This is What The End of Empire Looks Like: Part One — The Demise of the Catholic Church

As a former Roman Catholic priest, liberation theologian, and emeritus professor of Peace and Social Justice from Berea College in Kentucky, I find myself smiling a lot lately. That’s because my daily prayers are at last being answered.  Evidence is pouring in on every side that the world I grew up in is crumbling at its very foundations. And good riddance! The Catholic Church, the most important institution of my youth and early adulthood, and one of the most politically conservative forces on the planet, finds itself in irreversible crisis and decline. The world economy shaped by the free trade doctrine of the “Washington Consensus,” has reached and exceeded the limits of corporate globalization. And most importantly, U.S. Empire lately acknowledged and embraced as such by Washington and the U.S. media, is coming apart at the seams. All of this is caused or accelerated by the ICT (information communications technology) revolution that has changed the world especially over the last fifteen years. Again, this is just what I’ve been praying for. Wikileak’s Julian Assange embodies it all.

This week let’s explore the demise of the Catholic Church.

The Defunct Church

Since all critique begins with religion, take the Catholic Church for starters (please!). It hasn’t been the same since Vatican II. Following the Council’s closure in 1965, cornerstones of its organizational structure have simply disappeared. The ranks of its priesthood have been decimated. Seminaries have been downsized and virtually emptied. The sisterhood which staffed Catholic schools has all but vanished. In my day, every good Catholic boy and girl at least briefly considered entering the “religious life.” Talk to your children about becoming a priest or nun these days, and most will laugh in your face.

And with the marginalization of Catholic schools and the disappearance of sisters in the classroom, Catholic piety and morality has changed profoundly as well.  For instance, time was when Catholics like me would line up for confession on Saturdays once a week or once a month. The less pious were obliged to confess at least once a year “under pain of mortal sin.”  No more. Catholics have voted with their feet. That balloting shows they no longer believe in confession. In the real world (as opposed to the de rigueur confessional sequences in innumerable movies) few indeed darken the confessional’s door. After doing so weekly from the age of 7 to 30, I myself don’t even remember the last time I did. It must have been 25 or 30 years ago.  

Another example: before the Council, it was a mortal sin to “miss Mass” on Sunday or holy day of obligation, like the just-past Ascension Thursday. Presumably, there are millions of people in hell right now because they didn’t attend Mass on those days as legislated.  However, if they’re like the pastor of my church, priests today don’t even bother to remind the faithful that the “holy day” obligation exists at all; much less that ignoring it means an eternity of suffering in the after-life. The clergy has learned that few out there are any longer persuaded. So priests have just stopped talking about it.

And why not? Hell, even the pope has cast doubt on eternal punishment. In a series of Lenten reflections shortly before his own death, Pope John Paul II observed that “heaven” and “hell” are not places like those pictured in Dante’s Paradiso and Inferno. Instead, he said, they refer to spiritual or psychological states of being in this world. Then, immediately reverting to the spatial model, he went on to say that we can’t even be sure that anyone actually inhabits hell. (That, of course, prompts the question about the difference between a hell with no one in it and no hell at all.) In other words even if only unconsciously, Catholics including the pope have rejected the traditional afterlife as nonsense.

And then there’s the matter of sex, the perennial obsession of the Catholic Church – and most other denominations. Of course given the pedophilia crisis, good sense would dictate utter silence about sex on the part of church “leaders.” Nonetheless, they garrulously insist on pronouncing on this topic at every opportunity. But here’s another area where hardly anyone’s listening.  I mean, look at any relevant survey. Catholics in apparently good conscience resort to abortion and divorce just as frequently as their “non-Catholic” counterparts. And (Be honest!) despite your own posturing and parental sermons, have your kids even pretended they were “saving themselves for marriage?” Probably not.  Even “good Catholics” are making up their own minds here. The availability of cheap and effective contraception has changed everything for almost everyone. Catholics are no exception.

Make no mistake about it. Vatican II is not entirely to blame or praise for all of this. A new awareness of the world fomented by computer technology and especially by its dispersed, bottom-up iterations over the last 15 years has played a pivotal role.  I’m talking about personal computers, file sharing, wireless, Wi-Fi, Skype, Facebook, and Twitter.  They have made us all more aware than ever what others think and do even in cultures far distant from our own. And if we remain in doubt, Wikipedia can answer our questions instantaneously. So, when an independent commission published its lengthy and devastating report about widespread pedophilia among Ireland’s Catholic clergy, people were reading it first-hand within hours. Within that same time frame, comment and analysis flew across the web.  Letters, phone calls, and e-mails of protest were flooding the Vatican. No doubt thousands made resolutions to leave the church or never to put another penny in the collection plate.     

All of this made undeniably clear the extent to which the church has failed to adapt to profoundly new circumstances. “Lapsed Catholics” and others long ago achieved that clarity. And their numbers have grown proportionately. Indeed “former Catholics” have become our country’s second largest denomination. Don’t be fooled: this is a major cultural shift that affects not just the Catholic Church but Christianity and religion in general. According to scholars of evolutionary Christianity, it’s even bigger than the Reformation, and more akin to the change that occurred when Judaism morphed into Christianity in the first century of our era. Here the center of belief is not tradition as it was for Catholics. Nor is it the Bible as it has been for Protestants since the 16th century.  Instead the basis of altered faith (or lack of it) is evidence provided by experience, by more widespread education, and by the newly available means of information and communication. You can’t change those things without profoundly changing consciousness.

The question is, will the laity and/or the (very) few enlightened clergy that remain care enough to take the reins of power and decision-making into their own hands to reform the church – beginning at the local level. Or is the church truly on an irreversible descent into total irrelevance?

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

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