Could The Catholic Church Collapse?
Grady Means, a Catholic who is a professional business consultant, says yes, the American church is on shakier ground than many realize. He says that the Church has made a classic bureaucratic mistake of losing sight of its mission, and coming to believe that its purpose is to maintain itself. Means points out that only a tiny proportion of the Church’s annual operating budget is devoted to pastoral care of souls. I don’t get the sense that he believes it’s wrong for the Church to engage in, say, health care provision, but he does point out that it’s easy to forget under conditions like that the main reason the Church exists.
Arguably, the collapse is under way. There are 70 million Catholics in the United States, representing 20 percent of the American population. But that is down from 24 percent six to seven years ago, a 20 percent decline. And that number actually would be 14 percent (nearly a 50 percent decline) if it weren’t for the dramatic inflow of Hispanic immigrants over the past 10 years.
Perhaps Means is blaming the Church’s conduct for this loss of souls. If so, that’s not entirely fair. America is rapidly secularizing, so the Catholic Church is bound to lose people. A priest who ministers in a predominantly Hispanic community told me recently that the US bishops are counting on the Latino influx to keep their numbers high, but it’s a false hope. He said that the children of immigrants are no different than any other Americans, in terms of what they believe and how they behave. Those kids are acculturated by American pop culture as thoroughly as their Anglo peers. In this priest’s view, the Hispanic surge is going to prove illusory in subsequent generations.
I think it’s fair, however, to blame the institutional Church for failing to take seriously the situation, and to respond appropriately. In my view, it is unreasonable to expect the institutional Church to understand the moment, because understanding the moment requires most of its bishops and pastors to regard the world in a way they find deeply disagreeable, and to change their policies and behavior in kind. They would much, much prefer to manage decline than to repent. This is why I tell Catholics (and all Christians) to discern what The Benedict Option means for you, your family, and your small community. If you are waiting for the institutional leaders to get their act together, you are going to go down with them. This week, I have to give a speech to some lay leaders in my own church, the Orthodox Church, and even though some bishops are going to be in the audience too, I am going to have the same message for them.
The hour is late.
Anyway, back to Means, the business consultant:
The important point is that the corruption appears to be systemic and may go far beyond sexual abuse. Where there is this much smoke, there is often hellfire. It is hard to believe that the corrupt culture of cynicism, arrogance, and lack of leadership and judgment was limited to sexual abuse. It would be a miracle if a secretive and tightly controlled organization with a $170 billion operating budget did not have other hidden scandals.
This is a wild card. Much depends on the feeding-frenzy behavior of the media. If reporters smell blood in the water — that is, signs that the same kind of corruption that caused the sex abuse scandal plays out criminally in other areas — there is a good chance that they will pounce on them.
I believe, though, that the most dangerous story, from the point of view of the Catholic institution, is the non-abusive sexual corruption of the clergy — in particular, the active homosexuality of a large number of priests. In this item yesterday, I mentioned the late Daniel Montalbano, former pastor in Chicago’s Resurrection parish, which has been in the news lately because Cardinal Blase Cupich removed its current pastor for ritually burning a gay-rights flag that Father Montalbano had hung over the altar during his tenure in the 1990s.
I published this view of a 1997 document written by the then vicar of clergy, Father Dan Coughlin, about what Father Jesse Garza, the priest the diocese sent in to take over from Father Montalbano after his sudden death, found there:
What were the horrible, unmentionable things that filled Father Jesse’s van more than once? The Church Militant website — which, fair warning, has a reputation for being sensational — wrote the other day:
Montalbano was close friends with Cdl. Joseph Bernardin, who presided over Resurrection parish’s 1991 inaugural Mass, the rainbow flag draped over the crucifix in the sanctuary. Montalbano was a known homosexual, holding gay parties in the parish basement. He died an untimely death at age 50, his body found in his rectory bedroom hooked up to a sex machine.
A parish staff member who was eyewitness to the event spoke with Church Militant and confirmed the account. After Montalbano failed to respond to knocking on his bedroom door, staff broke down the door to find Montalbano naked and still attached to the contraption. The archdiocese covered up the incident, reporting that Montalbano had died from a “heart attack,” offering him a priest’s funeral shortly afterward.
