revision of dogma or ministerial custom.

Today's upheaval goes deeper, raising questions that may lead to fundamental changes in church structure and church functioning, to say nothing of removing or replacing some of the main theological supports of religious faith itself. Although the basic problem is the same as that of a century ago—church adaptation to modern developments—there is an important difference between the situation then and now. The challenge of the 19th century came from outside the church—from a secular science unconcerned with the fate of religion. Today's challenge comes from within, often from the churches' own governing bodies or from their leading clergymen, scholars and lay workers. Criticizing the church, once the sport of atheists, agnostics and “secular humanists,” has become the sober mission of the devout and the ecclesiastically learned: men profoundly concerned for the survival of religious faith and the church.

The forces unsettling religious life in the United States affect mainly the Roman Catholic and the larger Protestant denominations, though the winds of change are reaching the smaller Christian bodies as well. The Protestant world is churned up by a radical turn in theological debate in which the very existence of God is brought into question. Catholicism is buffeted by currents of reform unleashed by Vatican Council II, which left a number of vital issues unsettled when it came to an end a little more than a year ago. Crosscurrents between the two great branches of Christendom have added to the turbulence.

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