Catholic Church is losing battle with modernity


It’s the Roman Catholic Church, not the Republican Catholic Church or the People’s Revolutionary Socialist Democratic Catholic Church. Its rigid hierarchy and its centralizing instincts are almost entirely due to the fact that it became the state religion of the Roman Empire over 1,600 hundred years ago. And the pope is still, in essence, the emperor.

How Roman are the traditions and instincts of the church that Pope Benedict XVI has led for the past seven years? Well, one of his titles is “Pontifex Maximus,” usually translated from the Latin as “Supreme Pontiff.”

That was the title of the high priest of the old Roman (pagan) state religion under the Republic. When Rome became an empire, the emperors took it over, starting with Augustus. And somewhere in the fifth or sixth century — the timing is not clear — the title was transferred to the Christian bishop of Rome, who had become the head of the new state religion, Christianity.

This is not to say that the popes are secretly pagans: They are monotheists to the core. (The answer to the rhetorical question “Is the pope a Catholic?” is “yes”.) But they are Roman Catholics, and the religion they lead is still run like an empire. Very occasionally some maverick pope tries to change the model, but the system always wins in the end.

Benedict XVI was the emperor of a shrinking domain, for the Catholic Church has been shedding adherents not only in the West, where it is everywhere in steep decline, but also in the Latin American, African and Asian countries where it once held unchallenged sway. While secularism is the enemy that steals the faithful in the West, evangelical forms of Christianity are seducing Catholic believers away in what we used to call the Third World.

There are many who blame this hemorrhage on the outgoing pope (the first time anybody has ever used that phrase about a pope, for they normally die in office, like the emperors did). Benedict was chosen by his colleagues because they believed that he would fight off fundamental change, and he performed his duty well. His resignation for health reasons is an innovation, but it is the first that he has been guilty of.

He held the line on abortion (a sin in almost all circumstances), homosexuality (likewise, unless the person remains entirely celibate), married or female priests (definitely not), remarriage after divorce (ditto), and contraception (under no circumstances, though he later said that HIV-positive prostitutes might be justified in asking their clients to use condoms).

It may seem weird that all of these major controversies are about sexuality or gender, but that’s not actually the Catholic Church’s fault. It’s equally inflexible in defending the doctrines of the Virgin Birth, the God of the Trinity and Papal Infallibility. It’s just that far more Catholics care about doctrines that affect their daily lives than about theological dogmas that have little practical effect.

What the Catholic Church is really fighting is modernization, which it sees as moral decline. Perhaps it is right (though I don’t think so personally), but it is losing the battle. Yet Benedict XVI and the church hierarchy are condemned to fight this battle until the last ditch, because they believe, probably correctly, that full modernization would make them irrelevant.

So there’s no point in going on about how Pope Benedict XVI (or will we go back to calling him Cardinal Ratzinger after the end of this month?) failed to modernize the church. He wasn’t hired to do that. The only pope who did try was John XXIII, and he died 50 years ago. Every pope since then (including the charismatic but deeply conservative John Paul II) has seen his task as being to stem the tide of change and restore the old order.

The job was largely complete even before Benedict became pope seven years ago. His job has merely been to ensure that there is no backsliding into liberalism, relativism and other modernist errors, and he has achieved that by ensuring that almost the entire College of Cardinals (the men who choose the next pope) are reliably conservative and orthodox.

The college had already been stuffed with conservative cardinals by his predecessor, John Paul II, so even there he really didn’t have to do much except steer the same steady course.

Not a single one of the cardinals who are seen as papabili (men who might be elected as pope) could be described as liberal or reformist. There will be a new pope, but nothing is going to change. The hemorrhage will continue.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

  • Actually, for a non-believer this was a pretty decent article. No frothing at the mouth. No attempts to tell the Church why it should embrace relativism.
    The only thing I have to disagree with is the entire premise of the article, that a ‘hemorrhage’ is a bad thing. The author failed to see his own point through on this. Whenever Catholicism was the only option it swelled with faithful and unfaithful adherents. Wherever was just one of many options, it swelled with faithful adherents and decline in unfaithful adherents. Whenever the Catholic Church was persecuted for its beliefs it swelled with faithful adherents through the blood of martyrs.

    • David Bennet

      I applaud your optimism that in a world of choice (which would necessarily preclude persecution) the Catholic Church would see increased numbers (‘swell with’) of faithful adherents. Be that as it may, such a church would hardly be ‘Catholic’, which I’ve always understood to imply ‘universal’, but merely a sect or denomination. Which, I suspect, you would also regard as a ‘bad thing’.

