A Hostile Farewell to the Catholic Church
The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI has prompted, naturally enough, assessment of his time at the helm of the Holy See, with some consensus that it was not a particularly fruitful period for the Church. There’s an abundance of recommendations on how the Catholic Church can get back on track. These include calls to get more serious about the need for reforms, to buckle down and stay true to orthodoxy no matter what, to focus on recruitment, or to work much harder at cleaning up its image.
New York Times columnist Bill Keller, for instance, compares the Catholic Church to a giant corporation facing a prolonged public relations crisis, and advises:
The first major task facing Benedict’s successor will be to get past the lingering horror story of predatory priests, to restore the trust of the faithful and the respect of the general public.
He further suggests that the Church ordain women as priests, let priests marry, decentralize power to parishes, and get with the digital age by joining social media like everyone else. It’s a call coming from some within the church, including wayward orders of nuns who have delved into advocacy, or a few eclectic parishes that have strayed into practices like ordaining women.
The Catholics Come Home campaign, which has aired commercials on primetime stations throughout the US and Canada, is a sign of the times, as the Church desperately clutches after its dwindling flock. The Catholic Archbishop, Michael Miller, who presides over the Catholics of my own hometown, Vancouver, has said, “I would estimate one-quarter million baptized Catholics among us (in the archdiocese) are no longer practicing their faith with any regularity.”
While the Church clearly recognizes the growing loss of members, the Come Home ads appeal to the traditional ploy of Catholic guilt, rather than promising a changed church to return to. Notwithstanding discussion of reform in some corners, the Vatican has reliably fortified its traditionalist stance on the most contentious issues—divorce, contraception and abortion, women in the priesthood, and the exclusion of LGBT people—and remained largely unrepentant and sluggish in addressing its legacy of systematic sexual violence against children. The ever judicious The Onion put it well, when it headlined on February 11th, “Resigning Pope No Longer Has Strength To Lead Church Backward”:
According to the 85-year-old pontiff, after considerable prayer and reflection on his physical stamina and mental acuity, he concluded that his declining faculties left him unable to helm the Church’s ambitious regressive agenda and guide the faith’s one billion global followers on their steady march away from modernity and cultural advancement.
Another Times writer, John Patrick Stanley, lamented that the Church “has been choked and bludgeoned into insignificance by a small group of men based inItaly.” And he is right about that: a group of unelected aging men, supremely out of touch with the times, run a fiefdom that would be laughable were it not for the enormous pain their institution has inflicted on millions of people, from the children who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of clergy protected by their church hierarchy, to women who have died in pregnancy or childbirth for lack of access to contraceptives and to abortion, to the spread of HIV/AIDS facilitated by Catholic resistance to condom use.
But there is nothing to lament about the growing insignificance of the Catholic Church in the lives of millions of Catholics. Religions that harm people, that stagnate progress, and keep human beings in a state of mindless obedience to make-believe ideas of theism can die out in several possible ways. One is through reform: bringing religions in line with emerging contemporary secular norms and values, such as the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, can delay the death of a faith by making it less obsolete, but simultaneously helps to chip away at its power to control the lives of its adherents. Another way is to stay on the course of backwardness, until eventually it is too difficult for even the most ardent of the faithful to reconcile their religious devotion with their desire to live in, and access the benefits of, a modern, progressing society.
Since in the case of the Catholic Church, the latter would seem to be a quicker death, I’m in favour of that track. Let the Church remain frozen in time. Let it implode on itself. Let the clique of ancient robed men sequestered in The Vatican stay that way, increasingly isolated from the greater world around them, until they disappear altogether.
Where efforts at reform should be focused, is on continuing to rein in the power that the Catholic Church and other religious institutions are allowed to maintain within the secular world, such as when Christian-owned businesses deny their non-Christian employees coverage of contraceptives in their health insurance.
At the end of the day, the symptoms are as ugly as their causes. It’s not merely some peripheral aspects of the Church that have gone awry, or a need to reorganize the hierarchy, or revisit church doctrine. The problem is in the very existence of the Catholic Church, and with Christianity in general: it’s a force antithetical to what we need to move forward as a civilization: the pursuit of knowledge, inquiry and free thought, the rule of reason, the advancement of secularism, and a morality that is based in humanist compassion rather than in the selfish hopes of being rewarded in the afterlife. I bid the Catholic Church good riddance.