The Catholic Church in Turmoil
The Roman Catholic Church needs a new pope and rarely has the choice of a the next pontiff come at a more delicate time in the church’s history. Reports suggest the Roman Curia is in turmoil, Pope Benedict XVI having failed to exercise the most practical form of oversight. Across Europe and America clergy sexual-abuse scandals have thoroughly darkened the church’s reputation among insiders and outsiders alike, with many suspicious that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. In both continents cultural Catholics are abandoning the church in large numbers, a decline offset in America only because of large scale Hispanic immigration. Shortages of clergy are becoming more acute as priests age and fewer young men rise to fill their ranks. And as the Catholic hierarchy has been growing ever more assertive and conservative in recent decades, the gap with a much more liberal laity is becoming wider.
According to recent polls roughly 70% of Catholics support women’s ordination and the marriage of priests, while even greater numbers reject the church’s teachings against contraception. Most Catholics support the church’s firm rejection of abortion, but the laity are divided evenly when it comes to the recent conflict between the church and the Obama administration on contraception and health care. Paradoxically, slight majorities believe both that the administration should allow employers to opt out of its requirement that they provide free birth control to female employees, and that the issue is more about women’s rights than about religious liberty.
In the meantime conservative lay American Catholics like George Weigel are arguing that the church needs to continue to evolve in a more evangelical direction, maintaining traditional church teachings while reemphasizing the centrality of Christ for salvation. The laity in particular has to understand its role in the “New Evangelization.”
The primary lay mission in the church is to be the presence of Christ in the world: family, neighborhood, business, culture, public life. The challenge here is to get every Catholic thinking of himself or herself as a missionary: someone who enters “mission territory” every day. Getting a paycheck from the church isn’t what Vatican II meant by “lay mission,” or what John Paul II meant by everyone in the church putting out “into the deep” [Luke 5:4] of the New Evangelization. The Council and Blessed John Paul meant us all to be witnesses, inviting others into friendship with Jesus Christ.
The future of the Catholic Church, which makes up well over half of Christians worldwide, is of obvious importance both to Catholics and to other Christians. Evangelical Protestants will laud any sort of increased emphasis in proclamation on faith in Jesus Christ and his work of salvation. And while many Evangelicals do not share the church’s teaching on women’s ordination, the marriage of priests, or contraception, they should take seriously the church’s social teaching on matters like natural law, sexuality, concern for the poor, and abortion, most of which is based on the tradition they hold in common with Protestants.
We should be watching the developing story with interest. We should be praying for the Catholic Church too.