Every prophetic religion has to play one intellectual trick. It has to convince people that there are a special few to whom the gods have communicated. And that it alone correctly identifies those few, and distinguishes them from the millions and millions of people who think they have visions, visitations, angelic communications, spiritual insights, etc., but who in fact are just ordinary people sometimes fooling themselves, or worse, the outright delusional and clinically crazy, or possibly, people running a con. Those who put their trust into a certain set of prophets are trusting even more the religion that teaches: “these are the real prophets.”
No one knows who wrote most parts of the Bible, who edited them, who selected them. Why does the Bible include Revelations rather than any of the many other volumes of apocalyptic literature written about the same time and place? Why do most Protestant churches omit books that the Catholic Church includes? Hundreds of millions of Christians believe “the” Bible is the very word of their god, yet are completely ignorant of how it came to be.
To give it a bit of credit, the Catholic Church faces that dilemma a bit more squarely than most Protestant churches. Its answer is that believers can trust the scripture it offers, and as importantly the interpretation it offers, because they both come through it, the Church that Jesus established and leads. That explanation is a bit circular, but still more sensible than the Protestant notion of sola scriptura. Which largely shoves such questions under the rug.
The practical problem with pointing to the Church itself as a holy and trusted source is that the Church has a terribly ugly and untrustworthy history. Its recent cover up of the sexual abuse of thousands of children by priests is one of its smaller crimes. This is the Church that decimated southern France to destroy a competing Christian sect, that sided with Franco, that burned heretics alive. To name just a few. Most of its atrocities were done openly, many ordered by the Popes of the time, in Jesus’s name. I always laugh when I hear someone defend the Conquistadors, by reference to the Aztecs practicing human sacrifice. As if the Catholics didn’t carry the inquisition to Mexico, didn’t have auto da fes there, didn’t burn alive Jews there. Those who believe the Church uniquely among earthly institutions is and has been guided by Jesus need to take a more jaundiced look at its history.
Unlike protestants, Catholics who become disenfranchised from their Church have no place to run, except that they make a major change in their religion. Congregants of a Southern Baptist church whose preacher is caught in sexual scandal can fire that preacher and hire another and wash their hands of the mess. Or they can move to another Baptist church that has nothing to do with the first. Or to a protestant church in a non-Baptist sect, but almost indistinguishable from it.
There is no Catholic diocese that has nothing to do with the next, and all are bound to the Church hierarchy. When Pittsburgh priests are discovered to have run a child porn ring, when high Vatican officials are being prosecuted for child abuse, when multiple states are forming task forces to investigate child abuse by priests, and when coverups for sex abuse extend up the hierarchy, possibly to the Pope, a Catholic cannot find a religious home apart from all that, and still remain Catholic. That is the practical weakness to making a human institution a central part of theology. A grave weakness in this era when it can’t use torture to control dissenters.
So perhaps the recent scandals are part of the reason that the Catholic Church is the religion in America that is experiencing the most departure to other religions. It’s too bad most of those leaving land in some alternate church. Maybe they fear the cost of shucking religious faith entirely is too high?
What do these latest scandals really change about the Church? Not much. They are minor compared to its past acts. The vast majority of Catholics will remain faithful despite them. There is a large dose of irony when American Christians wonder how people in foreign lands can stay true to their barbaric religions, with Islam especially in the crosshairs. Religions work the same the world around. They are taught to children literally at their mother’s knees. They provide the rituals that people use to marry and to bury. They frame the cycle of the year with holidays. And the vast majority of people so raised then will stick to their mother religion, faithful for the rest of their life. Even though it teaches nonsense. Even though it has a history of atrocities. The very familiarity of one’s mother religion makes its warts seem manageable, while the strangeness of a foreign religion makes its warts seem cancerous. That is so even between sects of the same religion. Catholics cannot imagine how anyone belongs to a sect of snakehandlers. Yet they somehow manage with their own church still believing in witches.
P Z Myers writes a commonsense post on the historicity of Jesus. The bottomline for most people in the secular world is that there is little reason to think we know much at all about a historical Jesus.
Even if it shrinks, I expect the Catholic Church to remain a large part of America for decades to come. American Catholics can take some comfort that their church isn’t as doomed as the Church of England. The Catholic Church is declining only in the west. It is holding its own in the south. Photo shows a Pittsburgh restaurant and brewery created inside a former cathedral.