“The Church In Crisis” – so ran many headlines about the recent Roman Catholic sex scandals in America. But it’s also the title of a book by Philip Hughes detailing the 20 General Councils of the Church between 325 AD and 1869. If you include Vatican II in 1962 this gives an average of one every 80 years. Meaning that “The Church in Crisis” is probably the second oldest regularly occurring headline in history, ranking only behind that eternal favourite “War Breaks Out”.


Now “the Church” once meant all of Christendom. But the Great Schism of 1054 split it into the western Roman Catholic and eastern Orthodox branches, and the Protestant Reformation of 1517 further splintered western Christianity. So today the term generally refers to the Roman Catholic Church, which for better or worse has been the decisive spiritual force in Western civilization since the birth of Jesus Christ and still has more believers than any other religious tradition in the world.


The only other institutions to have affected so many people’s lives for so long were the Egyptian and Chinese Empires. But while these were geographically localized entities whose influence has ended, the Roman Catholic Church is still thriving and probably has devotees in every country on earth. It is as close to a timeless and universal organization as the world has seen, though its sometimes chequered past suggests that even in spiritual matters too much power corrupts.


The Church thinks in terms of centuries, goes a famous saying, and has always been extremely cautious about making changes of any kind. Not only is its supreme watchword “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, but something has to extremely broke for a very long time before it even begins to consider remedies. Countless times in its long history the Church has seen burning issues of the day fade into irrelevance.


For all its mistakes, only an institution with an unsurpassed understanding of human nature could have survived for so long. And a brief threescore and ten sojourner cannot but be hesitant in questioning the accumulated wisdom of 2,000 years. Yet in my view the current “pedophile priests” scandal is rooted in the dissonance between modern western society’s attitude towards sex and the Church’s. Keeping vows of chastity may not have been too difficult a task when people were all heavily clothed and pictures of naked bodies were virtually non-existent. But it must be very hard to sublimate all sexual urges when skin revealing attire is the norm and the media bombards even the celibate by choice with images of half-naked people.


To be sure much of the sexual abuse now being revealed was always there, and has merely been brought into the open by education and a more critical media. But it’s difficult to believe that our sexually dominated mass consumer culture has not made people on the whole more preoccupied with sex than they were in the pre-television and glossy magazine days. Personally I don’t see how the Church will be able to attract enough seminarians to remain a functioning organization if it does not allow priests to get married. But of course I’ll never know if I’m right, because no matter what happens the Church will be here long after my death.


I admire the Catholic Church’s unmatched history and the tremendous amount of good it does around the world. Surely it is the greatest charitable organization in history – no entity has ever educated and fed so many poverty stricken people for so long. But I don’t think it has come any closer to fathoming the mystery of God than the Protestant, Islamic or Hindu faiths, and I am an occasional Catholic attendee mostly because I was raised as one. Personally I agree with Pascal - absurd as it is to believe in a deity, it is even more absurd not to. But as to the nature of this higher power, my Euclidian earthly brain is at one with Ivan Karamazov - problems not of this world are utterly inappropriate for minds created with an idea of only three dimensions.


There is a certain anti-papist mentality, one particularly rife in Jamaica, which views the problems of the Roman Catholic Church with undisguised pleasure. Now I have never been able to understand why certain faiths seem to spend more time criticizing others than expounding their own beliefs. Surely the essence of all religion is to love our fellowmen and hate none. And even its most vitriolic opponents must realize that if the Catholic Church dies it is only a matter of time before Christianity as a whole follows. What would Protestants protest against if there was no Catholic Church?


Indeed some see the current crisis as the beginning of the end of not only for the Catholic Church but of Christianity. And while confidently predicting the demise of an institution which has so far outlived all its critics is probably not a very intelligent attitude, nothing human has ever lasted forever. In fact Christianity may already be withering away in its former heartland, for all across western European fewer and fewer people are going to church or paying attention to the pronouncements of spiritual leaders.


But one has to wonder if western civilization itself would survive the demise of its central faith. For history strongly suggests that religions are the lifeblood of civilizations, and that when a people’s gods die so does its will to live. It happened with Pharaohnaic Egypt, classical Greece, and the western Roman Empire. And perhaps the western world is now undergoing a similar process.


For is it mere coincidence that at the same time it is abandoning its churches, the west is also ceasing to propagate? The birth rate in almost every rich country has fallen well below the 2.2 per woman needed to keep the population stable and only immigration is preventing a net decline. And a people whose birth rate is continuously below replacement level has in essence lost the desire to pass on life and is slowly committing suicide.


So those western commentators who proclaim that religion is dying may have it all wrong. For that vast majority of mankind still firmly committed to some concept of a higher power continues to grow in numbers. If anything is dying it is not religion but the non-religious portion of mankind.


Perhaps then Dostoevsky was right - “… the secret of man’s being is not only to live… but to live for something definite. Without a firm notion of what it is that he is living for, man will not accept life and will rather destroy himself than remain on earth.”




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