There was a time not so long ago when the passing of a notable, even if controversial, personality elicited at the very least muted praise for achievements and restraint on shortcomings.
That was most definitely not the case with the recent passing of controversial Australian Cardinal George Pell, who was removed from the Vatican’s number three position managing church finances on charges of child sexual abuse earlier in his career. Though convicted in an Australian court for child sex abuse, he was later acquitted on appeal. Nevertheless, Pell remained a monumental symbol of the church’s decades-long struggle with clerical child abuse and the leadership’s failures to effectively address it. This controversy still hangs heavy over the church.
Francis Under Attack… Again
Pell’s death wasn’t just one more opportunity to point out the church’s continuing struggles with its child abuse scandal. It was also an opportunity to lambast Pope Francis’ leadership of the planet’s oldest continuing institution. (Though Judaism predates Christianity by some 1,500-2,000 years, it does not have the institutional structure or leadership framework of the Catholic Church.) That Francis has critics is certainly not news, however. From the time of his installation in 2013, the Pope has been a target for his liberal or progressive views.
The press is awash with pieces about Pell’s anonymous memo that criticized the Pope’s leadership as a “catastrophe.” It seems this memo was written by said deceased and cashiered cardinal. Setting aside the matter of sour grapes, Pell’s assertion that, after Francis, the church “must restore normality, doctrinal clarity in faith and morals, a proper respect for the law and ensure that the first criterion for the nomination of bishops is acceptance of the apostolic tradition.” Pell also lays at Francis’ feet the Catholic Church’s loss of prestige. Lastly, it seems, Francis’ statements on issues such as Russia’s brutal and wholly unjustified invasion of Ukraine and China’s vicious crushing of human rights in Hong Kong and China merely illustrate the prelate’s lack of focus and redirection from the church’s true course.
These are unquestionably tough times for the church and for Francis himself. Left unsaid in Pell’s screed, however, is the huge dark cloud that still hangs over the church in the minds of many Catholics (including this writer): the still-unresolved matter of the church’s complicity in the decades-long sexual abuse of children. Efforts in state-level civil courts in the US have begun to address the many unspeakable crimes visited on mostly young boys by predatory priests and the church’s now documented attempts to cover up those crimes. As was the case with Pell in Australia before his acquittal, the UK and elsewhere in Europe, it is civil courts rather than the church that are taking action. As much as the church would like, it has failed to fully address the “tools of Satan” that have infested it.
Catholicism In Decline
The child sex abuse scandal and the storm over Francis’ papacy are only side shows to what is really happening in the church. With the possible exception of Africa, Catholics are abandoning the church. The decline in numbers of American Catholics is in keeping with the overall decline in church membership throughout the US. In 2020, according to Gallup, 47% of US adults belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down more than 20 points from the turn of the century. It marks the first time that church membership in America has fallen below 50%. It had remained steady at around 70% as recently as the 1990s.
What is especially noteworthy is that while membership remains over 65% among so-called traditionalists and baby boomers, it’s fallen precipitously among Gen Xers, millennials and Gen Zers. Data is unavailable for the upcoming Gen Alphas, but the trends have to be disturbing for all churches in the country. It seemed that Catholics may have been bucking this trend. Nationwide Catholic membership increased between 2000 and 2017, but the number of churches declined by nearly 11% and, by 2019, the number of Catholics decreased by two million people.
As baby boomer members decline, younger members are not making up for the loss. The percentage of Catholics who say they are a “member” of a church, as opposed to just acknowledging their Catholic faith, has dropped by nearly 20 points since the year 2000. So, even if they may accept their faith, Catholics are not joining churches. The decline in Catholic figures mirrors that of Protestants. The fastest rising group in terms of religious faith is actually the “unaffiliated,” people of no religious persuasion.
Also left unsaid is what the fall in these numbers means financially for the Catholic Church. Firm figures on the church’s finances are hard to come by given the Holy See’s lack of transparency, even with its own members. However, among those Catholics worldwide who give to their church, it is generally believed that Americans rate the highest. Moreover, the Vatican invests its funds heavily in the US. American Catholics wield little to no influence within their church, except through their donations, which are likely to fall with declining membership. And even among those who stick with the church, their disgust with the child sex abuse scandal and the millions in payments the church is now being forced to make to victims across the country have led them to reduce or even discontinue their donations. Loss of US income would be devastating to the church and its ability to carry out its worldwide mission, one more reason perhaps that churches and Catholic schools are closing across the country.
The decline in Church membership and even religiosity, especially among Catholics, in the US is not a unique phenomenon. Similar figures have been registered throughout the West, though the fall was presaged in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. Even Catholic stalwarts like Ireland, Spain and Italy, the ultimate bastion of Catholicism, have seen declines. Declines in Latin America, from whence Francis hails, is moving in the same direction. Notably, Evangelical Christianity is on the rise and seems poised to take the Catholic Church’s place.
The ”why” of that decline has as many answers as there are people. Certainly, among many Catholics of my age, the baby boomers, and countless generations before, guilt had been a driving force in their faith. And the church of that day masterfully wielded the baton of guilt, most especially against women. While newer priests have recognized that the “guilt them till they give” strategy was no longer tenable, the label lingers, especially as traditionalists still prevail even within Francis’ church.
Progressivism + Demography, the Way of the Future?
However, here’s one person’s data point. In a world where inclusivity, tolerance and caring are gaining increasing traction, especially among Millennials, Gen Xers and Zers, and even many Boomers, Pell’s call for “normality” — whose normality? — and “doctrinal clarity in faith and morals, proper respect for the law” is distinctly unappealing and even unchristian. The evolution of progressivism — a word that would undoubtedly rile Pell and his traditionalists — and especially demography make that approach a nonstarter and prescription for continued declines.
What may truly gall Pell and others of his stripe is that Francis may actually recognize this. Standing up for human rights, protecting and responsibly managing our environment, condemning patently unjust and murderous wars, and even extending a welcoming hand to gays and divorced couples actually sound more, well, Christ-like. (Though Francis could certainly be more assertive on these and on other issues.)
If Pell’s desire for the return of normality and doctrinal clarity means continuing to exclude women from the priesthood and demean their role in the church, prohibit divorce and contraception, and bar LGBTQ couples from marriage and membership, then expect to see more declining numbers and closing churches. The church envisioned by the recently deceased Pope Benedict XVI will most certainly come to pass, much smaller though perhaps stronger. And it must be said, much older.
Pell’s church is the Catholic Church of the past. Francis would seem to have his eye on something different. The future, maybe?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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