Think Again: The Catholic Church

From the outside, the Vatican appears resistant to change and tone-deaf to scandal. But, in truth, the world's oldest religious institution bears little resemblance to the mysterious church imagined by conspiracy theorists. Today, Catholicism is attracting millions of new and diverse followers who are embracing the church's traditions of debate and independence as gospel.

"The Catholic Church is Shrinking"

"The Catholic Church is Shrinking"

No. Whether it is the global shortage of priests, the empty pews in former Catholic strongholds, or the slew of sex abuse scandals, it might seem as though the modern Catholic Church is in decline. In fact, the church is in the midst of the greatest period of growth in its 2,000-year history. The world’s Catholic population grew from 266 million in 1900 to 1.1 billion in 2000, an increase of 314 percent. By comparison, the world population last century grew by 263 percent. The church didn’t just hitch a ride on the baby boom; it successfully attracted new converts.

Yes, Catholicism is getting smaller in Europe, and it would be losing ground in the United States, too, were it not for immigration, especially among Hispanics. A recent Pew Forum study found that fully 10 percent of Americans are ex-Catholics. These declines, however, have been more than offset by growth in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, the number of Catholics grew a staggering 6,700 percent in the past century, from 1.9 million to 130 million. The Democratic Republic of the Congo today has the same number of Catholics as Austria and Germany put together. India has more Catholics than Canada and Ireland combined.

What’s happening is not that Catholicism is shrinking, but rather, its demographic center of gravity is shifting. What was once a largely homogenous religion, concentrated in Europe and North America, is now a truly universal faith. In 1900, just 25 percent of Catholics lived in the developing world; today that figure is 66 percent and climbing. In a few decades, the new centers of theological thought will no longer be Paris and Milan, but Nairobi and Manila.

Today, fertility rates are falling across much of the developing world, so it’s unlikely Catholicism can maintain the 20th century’s spectacular gains during the next 100 years. In parts of Latin America, Africa, and Asia, Catholicism is being outpaced by its competitors, especially fast-growing evangelical and Pentecostal churches. Still, the single biggest challenge facing the Catholic Church is not coping with decline, but rather, managing the transition to a multicultural faith.

"Catholicism Is Right Wing"

Only in part. It depends on your definition of "right wing," and, for that matter, of the church. It’s true that the institutional structures of Catholicism are instinctively conservative. In the 19th century, Pope Gregory XVI actually blocked construction of railroads and gas lighting in the Papal States for fear of where such "unnatural" innovations might lead. It’s also true that on controversial issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and embryonic stem cell research, official Catholic positions stand solidly with the cultural right.

Yet the church has always been more than its hierarchy, and grass-roots sentiment is anything but uniform. The United States offers a case in point. American Catholics were historically Democrats, and despite aggressive efforts by conservatives since the Reagan era to court them, there’s still a sizeable liberal Catholic constituency. As proof, most opinion polls taken in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election showed Catholics evenly divided between Barack Obama and John McCain.

Even the official positions of the church would hardly draw a clean bill of health from secular conservatives. The late Pope John Paul II was the leading moral critic of both U.S.-led Gulf wars. Pope Benedict XVI has denounced the "false promise" of American-style free market capitalism and has emerged as an eloquent environmentalist. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church is officially anti-death penalty, anti-arms trade, pro-United Nations, and pro-immigrant — stances anathema to many on the right.

Bishops and theologians insist that, given the full range of Catholic social doctrine, the church isn’t compatible with any secular alliance. John Carr, a veteran staffer for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, calls Catholicism "politically homeless." In the nine U.S. presidential elections between 1972 and 2004, a majority of U.S. Catholics voted for a Republican in five and a Democrat in four. Whether it’s a matter of official teaching or rank-and-file opinion, the Catholic Church is hardly the American Republican Party at prayer.

"The Church Is Filthy Rich"

Not really, though it’s certainly not poor. Anyone who has ever stood in St. Peter’s Square in Rome and watched a prince of the church (the colloquial name for a Catholic cardinal) emerge from a black Mercedes sporting Vatican license plates could understandably find pleas of tough times hard to swallow.