If you find that to be so lurid as to be unbelievable, let me suggest that you have not spent enough time researching the files of clerical sex scandals. This is entirely believable. That does not mean that it is true, but let me tell you, you have no idea how perverse people can be until you have gone through the files of cases like this.
The main thing that protects the Church from exposure of these non-abuse sex scandals has been the unwillingness of the media to report on them. Some media may have held back out of an admirable sense of editorial restraint, while others may have held back because they don’t want to give aid and comfort to people they regard as homophobes. Whatever the reason or reasons, if muckrakers want to find the truth, they could write any number of stories like this big 2011 one about the gay cabal in the Archdiocese of Miami.
Increasingly, good priests who are sick and tired of the corrupt ones will be willing to speak out. And I believe that the kind of “independent Catholic media” that Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the secretary to Benedict XVI, praised in his recent Rome speech for telling the truth about the situation in the Church, are emboldened.
The point is, the Catholic faithful should prepare for many more stories like the ones they’ve been hit with this summer. The rot is being exposed, and will continue to be exposed.
Grady Means’s second point about the prospects of institutional collapse has to do with the response of Pope Francis and the senior levels of global Catholicism’s administration. Means says Francis’s method of refusing to address the charges forthrightly, and instead to rely on thundering about how the devil is persecuting him, is a losing strategy. More:
The problem is that the pope is a product of the socialist, revolutionary theology, Latin American wing of the church. He is under extreme pressure from the sex abuse scandal and internecine warfare with church conservatives. As a socialist cleric, his tools are controlling communications, silencing dissent, spending other people’s money and, under pressure, cloaking himself as “God’s voice on earth.”
Unfortunately, he has adopted the favorite strategy of authoritarian socialist leaders when the heat is turned up: resorting to extreme nationalism and creating external “threats.” Venezuela’s former president Hugo Chavez and Cuba’s communist revolutionary and former president Fidel Castro went for “American imperialism.” Pope Francis is going for “the devil.” The problem for socialist leaders is, when their economic and political foundations crumble, such nationalistic trope never works for long.
At some point, the propaganda ceases to work. It has been over a month since Archbishop Vigano published his sensational charges, alleging cover-up in the Vatican, and that a number of the most senior cardinals and archbishops around Pope Francis are part of a gay mafia. Francis has refused to speak to these charges. The pope’s defenders are trying to maintain the fiction that the Vigano allegations have been disproven.
So far, the line has held at one level. I know for a fact that at least one major media organization has been trying to get Vatican sources to speak about the Vigano allegations, but everybody is silent — for now. Everybody is afraid of Francis. I heard this multiple times when I was in Rome recently. The pope has walled himself off from reality, and will only listen to advisers who tell him what he wants to hear: that he is the victim of conservative conspirators, mostly yanquís.
Meanwhile, the stories keep coming. Maike Hickson of Lifesite News and the Vatican journalist Marco Tosatti have released what could be a bombshell. Excerpt:
Pope Francis told Cardinal Gerhard Müller in 2013 to stop investigating abuse allegations against British Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, according to a highly-placed Vatican source who spoke to Marco Tossati. Murphy-O’Connor, as a member of the “Sankt [St.] Gallen mafia,” played a pivotal role in getting Jorge Bergoglio elected Pope in 2013.
A source from England with inside knowledge of the case told LifeSiteNews that a woman alleges the cardinal had himself been involved in abusing her when she was 13 or 14 years old and that she was the reason for the investigation by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).
Tosatti and LifeSiteNews have worked together on this joint story for some weeks now. We have shared our findings with each other.
Tosatti had previously revealed what he learned in September 2013 from a high-ranking Vatican source – “an extremely good source, who was then in the government of the Curia,” and he adds that his source has “learned [it] from those directly concerned.” – that Cardinal Müller, then Prefect of the CDF, was interrupted by the Pope while saying Mass at the Church of Santa Monica (next to the CDF building) for a small group of German students. But now Tosatti reveals that the reason for the interruption was to demand that an investigation into Cardinal O’Connor be halted.
Tosatti says he “asked for confirmation from the competent offices, without receiving an answer.” LifeSiteNews reached out to the office of Cardinal Müller, asking for a denial or a confirmation of the story, but the answer was only that there would be no comment made. That is to say, we received a non-denial. LifeSiteNews also reached out to the Vatican Press Office, asking for a confirmation or denial of the story. Should they respond, we will update the report.
Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor died on September 1, 2017, a year ago, without ever seeing a proper investigation of these charges.
Read the whole thing. From the English side, the article is thinly sourced, depending on a single unnamed inside source. However, it claims that there are unnamed “good bishops” in England who have been fighting to get a fair hearing for this woman, and they have been shut down to this point. Hickson and Tosatti have not proven their case, but they have certainly revealed enough information to warrant further investigation. I hope someone in the mainstream UK press takes up the investigation. Note well that Hickson does not claim that this woman was abused by the late cardinal, only that her allegations have not been treated fairly, and that Pope Francis ordered the investigation closed — presumably to protect his friend, a cardinal who was instrumental in delivering the papacy to him.
If Francis thinks he can ride this out, he’s dreaming. As of this writing, eight US states have announced investigations into the way the Catholic Church in their jurisdictions have handled claims of priest sex abuse. The devastating effect of the Pennsylvania revelations is going to be repeated, over and over. Notice that most of the Pennsylvania grand jury report had to do with old cases. Since the 2002 Dallas reforms, things really have changed in the Catholic Church, or so I’m reliably told. The real blows from the PA report have to do with the credibility of bishops. What the public saw there is the extent to which bishops, in the recent past, covered up grotesque sexual misconduct and abuse by priests, and left Catholic children vulnerable to them. The PA report was, and is, utterly devastating to the reputation and moral authority of the bishops as a class.
And the hits are going to keep coming.
The pope and all the pontiff’s men seem to believe that this is only an American thing. They could not be more wrong. News is emerging out of Argentina, critical of the way Papa Bergoglio handled these matters as cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires. Last week, the leading Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad revealed that over half the Dutch bishops from the postwar period until the present either covered up clerical sexual abuse of children, or were involved in molesting children themselves.
Today the German Catholic bishops released an official report on sexual abuse within its own ranks. It’s a damning document — and of course most of the child victims were boys — but the truth could be even worse than we know. The report has been criticized for lacking transparency:
The report was commissioned by the German Bishops Conference and researched by experts from the Universities of Giessen, Heidelberg and Mannheim.
The researchers wrote that there was evidence that some files were manipulated or destroyed, and many cases were not brought to justice. Sometimes abuse suspects — primarily priests — were simply moved to other dioceses without the congregations being informed about their past.
“The figures are only the tip of the iceberg,” said Harald Dressing, a psychiatrist from Mannheim University who presented the report together with Marx and others in the central German city of Fulda during a convention of the German Bishops Conference.
“Generally, the risk of sexual abuse of children inside the Catholic Church continues to exist,” Dressing warned. He said celibacy, the clergy’s power and homosexuality inside the church were all issues that promote abuse.
Today in Estonia, Pope Francis conceded that the abuse scandals are driving people away from the Church, and that”we ourselves need to be converted. We have to realize that in order to stand by your side we need to change many situations that, in the end, put you off.”
True enough … but these are only words. Francis is very good with words. On deeds? Not so much.
A German Catholic who attended one of my talks in Rome spoke to me afterwards. He said what is commonly known: that the German Catholic Church is extremely rich, because of the church tax paid by all German Catholics. In fact, the German Catholic Church is one of the biggest employers in Germany. But actual Catholicism — the thing that in theory animates the institution — is in collapse there. My interlocutor said that he expects the institution to follow in the coming decades, and for Catholicism in Germany to become a matter of what faithful families manage to live out in the ruins.
With so much influence and money at hand, one might expect that the bishops would use this embarrassment of riches to spread the Gospel further and evangelise an increasingly secular society.
And yet, this is the one thing that appears to elude the Church in Germany, so flush with money: its core business of spreading the Gospel and watching over the sheep, helping a growing flock better to know, love and serve God.
“The faith has evaporated,” a wistful Cardinal Friedrich Wetter told me in 2014. Wetter, a deeply spiritual, prayerful cleric, was Archbishop of Munich and Freising from 1982 to 2007. He followed Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in this role, and was the predecessor of Cardinal Reinhard Marx. We had spent the last hour mostly talking about Edith Stein, a saint he greatly admires. When I asked him why he thought this “evaporation” had taken place, he shrugged, biting his lip. It was the kind of shrug you make when asked about deterministic forces, things you cannot change.
