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Opinion: Has the Catholic Church had its day?

  • October 14, 2020

Carlo Acutis was a keen teenaged churchgoer — a fairly rare phenomenon now in Europe at least. At school, he had the reputation of being a cheerful and helpful computer genius. He was 15 when he died of a particularly malignant form of leukemia in 2006.

Last Sunday, he was beatified in the Italian city of Assisi, thus becoming one of the many people celebrated by Catholics all over the world as being especially close to God. The act of beatification was also a clear expression of the desire to extract a deeper meaning from immeasurable suffering.

Deep need of reform

Right now, the Catholic Church is in need of a powerful, human presence such as that possessed by Carlos Acutis. It is currently in its worst crisis since the Reformation and at risk of falling apart.

Alexander Görlach

Alexander Görlach

Nothing makes this clearer than Francis’ botched pontificate. Intellectually, the pope has not been able to give a theological foundation to his ideas for reform or establish them within the Church. This is not saying that he is a bad priest or an incapable person. After all, only God, if anyone, has the right to pass such a judgment.

However, as the supreme shepherd of his flock, he has failed to rise to the immense task entrusted to him when he was elected. Pope Francis reminds me of US President Barack Obama during his second term. At the time, the Republicans made it their principle that anything Obama tried to do should fail. They refused to cooperate in any way or make any concessions. Similarly, the cassock-wearing archconservatives who triggered the crisis by tolerating and hushing up the sexual abuse of children and young people by priests are now doing everything to undermine the pope’s efforts to reform the Catholic Church.

Communion for the divorced? Never! Married priests? Heaven forbid! Then the whole world would know that many in the clergy are gay (nothing wrong with that, of course, but the Catholic Church, unfortunately, hasn’t latched onto the fact). Women in leadership roles? Certainly not! Jesus Christ was a man; no more needs to be said.

The pope knows what needs changing but he cannot muster enough support among the ranks.

Read more: German Catholic Church is losing priests and parishes

Another schism?

In Germany, the country that engendered the last major schism, this tragedy is unfolding in a typically ponderous and distressing fashion. Proposals have been made for reforms to address the loss of trust among the faithful and create structures to make the institution of church something that can be experienced and organized at a truly human level.  But the most conservative members of the clergy are doing their best to step on the brakes with their red velvet slippers and discredit any attempt at even minor reform.

The cathedral in Osnabrück, Germany, seen against threatening clouds

The Catholic Church is going through dark and difficult times

The liberal Protestant theologian Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923) is credited with saying that the churches would develop as follows: The Protestant Church, he predicted, would become a church that looked inward, in which individuals would explore faith and spirituality within themselves. In Germany, this is largely what has happened. For its part, the Catholic Church, Troeltsch predicted, would become a sect.  

Read more: The main differences between Catholics and Protestants

Power a priority

And the Catholic Church is indeed going down this path. The faithful began turning away from it in significant numbers half a century ago, driven away partly by its unrealistic view of human sexuality and its rejection of family planning. Ultimately, the Catholic Church seems to have nothing more to say about issues that really concern people.

Today, the Catholic Church is being shattered from within by those who oppose change. They make out anything that is human and humane (empathy with divorcees, for example) to be an enemy and condemn it as relativism and renunciation of the true faith. In truth, however, they just want to cling on to power. But those who are not prepared to renew themselves will end up falling into oblivion. That’s why nobody prays to the Egyptian gods anymore.

It is being said that Pope Francis wants to declare Carlo Acutis to be the patron saint of the internet. Hopefully, the archconservatives won’t spoil what would be a bold move. After all, there was no internet when Christ walked on the Earth.

The linguist and theologian Dr. Alexander Görlach is a Senior Fellow of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. He is also Senior Research Associate at the Cambridge Institute on Religion and International Studies. From 2014 to 2017, he was a fellow and visiting scholar at Harvard University and in 2017-2018 he was a visiting scholar at National Taiwan University and City University of Hong Kong.

This article was translated from German.

  • Still from film By the Grace of God (Jean-Claude Moireau)

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    ‘By the Grace of God’ (2019)

    Francois Ozon’s Berlinale entry focuses on the true story of a group of sex abuse victims who’ve formed an association to break the silence, years after they were molested by a priest in Lyon. The father’s widespread abuse was known by his diocese’s cardinal and even the Vatican. The actual Cardinal Barbarin, who attempted to cover up the case, is now on trial and could end up in prison.

  • Film still Spotlight (picture-alliance/dpa/Kerry Hayes/Open Road Films/Paramount)

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    ‘Spotlight’ (2016)

    Based on a true story, this biographical drama directed by Tom McCarthy follows a team of reporters from “The Boston Globe” as they uncover systemic child sex abuse by Catholic priests in their city. “Spotlight” garnered six Oscar nominations and won for best picture and best screenplay. The actual investigation also earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

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    ‘The Club’ (2015)

    Dark images, silhouetted actors shown out of focus: It’s the cinematography of a horror film. Chilean director Pablo Larrain tackled an explosive topic in “The Club,” in which four retired Catholic priests live in a secluded house and there “purge” horrible crimes, including child sex abuse. Larrain was inspired by true stories of high-level priests who live in hiding to avoid criminal charges.

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    ‘Verfehlung’ (2015)

    The German film “Verfehlung” (Misconduct) by Gerd Schneider depicts how the friendship of three priests is affected by a sex abuse scandal. One of them is accused of molesting teenage boys, and the two others react to their friend’s situation in different ways. The way they deal with the truth could impact not only their relationship, but also their career in the ranks of the Church.

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    ‘Philomena’ (2013)

    With “Philomena,” Stephen Frears deals with another aspect of the Church’s institutional abuse: women who were forcibly separated from their children born out of wedlock. The film is based on the true story of Philomena Lee, whose son was taken away by the nuns at the convent where she was forced to work and sold to wealthy Americans. Actress Judi Dench portrayed the older Philomena.

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    ‘Bad Education’ (2004)

    While Pedro Almodovar’s drama “Bad Education” is a stylized murder mystery playing on different levels of metafiction, it also tells the story of a young boy being molested by a Catholic priest in his boarding school. Ignacio, the abused child, is later a transgender woman who confronts the abusive father and blackmails him.

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    ‘The Magdalene Sisters’ (2002)

    The Magdalene Asylums, also known as Magdalene laundries, were Catholic Church institutions that served as a reformatory for women labelled as “fallen.” Peter Mullan’s 2002 drama portrays one such home, telling the story of four young women who were sent there by their families, or caretakers, and who faced extreme cruelty and abuse by nuns. The last such institution closed in 1996.

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    ‘Primal Fear’ (1996)

    A 19-year-old altar boy (Edward Norton, in his Oscar-nominated film debut) is accused of brutally murdering an influential Catholic Archbishop. An ambitious defense lawyer (Richard Gere) takes on his case. In the course of the trial, it is revealed that the beloved archbishop had abusive tendencies and had forced altar boys into sex.

    Author: Heike Mund, Elizabeth Grenier

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