Yet the wealth of the Catholic Church is usually exaggerated. The Vatican, for example, is rumored to be swimming in loot, but its annual budget is less than $400 million. For comparison, consider that Harvard University’s is more than $3 billion. The Vatican’s portfolio of stocks, bonds, and real estate comes to roughly $1 billion. For a slightly whimsical frame of reference, Forbes estimates that Oprah Winfrey, all by herself, is worth $2.5 billion. The great artistic treasures of the Vatican, such as Michelangelo’s Pietà, are literally priceless; they’re listed on Vatican books at a value of 1 euro each because they can never be sold or borrowed against.

Around the world, dioceses and parishes are sometimes large landowners, and the church operates a vast network of schools, hospitals, and social service centers. That infrastructure can generate some impressive-sounding numbers. In 2001, the annual revenue of Catholic programs in the United States came to $102 billion. Yet most of these programs either barely break even or operate in the red, in part because they often serve low-income and minority populations. Outside Europe and the United States, most dioceses and parishes get by on shoestring budgets, to say nothing of missionaries who often live in desperate poverty in remote areas.

Catholics — from the pope on down — routinely suggest that the church should adopt greater "simplicity," and it’s eminently fair to expect any organization that demands justice for the poor to practice what it preaches. Popular images of bags of cash stockpiled in the church basement, however, are misleading. They simply aren’t there.

"The Church Never Changes"

False. The reality isn’t that the church never changes, but that it never admits to having changed. Catholics who have been around the block know that whenever someone in authority begins a sentence with, "As the church has always taught… ," some long-standing idea or practice is about to be turned on its head.

For example, the church once regarded lending money for interest as the sin of usury, which is not dogma today. Or consider that when popes were also civil rulers, they put criminals to death; visitors to Rome can drop by the Criminology Museum to see a perfectly preserved papal guillotine, a gift from Napoleon. Today, of course, the Catholic Church is a leader in global anti-death penalty campaigns. More recently, Pope Benedict XVI set aside belief in limbo, a special antechamber in the afterlife for unbaptized babies.

Apologists may argue that what changed in such cases were the historical circumstances, not the underlying principles. But in any event, something important gave way. Typically, mounting pressure from below eventually erupts to cause a breakthrough, as happened during the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s. In a flash, Mass was celebrated in vernacular languages rather than Latin, Catholicism went from being critical of religious liberty to a champion of human rights, and Protestant "heretics" became "separated brethren."

That’s not to suggest that everything is up for grabs. A future pope is not going to teach that Jesus didn’t exist, that he wasn’t the divine Son of God, or that the bread and wine used in the Catholic Mass do not really become the body and blood of Christ. The Catholic story is always a blend of continuity and change. The hard part is anticipating what might change — and when.

"The Vatican Is Cloaked in Secrecy"

Not quite. Actually, the Vatican is far less secretive than most other institutions with a global reach — the U.S. government, say, or Coca-Cola. The Vatican doesn’t collect imagery from spy satellites, and it’s not obsessed with protecting the design of high-tech weapons. It has no trade secrets, no R&D, and no sales plans to keep away from prying eyes. As a result, far more of the Vatican’s business is conducted in full public view than outsiders might imagine.

Nor is the Vatican very good at keeping secrets even when it tries. It’s a bureaucracy, after all, full of opinionated, strong-willed people. Sooner or later, most things leak out. (There is a famous saying that Rome is a city in which everything is a mystery, and nothing is a secret.) In the summer of 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued a long-awaited ruling giving priests expanded permission for celebration of the old Latin Mass. By the time it appeared, however, the story was anticlimactic because the content of the ruling had been leaked to the press months in advance and subjected to exhaustive scrutiny.

The problem with the Vatican is less its secrecy than its utter singularity. It is unlike any other institution one could encounter, with its own history, language, and rhythms. If you don’t know the difference between Jesuit and Dominican views on grace in the 16th century, for example, or between a surplice and a surplus, you’re often going to find conversations inside the Vatican terribly hard to understand. Or, if you don’t know that the under secretary in most offices is the person who does the real work, it can be tough to follow the bouncing ball of church business. The trick to figuring out the Vatican is mastering its culture. Do that, and the veil of secrecy usually lifts quickly.

