The Catholic Church is easing toward irrelevancy

The Thinker by Rodin

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.

Break out the condoms

The Thinker by Rodin

Miracles do happen in the Catholic Church, but it turns out they are much rarer than even the Catholic Church would acknowledge. I’m not talking about alleged miracles of weeping Madonna statues. I am talking about the unexpected fit of common sense by the Catholic Church this week regarding condoms. What’s next? Women priests?

Not that Pope Benedict is expressly approving use of condoms. They still prevent conception, when used as intended, so using them is still a sinful act. However, according to Pope Benedict, the use of a condom may mean that the person is on a path toward more moral behavior. I’m guessing this means using condoms is now a venial sin, instead of a mortal one.

I figure this fit of common sense from a church doggedly insistent on not using any when it contravenes previous teachings is something of a miracle. For a church that supposedly is all about the sanctity of life, it was hard to square its devotion to life with the ability to take it away by passing a sexually transmitted disease like AIDS through an unprotected sex act. Yet until this week, that was the teaching of the church: do not use any form of artificial contraception ever! It was a policy so bat shit insane that in a matter of just decades, rather than centuries, the Catholic Church actually got it.

It’s like God himself sent a thunderbolt of common sense directly into Pope Benedict’s brain, which is the miracle part. The Catholic Church, after all, is an institution organizationally aligned to tune out all common sense when it contradicts its teachings. I am sure God never swears, but if God were to swear the message to Pope Benedict would be something like this, “You stupid asshole! People are dying needless and painful deaths. They are leaving orphans to fend for themselves by the side of the road. All because you tell them I say that it is sinful to use condoms! And you claim life to be sacred? Don’t you realize this makes no sense whatsoever? Don’t you realize that you are driving away the very pro-life Catholics we are trying to keep? Change this policy and change it now!

The new policy is currently written in pencil rather than into stone, since it was not ex cathedra. At first, the ruling seemed qualified. In an interview for an upcoming book, Pope Benedict gave an example of a male prostitute using a condom, saying using it would be a “first step” toward moral behavior because it shows concern for his sexual partner. (He might also be showing concern for his life, but that’s selfish, so I imagine is not a good reason to use a condom.) Today we learn that the Vatican spokesman (well, obviously not a spokeswoman) Rev. Federico Lombardi personally asked the pope whether condom usage when having sex with a women was also okay. Two thumbs up from the holy pontiff! “This is if you’re a woman, a man, or a transsexual. We’re at the same point. The point is it’s a first step of taking responsibility, of avoiding passing a grave risk onto another,” Lombardi said.

So, just for the heck of it, use a condom tonight, and if you are a Catholic why not break out the champagne as well? Miracles don’t happen every day. Pope Benedict may not be a particularly personable pope, but when his obituary is written, this one act may be the one that is most remembered and celebrated.

Perhaps its popularity will inspire the pope toward even clearer thinking. Maybe miracles can come in clusters. For an ex-Catholic like myself, there are still many things to admire about the Catholic Church. Catholic, after all, means universal. One thing you can truly say about the Catholic Church is that age, income and race don’t seem to matter. Granted, we have not had a black pope yet, but I suspect that is just a matter of time.

I am a Unitarian Universalist and like many denominations, we suffer from the same problem: we are a lot alike. Specifically we are left-brained, predominantly white and predominantly overeducated. The Catholic Church does not have our diversity problem. White, black, Hispanic, Asian, Indian: the Church has all the colors of the rainbow. Their ranks include peasants and presidents. Moreover, it is one of the few Christian denominations left that is insistent about doing unto others, feeding and caring for the poor, as well as working on unsexy things like income equality and health care for all (albeit without abortion services).

With condoms no longer a major moral problem for the Catholic Church, perhaps it could loosen certain other ridiculous practices. Being more expansive with birth control would be nice, but is unlikely to happen. However, the church has a real problem on its hands filling its staff. Its policy of not allowing priests to marry is not only counterproductive; it also goes against most of the church’s history. In addition, of course, there is the church’s policy of allowing only male clergy. Like its now vanquished no condom policy, it is counterproductive and makes no sense. Given how many Catholic congregations no longer have priests, changing this policy may be necessary for the survival of the church in a secular age. As a practicing non-Catholic, I am hoping more miracles like this one quickly follow.

Perhaps I should thank Pope Benedict, but my feelings remain mixed. This policy should have been done away with decades ago. It resulted in many people dying needlessly, although I suspect those who rigorously follow Catholic birth control policies are relatively few. Not only was the policy deadly, it was also sinful, hurtful and generated a lot of pointless guilt. It caused adherents to choose between their faith and their common sense. While condoms will still not come with a seal of Vatican approval, at least their use in some situations is understood to be more moral than not using them at all.

It’s a miracle, all right.