I try not to mix politics and religion in my columns. There are too many variables and circumstances that impact the subject far beyond what a few hundred words can cover. But I feel the situation is so dire today with respect to the Roman Catholic Church and its rapid decline in everyday society that I can't help but point it out.
Full disclosure: I’m not Catholic, practicing or otherwise. This South Carolinian from the Bible Belt was raised more along Protestant lines. But Catholic and Protestant alike all believe in and serve a living God. Still, I am well aware of the major importance and influence the Catholic Church wields in this country, and the role it must and should play as this nation plunges headlong into the 21st Century.
This country is crying out for leadership, on both political and religious levels. America is in desperate need of a revival. It’s during these dark days when the Catholic Church should rise to meet the challenge. Yet it remains so tangled in its own web of deception and institutional cover-ups to offer any credible, moral leadership.
The first evidence of this decline is also some of the most powerful. Worldwide, membership in the church is dropping at an alarming rate. While the institution still remains a close second among major religions with 1.1 billion members (compared to 1.5 billion Muslims), rolls are trending in the wrong direction. Here in the U.S., four American-born Catholics have left the church for every new member, according to Pew data examining membership since the 1960s. In 2008, Catholic membership plummeted by more than 400,000. Almost half of all Catholic high schools have closed since 1965. In that same year, 1,575 new priests were ordained in the U.S. By 2002, the number was 450. As the National Catholic Reporter stated in The Week magazine in April, it’s “the largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in church history.”
There’s a cause and effect here, and as painful as it is to address, the topic must be dealt with. The years of reported sex-abuse scandals have taken their toll; to the point where I believe they are the single-greatest contributor to the church’s struggles of late. When the first wave of allegations and later, outright admissions by church elders, were revealed, it rocked Catholicism to its core.
The latest wave of abuses created seismic reverberations as stories percolated to the highest echelons of the Catholic inner circle – including Pope Benedict XVI himself. Such episodes unfortunately are not isolated to America alone. In Latin America – a Catholic bastion – the same sickening behavior haunted parishioners in countries such as Mexico and Brazil. The latest reared its head in March with allegations of sexual abuse of altar boys in Germany. Ireland, too, produced reports detailing repeated advances and sexual violations by clericsClearly, there’s a problem, but is the average layman aware of the church moving to offer a solution? Judgment of any sort? What punishments have been meted out? Has anyone in the church gone to jail for such crimes?
As a society, we have a zero tolerance policy for these predators. Yet with the church, tacit acknowledgment translates into passive condolence. It’s almost as if leadership has adopted some twisted version of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in hopes it will all go away.
To put it bluntly, the politics of religion is impacting the practice of religion in the church, and doing irreparable harm as a consequence.
I speak for millions when I say I’m disappointed in the current leadership of the Catholic Church. And the church, frankly speaking, should be disappointed in itself.
The times are too demanding and so many are in need of its leadership that something must be changed. The church can't afford to be on the sidelines of moral leadership. Not now.
For centuries it was known as the purveyor of truth – a corporate body of fallible men, yes, but speaking for an infallible God. Today it seems as though the institution is wandering in the wilderness; its greatest sin is that of situational ethics.
These actions are the failings of man, not the failings of a great theocracy-based, God-fearing sanctuary. No one is above the law, not the laws of man and certainly not the laws of God.
By sweeping this under the rug, the church is saying when things skate too close to the Pope himself, then perhaps it’s time if the public backed off a little - in the interests of the church and all the good it’s done through the centuries. To hear their argument, drawing attention to our one fault, our one sin, potentially blots out the benevolent things we’ve done. Or in the case of these pedophiles, the benevolent things they’ve done. Is it asking too much to overlook their predatory behavior?
Critics will say I’ve taken too many liberties with this column. That I’m overlooking key developments or that such talk will only serve to weaken the church. I want to see a stronger Catholic church. One that leads. Not one that is sheepish or keeps to the shadows because of unconfessed sins and unreconciled behaviors.
We stand in the midst of questionable times. Doubt creeps and lurks all around us. Like the great economic and political revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries, they also contained equally powerful spiritual revivals such as the Second Great Awakening. We need such a revival. Our very souls cry out for such an awakening. The Catholic Church should take up that mantle, but first it must get right with its Maker.