Back in 2003 I submitted an article about the Church’s problems with pedophilia to Newsweek. They liked it and said it would run in three weeks. They sent a photographer out to my house, where we spent three hours getting just the right ‘thoughtful’ pose for a serious topic like that. But then the Iran War broke out and the next two months of articles were dedicated to war and politics. My editor called and said she had to de-commit, that I was free to shop it around to other outlets. I told her to keep it, that the Church had a way of blundering its way back into relevance at any moment.
It took less than a year for another scandal to arise and for Newsweek to call and the editorial to ru. As many of you know, authors don’t get to pick their headlines. In my case some helpful junior editor came up with: Is It Too Late for the Catholic Church to Save Itself? It didn’t reflect the tone or content of the article and caused a number of irate emails and phone calls, but it got the attention the editor must have been going for. And it generated some discussion—for a few weeks and then it was back to business as usual, including pedophilia.
Nineteen years after I wrote that article, the Church is still in the news for present and past blunders. Just this week Pope Francis apologized to the indigenous population of Canada for decades of abuse within Church-run institutions. Less than a year ago a French police investigation reported over 200,000 cases of child abuse by Church priests and officials since 1950. These events are taking their toll: case in point—Ireland, a country where the Catholic Church ruled unchallenged for centuries. But now, in the wake of reports about abuse, of the discovery of mass graves at homes for unwed mothers and orphanages, the country has, in many ways, turned its back on the Church. In 1979, when Pope John Paul II visited, over a million Irish attended his outdoor mass. In a recent visit by Pope Francis, an inspiring figure, the attendance dropped by 800,000. More shocking, in 2018 the people of Ireland voted to legalize abortion, an unthinkable position just a decade ago.
Why does the Church—and its officials and clergy—keep screwing up? One obvious reason is who it attracts and promotes. Put socially maladjusted people in situations where they have total control—orphanages, homes for unwed mothers, seminaries, etc.—and we shouldn’t be surprised when unchecked tendencies blossom into aberrant and illegal behavior. And when their sins are brought to light, the Church, fearing another Ireland, chooses to hide the sinners, rather than address the root cause. Believers can point to Pope Francis’s acknowledgement of the Canadian atrocities, but those are historical. If the pope wants to convince us that he’s serious about his calling, he should adopt a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy for pedophilia and any form of abuse and cooperate with, rather than obstruct, the police.
The second reason is that the Church, unlike most other religions, has always seen its role as going beyond religion, especially in the areas of political and social influence. Hell, it’s the only religion that has its own state: the Vatican. And while these days the focus on the nexus of ‘Religion and Politics’ is on the evangelical community and its support of Donald Trump, the Church has a two-thousand year tradition of trying to influence politics and events to its advantage. That’s a tough habit to give up. But the tone-deaf elders don’t realize that every time they weigh in on whether to stop allowing Joe Biden to receive Communion because of his stance on abortion, they may be reinforcing their standing within their own alt-right community but those positions are alienating the younger audiences that their future depends on.
So back to the poorly-chosen title for my Newsweek article: Is it too late for the Church to save itself? I don’t believe it is, but only if the Church does a major reversal of its focus, shifting from a self-preservation, institution-first mindset to one that focuses on the teachings and practices of its founder, specifically in championing the poor and disenfranchising by focusing on social justice. They have the right steward in Pope Francis, but recent events show that he’s already being outflanked and overruled by the entrenched Church officials.
Put simply: If the Church wants to be relevant in this millennium, it needs to look to a simple bumper-sticker philosophy. When faced with any decision, it should rely less on the question: what does this mean to our own continuance as an institution and instead ask: WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) That’s a Church worth believing in and a Church that could endure.