The church in the modern age

William Bornhoft

“Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday he would resign Feb. 28, the first pontiff to do so in nearly 600 years” read an article published by the Associated Press early Feb. 11.

Few other institutions still in existence today can boast such lengthy records, which make the French Revolution or American Civil War seem like recent events. The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, “who stepped down in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism among competing papal claimants” according to the AP article. This took place before the invention of the printing press, let alone Twitter or Facebook. News of Gregory’s resignation spread much slower six centuries ago, taking somewhere around a week, and was likely heard by most Catholics from clergy members during Mass. In a stark contrast, only a few minutes went by from the time of Benedict’s announcement to the point where it began trending worldwide on Twitter.

Along with numerous shifts in the political and cultural climate, the changes in mass media have completely altered the way the Vatican communicates with the modern world, and in many ways not to its benefit. When the pope speaks or writes an encyclical, it is received by millions around the world, most of whom with little connection to the church itself. The words of the pope make little sense to people without any context of Catholic teachings and beliefs, but it is delivered to them just the same. In this day and age, the likes of Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins have just as much access to the latest words of the pope as the most devout Catholics. This kind of access can lead to a high level of searing criticism from people of every belief and background in a way that really hasn’t existed before. 

For example, the church’s teaching on contraception is sure to seem medieval and particularly unrealistic to a culture in which many believe marriage itself is an outdated institution. The restriction of the priesthood to men only will inevitably be considered sexist when the notion of gender roles is questioned.

So a huge cultural shift (much of which took place in the last 50 years) coupled with exponential growth in the sheer number of critics makes for an uphill battle for the church and the pope in the modern age. Yet, perhaps the biggest struggle the church now faces, at least in America, is the lack of cohesion and continuity among its owner believers. American Catholics used to be uniquely obedient compared to their Protestant counterparts, particularly when it came to weekly Mass attendance. According to a report by Gallup published in 2009, Catholics of all ages attended Mass at similar rates in 1955, somewhere between 73 percent and 77 percent. Overtime, it has fallen and now more closely parodies Protestant rates somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent. Not only have rates fallen, but each age group also attends Mass at much different rates as well. Opinions concerning theology are also much more divided, and polls routinely show a large portion of the Catholic laity opposing church dogma.

Garry Wills, an op-ed contributor for The New York Times, argues that it’s the duty of church leaders to remedy this divide, saying, “In a normal government, this disconnect between rulers and ruled would be negotiated.”

What Wills fails to grasp, however, is that American churches that bend to the whims of public opinion polling are also the fastest to die out. This is because people who are more progressive yet still believe in God tend to live their spiritual lives as individuals “rather than as members of the liberal churches and congregations that keep trying to roll out a welcome mat for them,” as The New York Times’ Ross Douthat puts it. The churches that are easy to join are thus just as easy to leave. 

And what’s more, many Americans Catholics clearly have no trouble with identifying as such yet opposing major aspects of Catholic teaching, so why should any change in church dogma, be it a restricting or loosening of canon law, have any influence on the individual faith of the laity? American Catholics, and indeed American Christians as a whole, tend to go their own way on many issues. This certainly hasn’t always been the case, but this is the reality of institutional Christianity in the 21st century, where Oprah Winfrey and Glenn Beck have more influence over spiritual lives than any given church or denomination.

This uncharacteristically high level of Catholic disobedience is perhaps a testament to the heavy influences of individualism and classical liberalism (which have only been around for a fraction of the church’s history). Rod Dreher of The American Conservative recently reflected on the nature of Catholic defiance:

“One may say this is a good thing, this Protestantization of Catholicism, or one may decry it as a bad thing. But I don’t see how one can credibly say that it doesn’t exist. Catholicism, understood on its own terms, is radically opposed to American culture, and to the essence of modernity. Catholicism, as understood by most American Catholics, is not.”

So as the church prepares to elect a new leader, it faces numerous challenges, both external and internal. Perhaps the largest challenge, particularly in America, is not the number of Protestant denominations that challenge Catholic orthodoxy. Nor is it an explicit and energetic secularism (though the number of threats to religious freedom seems to be growing). Indeed, the percentage of Americans that profess a belief in God is only slightly down from where it was in the 1940s. Americans are still largely a spiritual people, but their theology is essentially a hodgepodge of meaningless clichĂ©s and slogans, found in self-help books, daytime television and political campaigns. The largest challenge facing the church today is convincing the growing body of “spiritual but not religious” people that it can provide sustenance for their very real spiritual hunger.


William Bornhoft

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