    • David Bennet

      I applaud your optimism that in a world of choice (which would
      necessarily preclude persecution) the Catholic Church would see
      increased numbers of (‘swell with’) faithful adherents. Be that as it
      may, such a church would hardly be ‘Catholic’, which I’ve always
      understood to imply ‘universal’, but merely a sect or denomination.
      Which, I suspect, you also would regard as a ‘bad thing’.

    • Roan23

      Very well put!

  • David W

    People have been predicting the demise of the Church for centuries, warning that the Church must “change or die.” We’re still here and we’ll continue to be here when today’s attitudes are considered as archaic as the “modern” views of 500 years ago

  • Michelle_Sutton

    Abortion, actually, is a sin in ALL circumstances. Intending to save the life of a mother which results in the death of her child is not a direct abortion (principle of double effect). That, and a number of other inaccuracies, does not take away from a decently written article. I’m impressed, as Gwynne usually falls quite flat in his commentaries on the Catholic Church, compared to your normally excellent insights.

  • Roan23

    Liberals make much of being “open-minded” but in practice are remarkably close-minded themselves and thus have great
    difficulty in imagining how anyone could not think as they do. Gwynne Dyer, exemplifying the liberal-dominated media, tries hard to describe the Catholic vision of the world but ultimately fails, unable to grasp how what is true and good could be
    distinct from what is popular and immediately convenient, The Japan Times will no doubt publish further commentary on the Holy Father’s resignation and the state of the Church, all with the same drearily predictable perspective.

  • The article’s first paragraph hits the nail on the head. In the fifth century A.D., Pope Leo I very deliberately adopted the Roman Imperial title “Pontifex Maximus” after that title had been discarded by the Christian emperor Gratian in the previous century. It is also no accident that the nouns for Catholic ecclesiastical districts, i.e., “diocese” and “parish,” are borrowed from Roman Imperial administrative titles for imperial provinces and taxation districts. As Gwynne Dyer notes, the Roman Catholic Church is very explicitly and self-consciously the political heir to the declining Western Roman Empire of the fifth century. So it is not surprising that the 21st-century church is unable to cope with modernity.

    • Dan Li

      Pontifex Maximus isn’t even one of the Pope’s official titles. The office may have been conflated for purposes of an understanding of authority, but it remains just a term. His primary title is simply “The Bishop of Rome” and by that office, “Metropolitan of the Roman Province” (or Latium), “Primate of Italy”, “Patriarch of the Latin Rite”, “Vicar of Christ” (as successor of Peter), and “Summus Pontifex Ecclesiae Universalis”.

      The problem is the Church isn’t supposed to simply “cope” with ‘modernity’ or rather philosophical modernism. It’s supposed to be a continuous temporal reminder of the Faith.

  • TeamRed_vs_TeamBlue

    The whole thing is a nothing more than supernatural claptrap. The Roman Empire is so 1600 years ago– Time to give it up.

    Sell off the gold, the jewels, the paintings, the land, the silly costumes and gilded thrones. Make the Vatican a theme park. Take the proceeds and spend it on helping suffering people throughout the world.

  • GodsGoodCountry

    The Church is self-defined. Why do you bother trying to think up new ways to define it? Why do you care? It is precisely this battle with modernism, which is attempting to change the Church, that is the destructive element.

  • Dan Li

    Dyer, some of your facts are off. Homosexuals could theoretically fulfill the vows of marriage provided the right intent is there, but only in a heterosexual relationship. We have married men may become priests (in the Eastern Rites), but once consecrated, a cleric can’t marry. (As seen by the Church such things as ‘gay marriages’ and ‘second marriages with still-living spouses’ are a non-sense in the manner of a two-sided triangle. The lack of priestesses is due to a lack of authority from the Deposit of Faith.)

    As for Benedict’s election, you are right in the sense that he was brought to ensure the theological and intellectual foundations of the faith. That’s an intrinsic part of the Church’s whole integrity (continuity and all that, also, the purpose of apostolic succession, a priesthood, and big-T Tradition).

    As for modernism…. well, yes the tides of culture are almost always out of step with the Church’s weltanschauung. The modernist culture we’ve developed today is philosophically inconsistent or incapable, and the postmodernist tendencies of our populace will, in all likelihood, give way after a few decades or centuries. Really, the hemorrhage we’ve seen is likely due to improper formation and catechesis, or shallow reasons of faith.

    • Mints

      You have it the wrong way around: it is the Church’s weltanschauung that is out of step with modernity. And certainly you have to admit that the worldwide sexual abuse scandal is a major reason for the hemorrhage (at least in the West). Or is “improper… catechesis” your euphemism for that?