By Paolo von Schirach
February 12, 2013
WASHINGTON – Pope Benedict XVI announced that he will resign on account of his advanced age (85) and increased frailty. This unexpected (and unprecedented) move provides the opportunity to give a look at the Catholic Church and its prospects as the institution that for two millennia gave spiritual guidance, education and refuge to a large portion of humanity.
Strict adherence to dogma
Pope Benedict is an orthodox theologian. He wanted to preserve the absolute integrity of the dogma as the Church saw it for centuries. In other words, for this Pope the Church’s teachings are not negotiable, nor are they an “a la carte” menu from which the faithful can pick and choose what they like and leave aside what does not look so tasteful.
While this approach may appear an appropriate means to preserve the integrity of what is after all a coherent spiritual message that has value only if it is perceived as absolute, sticking with an uncompromising dogma that resonated much more long time ago means that the Church has lost and is losing followers.
Losing the flock
Indeed, many “Catholic countries”, such as Italy and Spain are now Catholic only in name. The churches are empty, hardly anybody embraces the priesthood, while once upon a time Catholics freely and openly engage in pre marital sex, practice birth control, have abortions and get divorced. In fact, in many instances young and not so young people no longer get married. They live together, have children and often separate without having sanctified their unions.
By the same token, there are open disputes within the Church about homosexuality, the rights of gays and of women and the celibacy of priests. In simple words, the Church’s time honored teachings, deemed to be unalterable by Pope Benedict, have lost appeal.
The Church continues to provide its guidance; but very few pay attention, apparently without fear of the consequences, as far as their chances to be saved are concerned.
Pedophile priests and cover ups
If the preaching falls on deaf ears, egregious conduct by pedophile priests, (in several countries including the USA and Ireland), and the well documented Church efforts to keep this widespread criminal conduct hidden, have seriously tainted the Church’s prestige, not to mention the huge financial damage caused by a barrage of costly law suits.
It is really hard to believe in the value of moral teachings dished out by a demonstrably immoral clergy. Indeed, far too many of the Church’s representatives failed the standards Pope Benedict would like to see upheld and practiced by all the faithful.
The Church is in decline
All this indicates a Catholic Church in slow but steady decline. That said, do not expect a quick dissolution of this ancient institution. Its roots in a number of western societies (and subsequently also in the developing world) are strong and profound. The Church can still rely on powerful and entrenched assets, such as parochial schools, Catholic Universities and hospitals, a variety of charities and a still significant, if less vibrant, moral and cultural appeal, at least in some quarters.
With or without reforms, dim prospects
However, in the long run the Church faces a huge dilemma with no good outcomes. Its orthodox teachings are less and less popular. And this means a narrower base of true believers. On the other hand, abandoning principles, or even some of them, may be the beginning of an institutional break down, possibly with no end. Once strict adherence to dogmatic purity is discarded, you may expect the sprouting of different theologies leading to splinter group churches based on their own interpretation of the scriptures. This would be the end of an institution based on unity, cohesion and total respect for the authority of the hierarchy.
Keeping all this in mind, it is difficult to envisage a bright future for a Catholic Church essentially engaged in defensive battles aimed at preserving whatever influence and authority it still retains.
If the next Pope will not be a European, (for centuries they were all Italians; the last two were not. John Paul II was Polish and Benedict XVI is German), this would signal that the Church recognizes that Europe is essentially a losing proposition, while it may have a more sympathetic audience in developing countries.
Possible to survive in a secular world?
Still, secularism and more relaxed attitudes towards premarital sex, divorce, abortion and gay rights are creeping up even outside of Europe. While Christianity retains its appeal, the way it is packaged by the Catholic Church may have become hopelessly outdated.