The Catholic Church faces an existential crisis but then, it always has. And its martyrs have generally built better than its crusaders. The crisis du jour is of course, the post-Christian modernism enveloping Western Europe and North America, i.e. the developed world. “We don’t need no stinkin’ Church” seems to resound in the breezes blowing in those places. But the world is larger than those places and a church that has always seemed somehow more real under persecution continues to build elsewhere. Even more threatened Protestants are doing even better. And everywhere Christians are a significant presence, they appear to be strengthening their commitment. Apparently, Christianity thrives inversely to development. That seems appropriate enough, given Mathew 19:24 to the effect that it is easier for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God, though I’m not sure what that says about development.
Since the Church in the name of God demands allegiance and obedience from its members, it is always seen as a competitor or even a threat by governments. The result is inevitably forced subordination as in China, mutual accommodation as practiced by Russian Orthodoxy or the less stable reluctant tolerance that is beginning to be tested in the United States as practitioners dwindle. In Moslem countries with conservative governments the Church is always at risk but secular governments may find it a useful partner for blunting the ambitions of politically ambitious Moslem clergy. Wherever it appears, the Catholic Church is always a political presence. And now, its political influence is declining where it has been traditionally influential while it grows in less impressive quarters. The Church is losing ground among the powerful while it is gaining among lesser folk; how will the Church’s captain plot its course among such shoals?
Its Cardinals are obviously concerned; they have violated a heretofore unbroken rule by electing the Church’s first Jesuit pope. Jorge Mario Bergoglio is also the first Pope from the Americas, the first from the southern hemisphere and the first from outside Europe since the 8 th century. As Pope Francis, he is a Jesuit serving in Franciscan drag to face modern attitudes toward contraception and divorce, assisted suicide, the difficulties of a celibate clergy, legal abortion, homosexual marriage, clerical sex scandals, demands for female clergy and charges of Vatican money laundering to identify a few of his challenges to be added to the shrinking church attendance. Further, he must deal with all of this as head of a church that has preached and enforced unalterable rules of human behavior literally set in stone by God and held immutable for thousands of years. Francis’ task recalls the event in the Viet Nam War where someone said that they had to destroy the village in order to save it.
That last is not hyperbole; when the Pope even hints at any significant change in the Church’s ancient rules, his more conservative clergy seem almost ready to set up his stake and build the fire while the progressives chafe at the slowness and paucity of progress. Both Catholic laity and ministry are as divided as American politics, leaving Francis challenged by the additional threat of potential schism. To date, he seems to have succeeded in scandalizing the conservatives and progressives equally without actually altering his Church very much, which must be doubly frustrating for an intended savior. But he can hardly be blamed for this; he is a very human mouse trying to redirect an elephant that has followed a path for some two thousand years, a path that has admitted only comparatively miniscule changes in direction for most of that time. Francis can lay out groundwork; it will be his successors who must shepherd significant adaptation of what must admittedly be identified as post-Christian views by his institution if Francis’ apparent intentions are to be realized.
There remains one caveat for this: 1919 to 1929 included the Spanish flu pandemic, the end of a world war, and a decade of corruption, sex, alcohol and financial excess that ended in the Great Depression. As the new century begins we are seeing corruption, sex, drugs, unsustainable financial excess and what may become a new flu pandemic, this time from China. For a complete replay, we need only another world war. However, the 1930’s responded with a strong moral reaction typified by Hollywood’s Hays Office. The nudity and gin of the Roaring 20’s was replaced by rules requiring actors photographed on a bed to keep at least one foot on the floor during the shot. Government became much less corrupt and churches gained influence. There’s nothing like hard times to discourage human excess and add new attractiveness to religion. But that’s probably a long shot this time – for the Church, not for the hard times. We will have to wait to see what develops. Pope Francis at 83 will probably never know but his Franciscan drag is telling, as are his political deferences. His Church has been a foundation stone for the advancement of the West; when his work is done, we offer: “Rquiescat in pace” – though His Holiness might prefers the vernacular.