Saturday, July 03, 2010

The Catholic Church reacts to the loss of its status of social arbitrator.

Is the Catholic Church losing its privileged status in the the west? John L Allen Jr. in his blog at the National Catholic Reporter asks that question. Big stories about the Catholic Church this last week include:
  • Massive police raids by the Belgian police against the Catholic Church because of the Church's obstruction of investigations into child sex abuse cases.
  • A public reconciliation between Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn and Cardinal Angelo Sodano who Schoenborn has publicly accused of blocking action on a sex abuse case that occurred in Austria.
  • A decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to let a sex abuse lawsuit against the Vatical proceed. Another action by the American courts against the Vatican and the Salesian order was filed in Los Angeles right after the Supreme Court decision.
  • Personnel moves by the Vatican to appoint internal leaders with Pope Benedict's spiritual and theological outlook rather than diplomatic leaders. It's the Pope consolidating control of the Church bureaucracy.
  • In a related bureaucratic move the Vatican created a new department, the "Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization," which is intended to try to reawaken the faith in the West. The is clearly a reaction to the decline of secular power of the Church.
  • The fallout from the financial scandal involving the Congregation for the Evangelical of Peoples continues.
  • The European Court of Human Rights has held a hearing to decide if the display of crucifixes in Italian public school classroom violates European protections of human rights and of freedom of conscience.
John Allen thinks that all of this leads directly from
"the collapse of Catholicism as a culture-shaping majority in the West. When the dust settles, policy-makers in the church, particularly in the Vatican, will be ever more committed to what social theorists call “identity politics,” a traditional defense mechanism relied upon by minorities when facing what they perceive as a hostile cultural majority.

While there are an almost infinite number of ways of defining a “minority,” one widely invoked model says it has four characteristics:
  • Suffering discrimination and subordination
  • Physical and/or cultural traits that set them apart, and which are disapproved by the dominant group
  • A shared sense of collective identity and common burdens
  • Socially shared rules about who belongs and who does not
A growing swath of Catholics in the West, particularly in the church’s leadership class, believes that all these markers now apply to the Catholic church, and the events of the past week will strongly reinforce those impressions."


Some blame a rising tide of neo-paganism in the West for the church’s woes, while others say church leaders, and especially the Vatican, have no one to blame but themselves. Whichever view one adopts, the empirical result is the same: Catholicism no longer calls the cultural tune. Benedict’s decision to launch an entire department in the Vatican dedicated to treating the West as “mission territory” amounts to a clear acknowledgment of the point.

Facing that reality, Catholicism, both at the leadership level and in important circles at the grass roots, is reacting as social theorists would likely predict, with a strategy that other embattled minority groups -- from the Amish to Orthodox Judaism, from the Gay Pride movement to the Nation of Islam -- have often employed: Emphasizing its unique markers of identity, in order to defend itself against assimilation to the majority.
I think Allen is right that this is a reaction by the leaders of the Catholic Church to their perception of the decline in power of the Church. I think, though, that any perceived religious reasons behind the reaction are mistaken. The Church is losing its power to establish and enforce a centrally controlled religious doctrine but much of that is a direct result of the fact that most people are taking personal control over what they believe their spiritual needs are. A centrally controlled religious organization is more of a hindrance to that than a help.

So this is not a religious reformation. This is a decline in the secular power of the Catholic Church caused by several things. First, with the rise of industrial society the functions previously performed by the church have become much less significant to society. The Church used to be the main source of medical care, education, and social welfare for the population. Those functions have been largely displaced by the more efficient governments and by the main sources of wealth, the businesses. They require a healthy well-educated workforce, so the motivations behind public health and education have become primarily economic rather than moral. Another function the Church used to perform was long distance communications between distant communities. Technology and global markets have completely replaced the Church in that function. The Church is no longer the international Intelligence source it used to be. Both governments and multinational corporations have replaced it in that function.

That left the Church as the main contact between the public and the upper classes. The upper classes could trust the religious leaders to advise them about the status and needs of the populace. Generally the upper classes have always tended to be generally blind to the needs of the public, though they have been quick to recognize what they needed from the public. The Church with its network of local churches providing information to the Church hierarchy was a key source of information to the upper classes. The rise of democracies around the world has largely displaced the Church in that function. That has been especially true because the Church has consistently taken the side of the elites and worked primarily to pacify the public. Then, as the Church lost this function to alternatives, it has become more conservative and unwilling to adapt to new social situations. That refusal to adapt is understandable because all the trends are towards marginalizing the Catholic Church in modern society.

The leaders in every organization like their positions and justify what they do as being "for the good of the organization." But they are actually protecting themselves and their status. When the organization declines they will use every lever the organization has access to in order to prevent that decline.

It is that effort at self-protection by the Catholic elites that we see as the Church retreats into isolation, anger at intrusive outsiders and doomed efforts to rearrange the deckchairs on their Titanic.