"Catholicism Is Obsessed with Sex"

No, you are. Prior to the sexual revolution of the 1960s, most people would have found the idea that Catholicism is prudish to be deeply odd. The old rap on Catholics was that they were far too given to the pleasures of the flesh, especially sex and booze, in contrast with the more abstemious Protestants. As the Catholic poet Hilaire Belloc once wrote, "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, there’s always laughter and good red wine." When critics today blast Catholicism for its "puritanical" positions, one imagines actual Puritans, who despised the Church of Rome and its moral laxity, rolling over in their graves.

Since the 1960s, however, Catholicism has been drawn into one public controversy after another on the so-called pelvic issues — such as gay rights, gender roles, the family, abortion, contraception, artificial insemination, and other hotly debated points of sexual ethics. Catholic teachings that once struck the average person as moderate or even permissive, such as encouraging large families, have come to seem positively antiquated to most observers.

The fact of the matter is that teachings on sex and gender are contested even within the church itself. Polls show that solid majorities of Catholics, at least in the United States, disagree with official church positions on matters such as contraception, in vitro fertilization, and whether priests should be allowed to marry. Narrower majorities favor the ordination of women to the priesthood and oppose outright bans on abortion. And while life issues will be a major factor for many American Catholics as they decide on a presidential candidate, social justice issues, such as assistance for struggling families and immigration reform, are often just as important. As with most matters, Catholic opinion is far more diverse — and tolerant — than is often understood.

If the obsession with sex lies anywhere, it’s with popular culture, not the church. During the first year of his papacy, Benedict XVI actually used the word "Africa" four times more often than he did "sex," yet it was a lone Vatican document barring gays from the priesthood that dominated news headlines. The intersection of sex and religion simply sells well, and it is not quite fair to blame the church for that.

"The Church Is Ultra-Hierarchical"

Not really. Catholicism has a clear chain of command, which makes it fairly unusual among modern religions. (Ever ponder the question of who’s in charge of Judaism or Islam?) The church’s Code of Canon Law assigns the pope "supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power." That hierarchical structure fuels perceptions that Catholicism is run almost exclusively from the top down. In practice, however, Catholicism is actually a rather loose, decentralized operation.

The Roman Curia, the central administrative bureaucracy of the church, has a workforce of 2,700 officials to manage the affairs of more than 1.1 billion Catholics. If the same ratio of bureaucrats to citizens were applied to the U.S. government, around 700 people would be on the federal payroll. In other words, the Vatican doesn’t have the tools to micromanage except in the rarest of cases. This isn’t Wal-Mart, where the temperature setting in stores thousands of miles apart is determined by a computer at corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Furthermore, Catholicism is not a massive holding corporation. The assets of dioceses around the world belong not to the pope but to the bishops, and that can give them considerable autonomy in administrative matters. In 2001, for example, Rome ordered the archbishop of Milwaukee to halt the renovation of his cathedral because it didn’t approve of the design. The archbishop replied that he was the one paying the contractors, so Rome could mind its own business.

Even within the Vatican, offices operate quite independently of one another. Sometimes Rome’s left hand really does not know, or does not approve of, what its right hand is doing. During the John Paul II years, for example, the pope’s own master of ceremonies often designed papal Masses that ignored changes from the Vatican’s office of liturgical policy. And anyone who has paid close attention to shifting Vatican responses to the sex abuse crisis has likely come away with an impression of internal incoherence rather than tight control from the top.

The reality of the church is probably best expressed by the old quip that Catholicism is "an absolute monarchy tempered by selective disobedience." Behind the local independence and the shifting responses to scandal, there is nearly always an impressive degree of spirited debate. As the church grows more diverse, this tradition of dialogue and deliberation will be even more critical to its future. Popes and practices will change, but the bedrock of the faith will likely remain strong and flexible.

John L. Allen Jr. is senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and senior Vatican analyst for CNN.

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