The Thinker

The Catholic Church is easing toward irrelevancy

Many of us ex-Catholics tend to share a guilty secret: we still keep up on Vatican news. This is because if you are born a Catholic, whether you like it or not it leaves a big imprint on you. You try to tune out Catholic news and pretend the church’s actions don’t matter, or at least doesn’t affect you. But you can’t help yourself and tune into Vatican news stories, such as the first papal tweet. Being such an enormous institution with about a billion members across the planet, what happens in Rome is bound to make news. So it certainly was newsworthy when recently Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, the first pope to do so since 1415. The pope sites his declining health as a reason to resign. Naturally some Vatican watchers expect there are ulterior motives to this resignation, and coincidentally shortly thereafter an Italian newspaper published a lurid article on alleged gay sex scandals within the Vatican.

And so in mid March the College of Cardinals, 57% of who were appointed by Pope Benedict, will meet in Rome to decide who the next pontiff will be. Upon abdication, Benedict promises to disappear and devote himself wholly to prayer. It’s unclear what he has to pray so much about, and some of us would like to know. From recent statements he suggests shenanigans within the Vatican is much on his mind. Maybe its incestuous nature and intrigues became too much for him. Apparently he could not even trust his own butler, who ratted confidential papers to the press.

It’s hard for us on the outside to get a sense of what is going on inside the Vatican.  Depending on whose rumors you give credence to, it’s either nothing at all and business as usual or the Opus Dei clerics are duking it out the modernists. So far Opus Dei has been winning all the papal elections. That may change but Benedict has hardly proven himself to be a moderate. Betters would be wise to bet on more of the same. In an insular institution like the Catholic Church where those who can vote for pontiff have to be appointed by the pope suggest that creeping modernism will have no home in the Vatican, although gay sex within the Vatican may be as old as Opus Dei.

I ask myself increasingly if any of this really matters. In some ways it certainly does matter. The Catholic Church is a Jekyll and Hyde institution, capable of great Christ-worthy deeds while being guilty of unspeakable atrocities. I have witnessed the power of Catholic charities. Specifically back in the 1980s when we had a foster child, she was being managed through Catholic Charities. They did good work and arguably work that no one else would take on. So many religions talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk. One cannot say that about the Catholic Church, through affiliates like Catholic Charities and the many Catholic hospitals out there.

Then there is the Edward Hyde part of the Catholic Church, proof positive that absolute power corrupts absolutely: children sexually, emotionally and physically abused, sometimes with the cooperation of the state, such as occurred for decades in Ireland at church run laundries. There wayward or suspected wayward women worked as slaves in cloistered workhouses. The reaction to these decades if not centuries of scandals seems to be a watered down set of apologies, but little in the way of actual recompense. The church seemed much more concerned about covering up these abuses so the institution is not sullied than addressing them and preventing them from recurring. Actual restitution if it comes at all comes from civilian courts, and not from the church. And actual prevention might involve empowering the laity to oversee the clerics, something the church is loath to do.

There are lots of reasons for declining church attendance, at least here in the United States. Surely any parent reading about what the Catholic clergy have inflicted on innocent youth should be reticent to place too much trust in their local priest, particularly where accountability mechanisms are so weak. That should explain some of the drop. But much of it can also be explained as the institution has less to offer people that they find of value. It’s hard to put a premium on genuine salvation, but that does not seem to be on the mind as much of Catholics these days, who seem more concerned about getting through this life than some nebulous promise in the next life.

Increasingly Catholics are simply exercising selective deafness, tuning out those edicts they think are silly (such as on premarital sex, birth control and gay marriage) and tuning in those that feel less ephemeral, such as the church’s charitable institutions like Catholic Charities. The church, like most denominations, preaches a one stop shopping method for living and salvation. For the most part these days the laity seems to want their Catholicism a la carte instead. They figure if it works when they go shopping, why can’t it work with religion as well?

Of course there are plenty of traditional Catholics who like the prepackaged solution that the Catholic Church offers. That is the essence of a faith: to accept aspects of beliefs that a rational person might say are ludicrous. As a percent of total Catholics, these traditional Catholics are a declining share of the whole. This suggests, at least for the foreseeable future, that Catholics are likely to decline as a percent of the religious overall. Over a period of decades, particularly here in the United States, more Catholic churches may close due to lack of adherents. Those who remain are more likely to be orthodox but like Hassidic Jews, appear more bizarre to the rest of society.

One of the selling points of Catholicism is its claim to know eternal truths. It offers moral certainty in an uncertain world. And yet real life keeps crashing down on the Catholic Church, as it is an institution managed by flawed people, made worse in its case in that these flawed people are also highly and haughtily insular. While I am convinced that after two millenniums the Catholic Church will likely be around for another millennium, I am convinced its power is waning. It wanes not so much in the size of its congregants, but in its ability to control the behavior of its congregants. On some level it must change so it becomes more relevant to those it preaches to, or it is doomed to drift toward being a sect instead of a denomination.

I will guiltily watch the color of smoke rising from Vatican chimneys next month, but I am wondering when the next papal election comes around after this whether it simply won’t matter to me anymore. It is already mattering to me less than it did when Pope Benedict was elected.

When I cast around looking for beliefs on which to anchor my life, I see the certainty that Catholicism sells as simply false, and worse, dangerously false. There is no certainty about anything in our universe, with the exception of the laws of nature. I think the Buddhists are the only ones who got it right: everything in impermanent. To the extent that we can live a truly happy life, we first have to accept that.


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