It does seem like a miracle, as some British wit once put it, “that an institution run like that has lasted 2,000 years.”
Despite everything, the Catholic Church, the world’s oldest and largest institution with 2,797 dioceses and more than one billion members worldwide, or one-sixth of the world’s population, could be said to be doing well enough. Just not here.
On the other hand, since the Spirit moves in mysterious ways, maybe it’s not doing as badly as it seems here either, despite yet more trauma, this time with a particularly raw twist.
You could argue that the residue of the excessive and secretive clerical authority that is at the root of much of all this, and that has collapsed with one cruel jolt after another, is being cleaned up, making way for something new.
In many places, because of lack of priests, lay people are taking over duties they should have taken over long ago. The old blind obedience has been replaced by a stiff expectation that the higher-ups — up to the Pope — justify their moves.
Meanwhile, a dwindling number of priests, some very old, soldier on bravely, and some churches close.
Is this a sign of the end or a sign of renewal in another form? The mystery unfolds as the restive faithful wait for the last rotten apple to be thrown out of the barrel.
When I say “here,” what I mean is in the Anglo-Protestant world — North America and Ireland — where Roman Catholicism has evolved in a way that helps explain the problem.
For the Irish, French-Canadians and Scots Highlanders — all populations that had been suppressed and brutalized by the English — the Church became an ironbound political and social defence mechanism that nothing could penetrate, creating an unhealthy internal culture which brooked no questions, hid everything, and left even the police fearful of messing with the clerical collar.
As with the Poles who packed the churches in protest under communism, then drifted away when it collapsed, here too it’s the political-social aspect that’s collapsed.
It leaves the question: What now, regarding the essential business — keeping up places where life’s sacred moments occur and where the attempt, at least, must be made to teach the children that there’s something higher than sex, drugs and rock and roll?
Also, hardening the trend, the Church had taken a stiff authoritarian turn with a hint of fascism in reaction to continental European revolutions at the Vatican I council in 1869-70, where after a huge internal fight the Pope was declared infallible, among other proclaimed dogmas. Vatican II in the early 1960s tried to undo this, but there was too much to undo.
This very week, my church has a fundraising drive on, just to keep the building in repair. I did a strip of road myself, door to door. Among the non-churchgoers, most were receptive.
One man, however, refused a donation, explaining that he had attended catechism in the 1930s with a local priest who was a notorious ecclesiastical tyrant, a product of the forces I’ve just described. “One day I guess I gave him a wrong answer. He grabbed me by the ears and slammed my head against the back of the pew. How can you respect an institution that allowed such a thing?”
And that is the question as the Church finally grapples with the devils in its belfry that it has so long denied.
But that’s “here.”
The real heart of the Catholic Church is in southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America where the churches — Catholic or otherwise — are often the only things that make sense in a world of poverty, injustice, war, drugs and violence; and where clergy, too often complicit with dictators in keeping people quiet in the old days, are more likely to be at the vanguard of progressive forces, often putting their lives on the line for their flock.
In fact, one of the particular failures of the Church writ large is to have named as Pope a Vatican bureaucrat and guardian of old orthodoxy, instead of someone from these areas with his feet in reality, and someone who might have made some progress on some other bedeviling issues that affect church renewal and that have a bearing on sexual abuse scandals: priestly celibacy, the role of women, and the Vatican’s own escapist befuddlement.
I watched Halifax Archbishop Anthony Mancini on TV, visibly caving in inside at the news of the Bishop Lahey affair, pointing out that the question “Who can you trust?” has been raised once again in a particularly cruel manner.
At the Catholic grassroots, trust in the hierarchy is already close to zero.
Yet the Church will continue in its third millennium, being vastly bigger than its discredited chain of command. The question is how.
Given its size and importance, that’s a question not just for Catholics, but far beyond.
Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was reprinted with permission from The Chronicle Herald.