When the Church’s current reality – spiritually impoverished and in decline, yet rich in material means – is actually discussed, two suggestions are brought forward. Some propose that the Church tax should be abolished. They seem to assume that if money will not solve the problem, then the absence of it will. (Though there is some merit to the idea, it is rarely thought through). The other response is an appeal for more heterodoxy.
Bishop Voderholzer, of the diocese of Regensburg, recently noted how “remarkable” these suggestions were. In a sermon that received widespread attention, the Bavarian bishop said: “Again and again, we’re sold the idea that there is a universal solution for reverting these trends and maintaining social relevance. We’re told that we must – I quote – ‘further open up and dismiss conservative dogmas’. We are then also told this means: abolition of priestly celibacy; abnegation of different responsibilities and vocations of women and men in the Church as well as the admission of women to the apostolic ministry.”
Instead of these debates and demands, Voderholzer proposed something different entirely. On the anniversary of a schism that is commonly called “reformation”, the bishop reminded his flock of a different meaning, which is the only way forward for the German Church:
“The first and foremost step on this path is the daily struggle for sanctity, listening to God’s Word and being prepared to start the reform of the Church with oneself. For that is what reformation means: renewal from within the faith, restoration of the Image of Christ, which is imprinted in us in baptism and confirmation. Where that is granted to us, by the grace of God, where this succeeds, we will also make the people of our time once again curious about the faith that carries us. And then we will also be able to bear witness to the hope that fulfils us.”
The historical and social situation for US Catholics is significantly different, obviously, but the trajectory is the same. The “sacrament factory” model of Catholicism can thrive within a culture and society that is basically Christian. But as the nations of the West secularize, and as technology (the Internet, social media) creates a situation of radical transparency, making secret-keeping extraordinarily difficult, the institutional expressions of the Catholic faith will be shaken at their foundations. It’s already happening.
So, the answer to the question, Could the Catholic Church collapse? is: absolutely, yes, in this country. Catholics comfort themselves by repeating the words of Christ to Peter, about the Church: “the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” That does not mean that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it in the United States. Nor does it mean that the Church won’t be decimated by apostasy. In the Soviet Union, the Orthodox Church survived communist persecution, so you could say with confidence that the gates of Hell did not prevail against it. But the Church was all but destroyed by the communists, and the Church in Russia has a very long way to go toward restoration.
All Christians in the West — not just Catholics — must prepare ourselves for the decline, and even the fall, of our institutions. It’s happening now. It’s going to get worse. There is hope, however! In his speech (translated in full here) about The Benedict Option, Archbishop Gänswein said:
Even the satanic “Nine-Eleven” [the sex abuse scandal] of the Universal Catholic Church can not weaken or destroy this truth, the origin of its foundation by the Risen Lord and Victor.
I must therefore honestly confess that I perceive this time of great crisis, which today is no longer hidden from anyone, above all as a time of Grace, because in the end it will not be any special effort that will free us, but only “the Truth”, as the Lord has assured us. It is in this hope that I look at Rod Dreher’s recent reports on the “purification of memory” which John Paul II entrusted to us, and so I also gratefully read his “Benedict Option” as a wonderful inspiration in many respects. In recent weeks, few things have given me so much comfort.
What he’s talking about is the book’s focusing on how St. Benedict and his followers arose out of the ruins of the Roman Empire, and slowly, methodically, built a faithful Christian resistance to the disorders around them — and, over the next centuries, laid the groundwork for the rebirth of civilization. With God’s help and our fidelity, it can be done, because it has been done before. True, the St. Benedict of our time is going to have to be very different. As I say to my audiences, perhaps the new and very different St. Benedict God will send is you. I want to encourage them to be open to that radical call.
We cannot commit ourselves to preparing to live resiliently as faithful Christians in the ruins if we do not recognize how precarious our situation is. For Catholics, that includes recognizing the clear possibility that the institution will not survive in its present form, not in our country. This is not alarmism; this is realism. The electric company, for example, has a clear reason to exist: to provide electricity to people. The Catholic Church’s reason to exist is far more subjective. Should the masses cease to believe that the Church is necessary to their lives, the institution will no longer have a reason to go on.
Those Catholics (and other Christians) who can read the signs of the times and get ready for what’s coming will not be afraid when these terrible things start to happen. Those who have walled themselves off from reality and pretended that somehow, things were going to be okay if they just sat still and waited out the crisis — those are the believers who are going to panic.