The Catholic Church in Retreat

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The announcement last week that Pope Francis may plan a visit to Canada to apologize for the Catholic Church’s involvement in abuses against Indigenous children at residential schools sparked reflection on the state of the ‘Church today. The simple fact is that the church’s influence in the world is now at its lowest level since the early days of Christianity.

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For centuries, the Catholic Church has been one of the great pillars of Western civilization. He built magnificent cathedrals and monasteries all over Europe. She founded the first great universities. It provided health and education services to the poor. He ran large estates which formed an important part of the agricultural economy of many countries. Its rulers, cardinals and bishops, were trusted advisers to kings and queens and held important ministerial positions. A long succession of popes has played a major role in European politics. And its missionaries have traveled the world, bringing Christianity to the people of Asia, Africa, and the Americas. No other institution has been more influential in the progressive Westernization of the world as a whole.

Over the centuries, the church has suffered two major blows to its power and prestige. The first was the Great Schism of 1053, which saw an irreversible split between the sieges of Rome and Constantinople. The result was the creation of what would come to be known as the Eastern Orthodox churches, with seats in Constantinople, Athens, Antioch, Cairo, Moscow and Kiev. These churches have remained essentially faithful to the doctrines of the Catholic Church, but have ceased to recognize the Pope as their leader. This split caused irreparable damage to what until then was a largely united Christendom. The second blow came in the 16th century with the Protestant Reformation. Protestant reformers opposed not only many corrupt practices that had become evident in the church, but also many of its doctrines. A variety of denominations emerged from this movement, including Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Baptists. These denominations solidified their presence in Germany, Britain, Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries and from there spread their wings to the New World, where they spawned even more new churches, such as Mormons and Shakers. . The once complete domination of the Western world by the Catholic Church has thus come to an end.

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But the Catholic Church rebounded from these setbacks with the Council of Trent, the Counter-Reformation and the birth of the order of Jesuit priests, who became the Pope’s shock troops. The church has managed to maintain its dominant position in countries like France, Italy and Spain. And it too has spread to the New World. All Latin American countries have become predominantly Catholic, and Catholicism remains the largest Christian denomination in the United States and Canada. In the United States, the church has established an enviable position in higher education with universities such as Georgetown, Fordham, Notre Dame, and Loyola. And Catholic leaders such as Cardinal Spellman of New York and Father Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame University, have become highly respected national figures in the United States. The church marked a notable breakthrough with the election of the first Catholic president in the history of the United States in the person of John F. Kennedy in 1960.

However, the church’s glory days were already beginning to be numbered in the 1950s. Hundreds of thousands of Catholics left the church because of its stances on birth control. They just weren’t ready to comply with restrictions or church orders to have ever-growing families. This flight from the benches would grow exponentially over the decades. Women in Europe and North America have become increasingly disillusioned with the total domination of the church by men. Religious and secular women began to demand a greater role in church government. When their demands were firmly opposed by the church hierarchy, many openly opposed. A by-product of this is that the recruitment of women into religious life has reduced to a net. Most of the nuns today are markedly elderly and many convents have been closed. Nuns in class or in hospital services are now as rare as hen’s teeth.

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If the recruitment of nuns has considerably decreased, so has the recruitment of new priests. Parishes in Europe and North America all suffer from a shortage of clergy. Churches that once had two or three priests on staff are now reduced to sharing a priest between two or three parishes on Sundays. Many churches have had to close because of the shortage, and not just in remote rural areas. One of the main reasons for this is that the church stubbornly refused to allow priests to marry. Thousands of ordained priests have “jumped the wall” for this reason alone. (A perfect illustration of the problem can be found at the Grand Séminaire de Montréal. Once home to some 400 priesthood recruits, it is now reduced to less than 40 and had to close its large building on the slopes of Mount Royal.)

The closure of churches is not solely due to the shortage of priests. In church after church, congregations have aged and many parishioners have died. The remaining parishioners can no longer afford the costs of maintaining their churches. (The most obvious local example of this phenomenon is in what used to be the Bon Voleur Church on King Street West. It is a magnificent old stone church dating back to the 19th century, but now bears the sign “closed. “at its front door.) This decrease in the size of congregations is attributable to many factors, including growing materialism and the advancement of rationalism and secularism in the modern world. Many young people simply do not feel any attachment to religion and are not inclined to go to church just because their parents did. In short, the church is aging and aging in many Western countries.

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The latest challenges facing the church are found in the multiple revelations regarding the sexual and physical abuse of children by members of the Catholic clergy. Over the past 20 years, there has been a wave of such revelations in country after country. Church-sponsored and government-mandated commissions of inquiry have revealed a pattern of criminal activity on the part of thousands of priests. And other investigations have shown the efforts of the Church hierarchy to hide the truth and protect both the perpetrators and the image of the institution. This year alone has been marked by the conclusions of a commission in France concerning the sexual abuse of thousands of French children by priests over several decades and by the discovery of hundreds of anonymous graves on the grounds of former Catholic boarding schools in Canada. .

The church’s response to these revelations has been anything but exemplary. Beyond the attempt to cover up the facts, many bishops have taken legal action to try to avoid having to financially compensate the victims. Others were reluctant to share documents and recordings relating to the events. The last two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, did everything to sweep the matter under the rug and not face its gravity. It has been left to Pope Francis to sort out the problem and the growing toll it is taking on the reputation of the church. He is obviously a man of good will who wants to do well, but he seems overwhelmed by the enormity of the task at hand. He has offered several apologies for the actions of the clergy and will undoubtedly publish more, but these are widely viewed as insufficient by victims of abuse. Meanwhile, thousands of Catholics are abandoning the church and leaving it a weakened institution.

Louis A. Delvoie is a retired Canadian diplomat who served abroad as Ambassador and High Commissioner.

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