The Decline of the Catholic Church

The Decline of the Catholic Church November 24, 2008

In this past August’s post “On Desecration“, concerning the infamous PZ Myers wafer affair, I mocked the ignorance of a group calling itself the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy:

We find the actions of University of Minnesota (Morris) Professor Paul Myers reprehensible, inexcusable, and unconstitutional.

At the time, I didn’t think this was anything other than the raving of a few right-wing Catholic wackaloons, even if they were priests. But I may have to change that assessment. To judge by some recent news articles, the Catholic church, which at least used to stand for good education, has become infected with the same anti-intellectual disease that pervades so many sects of evangelical Protestantism.

Let’s lead with the most glaring example: the Bishop of Lancaster says that “educated Catholics” are giving rise to dissent and disloyalty in the church. He argues that mass education has led to “sickness in the Church”, and that education has a “dark side” due to – what else? – original sin. Although the good bishop stops just short of calling for the abolition of higher education, he does say that Catholics attending university need to be “better-equipped to challenge the erroneous thinking of their contemporaries”. The only way I can interpret this is as a wish that Catholics would be more dogmatic in their faith so that they are impervious to changing their minds as a result of contrary information.

Next up, we have a cardinal – not a priest, not just a bishop, but a cardinal – saying that President-elect Barack Obama is “apocalyptic” (HT: Andrew Sullivan). Apocalyptic, Cardinal Stafford? Really? I had assumed the equation of Obama with the Antichrist was one bit of hysteria confined to the snake-handlers and tongue-speakers, but if you want to jump in, be my guest.

The election of Barack Obama seems to have driven many Catholic leaders around the bend, not just this one. (Consider the infamous South Carolina priest who told his parishioners not to receive Communion if they voted for Obama. He’s not the first one, either.) This is almost certainly because bishops across the nation instructed their parishioners not to vote for Obama, only to have their demand largely ignored. The Catholic flock, it seems, is more progressive than their benighted shepherds, and the increasingly frantic assertions of empty authority from the pulpit are more and more often met with a shrug.

In “The Fading of the Church“, I speculated about one possible reason for Catholicism’s ongoing decline in the First World:

…young Catholics feel increasingly disconnected from a church that continues to bash gays, exclude women from the priesthood, and preach against contraception. As society becomes increasingly liberal and tolerant, the Catholic church continues to cling obstinately to its irrational rules, and is accordingly being left in the dust.

A New York Times article, Catholics and Choice (in the Voting Booth), makes a similar argument:

After a presidential campaign in which it was widely perceived that the dominant message from the bishops was that Catholics were morally obliged not to vote for a candidate supporting abortion rights, exit polls show that Catholics voted 52 percent to 45 percent for Senator Barack Obama.

…If the bishops sweat a little over these figures next week, the reason won’t be worry about their political prowess but about their pastoral and moral effectiveness. By appearing to tie their moral stance on abortion so closely to a particular political choice, have they in fact undermined their moral persuasiveness on that issue as well as their pastoral effectiveness generally?

That the Catholic hierarchy has undermined itself by being so resolutely out of step with its own flock is difficult to doubt, but I think the problem goes deeper than that. As lay Catholics, like society as a whole, become more progressive, the church hierarchy remains stuck where it is, clinging to the prejudices of the past. Their stance on choice is just one symptom of that deeper underlying problem.

Even today, the Catholic church still bars women from all positions of power. It still opposes equal rights for gays, compassionate euthanasia for the dying, and the responsible use of contraception. A church with so many manifestly immoral and irrational positions, which so plainly elevates its own dogmas over human equality and well-being, should not delude itself into believing it can speak with any moral authority to the rest of us.

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