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The Future of the Catholic Church

 The Future of the Catholic Church        Gerry OShea

Cardinal Carlo Martini was a Jesuit priest who served as the church leader in Milan from the early 1980’s until 2003. According to reliable sources he received more votes than Cardinal Ratzinger in the first ballot to select a new pope after John Paul 11 died in 2005. He lost out in subsequent ballots to the man who became Pope Benedict.

In 2012, a week before he died at age 85, he sat for an interview with a fellow-Jesuit and approved the content of the script before he passed on. His words dismayed many in the hierarchy because of his radical criticism of the status quo in the church where he played a major leadership role.

“The church is tired in Europe and America” he said. “Our culture has become old, our churches and our religious houses are big and empty, our rites and our dress are pompous. The church is 200 years behind the times. Why can’t we change? Are we afraid?”

The Catholic Church with its 1.3 billion members will be around for a long time but its membership trajectory in the United States and other western countries leaves little room for optimism about its future. About 40% of Americans from Catholic families leave the church permanently. This exodus is going on for so long that 15% of the total population of the United States now identify themselves as former Roman Catholics.

Church attendance among Catholics in the United States at close to 30% is high by comparison with other western countries. In Australia,  only around 12% of members go to mass regularly, with the church attendees dropping by nearly half in the last twenty years. In Canada the numbers leaking from the church are of similar magnitude. In the continent of Europe, with some traditionally strong Catholic countries, only around 10% show up for the Sunday sermon. In Ireland, which was a devoutly church-going nation, there has been a rush for the exit gate with Sunday attendance around 40% and dropping.

The crisis of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests and brothers explains many of the defections. The consideration of men of the cloth taking advantage of minors for their sexual gratification has shocked the sensibilities of Catholics everywhere. The cover-up by the hierarchy, allegedly all the way to the papal chair, is even more devastating.

The scales gradually fell from the eyes of the people in the pews as one report after another revealed the enormity of the abuse story. Huge numbers of young people in all countries were so dismayed that they departed in anger from the church of their youth - and only a few returned.

Commenting on this vital area of church life, Cardinal Martini declared “The pedophilia scandals compel us to take up a path of conversion, beginning with the pope and the bishops. We have to reflect on whether the church is still an authoritative voice in this field.”

The signs of a weakening institution are everywhere. In New York alone, dozens of churches and schools closed during the last few years, and the number of new ordinations is miniscule where seminaries were busy just fifty years ago. There has also been a dramatic decline in the numbers of postulants seeking admission to the religious orders.

 Every human institution – and the church must always be seen in those terms – is judged by who wields power, who calls the shots. For the first few centuries after the crucifixion there were no priests or dignitaries. Instead, people met in small support communities, broke bread together and responded to the Spirit by outreaching the poor and marginalized, in accordance with the core message of the gospel. Most scholars agree that the organizational functions and rituals were led by members of both sexes.

The fourth century Roman Emperor, Constantine, favored Christianity and was himself baptized on his death bed. Interestingly, he was told that baptism wiped the soul clean of even the most nefarious transgressions, so, very pragmatically, he waited to receive the sacrament until he was on the way out! The church, after centuries of persecution, loved its new freedom and bought into the hierarchical structures of the empire. What emerged was a top-heavy clericalism where the laity was seen on one trail to salvation, but always dependent on a superior hierarchy, from the priests up, to dispense the sacraments and define the belief system.

 The Second Vatican Council, starting in 1962, made a gallant effort to open up the ecclesial authority structure by stressing the importance of “the people of God” in egalitarian terms. This line of thinking also introduced the concept of the universal “priesthood of the laity.”

Such ideas never gained traction because they would have radically changed the power structure in the Vatican and in dioceses where bishops adapted to the new rhetoric by making mostly minor administrative changes. For instance, parish councils were meant to partner with pastors in local decision-making. In reality, in most cases, they became rubber stamps for the men in the presbytery.

 The recent important Amazon Synod heard abundant evidence of the lack of priests to minister to poor communities in large areas in Brazil and surrounding countries. The bishops present voted 128 to 41 to admit married men of sound character to the priesthood to minister to deprived populations in that huge region. Similar approval was given by the synod to ordaining women as deacons. Both recommendations are still on Francis’s desk which is disappointing for many indigenous people living along the Amazon and for progressives in the church.

One of the main doctrinal differences that caused the Reformation five hundred years ago centered on the mass. Catholics insist on a literal understanding of the priest’s words during the consecration, insisting that the body and blood of Christ are present on the altar. The Protestant belief focuses on a symbolic presence.

The Catholic problem now and for many years is that only around 30% believe in their church’s understanding of the eucharist. The remaining majority, seven out of ten, subscribe to some version of Protestant thinking of the bread as a sacred unifying community symbol.

The church has failed to modernize its teaching on the eucharist, stressing its spiritual significance and veering away from language that can be interpreted as a kind of holy cannibalism. Misunderstandings and dubious preaching about the meaning of the eucharistic host constitute a significant factor in the big drop-off in attendance at Sunday mass.

The Vatican recently mandated what many parishes already followed, namely, that women must be allowed to act as lectors and acolytes or altar-girls. However, they may not aspire to the deaconate or priesthood. This diminishing of female roles in the church is a legacy from past cultural eras. Today women hold top jobs in industry and government but find they are still treated as second-class citizens by Rome. Many respond by walking away from a religion with such unacceptable and humiliating strictures.

Most western societies have come to accept the homosexual lifestyle as normal. Gay marriages are common and allowed by the civil authorities who accept that same-sex relationships have to be legally protected. Catholic teaching still views physical intimacy between two men or two women as unnatural and sinful, often describing such behavior as intrinsically evil, words straight from the language of the Middle Ages. While the church is careful to condemn any abusive behavior against gays, and Pope Francis recently spoke in favor of allowing civil marriage for them, Rome maintains its moral condemnatory teaching from previous centuries, and most gay Catholics do not view their church as walking with them in their struggles.

Charles Darwin, the father of the Evolutionary Theory in the 19th century, pointed out that the species that will survive will not be the most intelligent or the strongest but the ones that adapt best to inevitable change. Messaging and power structures in the Catholic Church that were appropriate and made sense in past times cry out for radical adaptation to contemporary culture


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