24Jul Will the Catholic church still be standing in a few generations?

Will the Catholic church still be standing in a few generations?

by Bill Tammeus on Jul. 11, 2012 
 

Like the oblivious frog sitting in the pot of water that’s slowly coming to a boil, we often find it almost impossible to discern even historic changes while they’re happening.
 
And sometimes when we guess at seismic shifts that may be occurring, we’re embarrassingly wrong: Thomas Watson, IBM chairman in 1943, is (maybe falsely) reported to have said then: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
 
So I acknowledge I could be way off-base here. But from my Protestant, outside-Catholicism perspective, it looks as if the current hierarchical institutional expression of the Catholic church is dying and will be essentially gone in a few generations — certainly in the U.S. Whether another form of the church will survive is unknowable.
 
As educator Richard Giannone correctly notes in his new memoir, Hidden, “The history of Christianity as an organization has been a history of disagreeable confrontations with new forces at work in era after era. The church (his reference is to the Catholic church) is either unable, or unwilling, or scared to deal with the evolving society in which it lives and claims, often loudly, to serve.”
 
Until recent decades, the church has been able to overcome this self-inflicted character flaw in various ways. It insisted, for instance, that it alone holds the key to salvation.
 
But in this post-modern era, when allegiance to almost all meta-narratives is quickly disintegrating, even that trump card won’t cut it. The church — if it’s to adapt and not disappear with the blacksmiths, manual typewriters and Kodachrome film — will have to return to its center, Christ Jesus, and to its mission.
 
I say this not to urge the Catholic church to become one more independent evangelical voice out there offering the false certitude of guaranteed paths to heaven. Rather, I say this to urge not just the Catholic church but the church universal to pay attention to the truth Giannone speaks when he writes, simply, this: “Community is the heart of Christianity.”
 
And in true community, there’s no room for unquestioning obedience to censorious powers. There must be, instead, room for doubt and forgiveness, for the freedom to share our fears, our hopes and especially our uncertainties.
 

The Catholic church seems more open to all of that today than it was prior to Vatican II. But something has almost extinguished the spirit of that liberating time of reform, and the church once more is manning (the male reference is intended) the barricades against modernity, postmodernity and anything that may follow.
 
The church has great truths and traditions to defend, for sure, but I’m guessing it’s on the verge of forfeiting any opportunity it might still have to provide a safe and welcoming place to people who cannot abide the church’s mortifying history of defending superstitions against what science and their own experience tell them.
 
Once it was that Galileo was a heretic for proposing that the earth revolves around the sun. Now it is that men and women born with homosexual orientations are “objectively disordered.”
 
Certain elements in the church’s leadership may continue insisting that the church is just defending truth with a capital T, but increasingly, they are voices that embarrass, voices that stand out the way wing-nut snake-handlers stand out.
 
If the Catholic church is losing its grip, what of atomized Protestantism, what of Orthodoxy? Both have issues that may undermine their futures, too, especially fundamentalist Protestants, whose biblical literalism is indefensible. But those futures seem less clear to me than that of the Catholic church, which is losing its ability to dominate, to provide inflexible answers to questions that don’t yield to simplicities.
 
I wish I could be here in 50 years to see if I have any of this right. But if I am right, I’d just wind up feeling overwhelming grief at all the pain that could have been avoided.
 
[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and a monthly column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book, co-authored with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, is They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. Email him at wtammeus@kc.rr.com.]

7 Responses

  1. Gene Carr

    Let me pick out just a few items from this piece which destroy it’s credibility for me. For the umpteenth time Galileo was not persecuted because he believed that the earth revolved around the sun. All Catholic thinkers of note in the early, medieval Church no less than the Renaissance/Baroque period held what became known as the Coperican system–including the Inquititors who examined Galileo; the Galileo ‘case’ is more complex than that.

    The writer states that people are born with homosexual orientation, as if this were now a settled and incontrovetible truth. Nor does the church describe anyone as ‘intrinsically disordered’; it describes inclinations and behaviours only as such.

    As for the endurance of the Church, this essay might just as well have been written in 1812, when the Pope was Napolean’s prisoner and the Catholic Church was regarded by the Protestant world more with pity than contempt. It could have been written in 1878 at the time of the death of Pius IX, when a Roman mob tried to toss his coffin into the Tiber. I would not put my money on the survival of ‘modernity/post modernity’, since by its own admission, the modernity/post modernity ‘narrative’ like all narratives will pass away–it is intrinsically suicidal. Instead I will place my money on the one marrative that will not pass away. “Heaven and Earth will pass away but my Word will remain”.

  2. Eddie Finnegan

    Gene, before I forcibly remove the Papal gong, “FIDei DEFensor”, from the (more-or-less)protestant grasp of Queen Elizabeth II and confer it upon yourself, let me say how right you are. Galileo wasn’t threatened with torture and consigned to silence and life-long papal house-arrest for any extreme copernicanism. I believe it was his foolishness in couching his argument in that dangerous genre of discourse, “DIALOGUE”, that got up the Pope’s nose. Rome has always found difficulty with the concept of dialogue, even when not used as a book title. If you insist on the need to dialogue, as is the habit of too many on this website, then expect to be shown the instruments of torture for your unmannerly method of argument; also pack an overnight bag at least for a prolonged stay at His Holiness’s pleasure. It could even happen a Butler. (Careful, Brendan!)

  3. Ann Lardeur

    Thanks, Eddie, you made me chuckle on a down day. Ann

  4. Gene Carr

    Eddie, I think we can all believe in the value of dialogue, including the current Pope who in his private capacity has invited critiques of writings. However, the exercise of his public office as Pope in matters of doctrine is an entirely different matter. To suggest that ongoing dialogue is appropriate in this case is to imply that the teaching office, the Magisterium is just one voice among many. In exercising that office authoritively the Church is immitating Jesus, who also taught with authority, an authority he bequeeted to His Church. I can find little evidence that Jesus has any time for dialogue, or was over indulgent towards so-called ‘lived experience’. You were ‘with him or against him’–it was take it or leave it. When the people of that time talked about the ‘lived experience’ of divorce for example, he told them bluntly that it was due to the hardness of their hearts. Not much room for dialogue there.

  5. Jim McCrea

    This church’s magisterium might think that it is imitating Jesus, but imitation is not the same as replication.

  6. Ann Lardeur

    Gene – have you never read the sparky dialogue between the Samaritan Woman at the well and Jesus in John 4. Or that between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3. I do love your typo which gives us the new word bequeeting! I imagine the Pope asking for advice from the Lord and him bequeeting the authoritative answer.

  7. Sal DelVecchio

    Gene practically covered every point. This material made me think really hard about religion, the church ad the human evolution. Thanks for posting this up – made me really think about the topic.


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