The future of the Church

Brian Bethune on demographics, ongoing scandals and the divide between secular and Catholic morality

The future of the Church

Lorenzo Moscia/Archivolatino/Redux

Catholicism’s demographic shift out of the developed world and into the global south has been profound. A century ago, 75 per cent of Catholics lived in Europe or North America; now two-thirds are outside those continents. But that massive change is not fuelled entirely by the Church’s burgeoning growth in Asia and, especially, Africa. The flip side is the declining numbers in its Western heartland. Some 60 per cent of the French no longer ever attend services, and across Europe the rate of baptisms has fallen six per cent in the last six years. A tenth of American parishes have closed or merged in recent years, while six per cent is also the weekly mass attendance rate among Catholics in Quebec, once a Church bastion. In Ireland, which not long ago was a virtual priest factory for the world, not a single seminarian was ordained in 2005.

The ongoing clerical sex abuse scandals, meaning primarily the Church’s cover-up of them—which roiled Canada and Ireland in the last century, exploded in America in 2002 and again in Europe eight years later—tends, in popular opinion, to take the blame for this. But the roots of the alienation stretch back much further. Masked by the low numbers of mass-goers is the fact that on the issues that most sharply divide secular and Catholic morality, which all seem to revolve, one way or another, around sex—contraception, abortion, clerical celibacy, women priests, gay marriage—millions of cradle Catholics are effectively on the secular side. Catholic fertility rates in the West are indistinguishable from anyone else’s. Contraception, whatever it might mean to the hierarchy, is largely a dead issue for the laity. And, search their souls as they will, increasing numbers of Catholics cannot find the harm in what is currently the hottest of hot-button issues, same-sex marriage.

Poll after poll in the developed world, the latest in the March 6 issue of the New York Times, reveal a laity disquieted by a Church leadership they feel is out of touch and inconsequential, something that seems blindingly obvious to outsiders and internal dissidents, but puzzling to the hierarchy. The latter can point to a vigorously active Church—the Vatican’s militant anti-war efforts, the Church’s campaign for the global abolition of the death penalty, its criticism of global capitalism, its ecological position papers and efforts to help poor farmers in Latin America. But those disenchanted laity are correct about their bishops being out of touch with their concerns. The hierarchy is more conservative than it once was, after 35 years of episcopal appointments by Pope Benedict XVI or his predecessor John Paul II, celebrated among traditionalist Catholics as the pontiff who “stopped the drift toward the notion we have to listen to the modern world,” as Toronto’s late Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic put it after John Paul’s death in 2005. Meanwhile, large swaths of the Church, especially in the Third World but also within the most vibrant parts of northern Catholicism, don’t think the sexual morality issues are debatable or even particularly important.

Theology aside, that situation arises in part, as American Vatican correspondent John Allen points out in The Future Church, because developing-world Catholicism is as immersed in its local culture as First World Catholicism is in its. Allen quotes Father John Mary Waliggo, a Ugandan theologian who wrote admiringly of feminism and liberation theology before his death in 2008, but condemned homosexuality because in his country, Waliggo wrote, it was almost universally believed to “bring misery on the entire village—and [as a theologian] you can’t isolate yourself from society.” A Canadian, say, desiring an end to clerical celibacy could hardly put the sociological case more plainly.

A church flourishes best, institutionally and socially—if not spiritually—when it is in general accord with the society around it. The Catholic Church’s long climb to accepted status in the mainly Protestant English-speaking world required many demonstrations of national loyalty, of proof that it was no more willing to obey the orders of a foreign potentate ensconced on Vatican Hill than any other citizen would be—an issue still alive in John Kennedy’s presidential run just a half-century ago. (In truth, nationalism has long trumped religion as an identity marker in the West: Catholics have been killing one another in wars between states for centuries.) But in recent years devout Catholic identity has started to again cause “chafing,” as prominent American theologian George Weigel puts it in his new book, Evangelical Catholicism, between “one’s life ‘in the Church’ and one’s life ‘in the world’ with one’s neighbours and accepted social truths.” The new friction, many Catholics predict, may lead to legal clashes.

Weigel, in an interview from Rome before the papal conclave, says it already has. “You can see it in Canadian attempts to bludgeon Catholic schools into teaching as a legitimate lifestyle what the Catholic Church understands to be immoral,” he says in reference to the Ontario government’s demand for gay-straight alliances in separate schools to combat bullying. “You see it in the Obama administration’s attempt to turn Catholic institutions and Catholic employers into delivery systems for ‘services’ the Church considers immoral. You see it in a Polish court fining a priest-editor for describing accurately in his magazine what abortion does.” Others, like Canadian priest and media commentator Raymond de Souza, have said they think jail time could result as doctrine butts up against human rights codes and hate speech laws in the modern West. “Many young priests I know expect that the prospect of one of us spending some time in jail for teaching the faith is not a distant or unlikely proposition, it is a plausible reality to be prepared for.”

The clashes are already acute, dangerously so for the Church’s social institutions, when the issues touch on the public dime. That Catholics, alone among Ontario’s religious groups, have a publicly funded education system has always been an issue with secular critics; a publicly funded system that, in their eyes, is actively opposed to one of the province’s core values—tolerance—makes the situation far worse. In the U.S., John Allen writes, Church criticism of the Obama administration’s health care plans has inspired calls from the left to bring its tax-exempt status under review; conservative voices made the same demand after Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony—currently under fire by liberal Catholics by covering up for clerical sex abusers—took an outspoken and progressive position in favour of immigrant human rights. And in England in 2007 the government ceased to subsidize private adoption agencies that refused to serve gay couples, resulting in the withdrawal of $9 million in annual payments to Catholic agencies—just inches away, Allen notes, from removing the right to run an adoption agency at all.

The divide between Church and secular society, and hence between more secularized and devout Catholics, over Catholicism’s “theology of the body” is not about to go away. For decades what the Church calls “life issues” has primarily meant abortion in socio-legal terms. But a new issue, clearly visible on the horizon, will soon join it. Call it euthanasia or the right to die, the growing social acceptance of freedom of choice in when and how to exit life might seem an outlier among the other, sex-linked themes that divide secular and religious.

In fact it isn’t, and euthanasia throws into relief what truly connects them. They are all aspects of contemporary Western society’s core value: personal autonomy, our right (and duty) to live our lives, barring harm to others, as we see fit. (In that regard, several non-Catholic commentators applauded Benedict’s resignation as a matter of the pope taking control of his final years rather than being in servitude to his Church.) In those terms, the gulf between the prevailing secular winds and traditional Catholic—Christian, actually—belief is near absolute.

The Vatican’s response is broadly predictable. Francis will strive to put the clerical abuse scandal behind the Church—as it already has (in large part) the abuse itself, to judge by the drop-off in new charges—by more transparent governance and compliance with state legal demands. Clerical celibacy—a matter of 1,000-year-old Catholic practice, not doctrine—may well undergo slow change, if only in response to the priest shortage. The Church will almost certainly pour more resources into its already extensive network of hospices and palliative care programs (now 121 centres on five continents), putting its money where its mouth is when it denounces euthanasia.

But the Church is hardly likely to abandon its commitment to Christian sexual morality, and it is liable to “chafe” not just human rights activists but its own wavering children. There will be efforts to re-evangelize them in newly barren territory—almost the entire continent of Europe, for instance—but little to accommodate them. For one thing, the numbers are against progressives in the Church, not just in the balance between the burgeoning southern Church and the shrinking northern branch, but within the First World itself. Liberal Catholicism, George Weigel says, is “infertile.” He means metaphorically, in that it transfers weakly over generations, but it’s true in a more literal sense too. As John Allen points out, the new marker of more devout Catholics in any given parish is the size of their broods.

If it comes to pass, a smaller but more fervent Church will have effects in Western society, where Catholicism has a still-substantial presence in health, education and charitable services, impossible to predict. But it is the likely future.