The gates of the netherworld shall not prevail…?

The Catholic Church is Finished” by Ross Douthat is Idea #9 in The Atlantic’s14 3/4 Biggest Ideas of the Year.” Douthat is a convert to Catholicism and a self-described conservative. He writes:

This was the year when the cover-up of priestly sex abuse, a long-simmering crisis for Catholicism, became something much, much bigger. It was Watergate. It was Waterloo. It was another Reformation. The pope had to apologize. No, the pope had to resign. No, the pope had to be arrested. The Church could be saved only if every bishop stepped down. No, the Church could be saved only if a Third Vatican Council was convened. No, the Church could be saved only if it became as liberal as the Episcopal Church, and quickly. No, nothing could save the Church: it was too corrupt, too compromised, too medieval, too anachronistic. And now, at last, it was finished.

A little historical perspective suggests otherwise. The Church has been horrifyingly corrupt in previous eras and still survived. It’s been led by ecclesiastics who make Bernard Law’s hands look clean, and still survived. It’s faced fiercer enemies than Richard Dawkins (think Nero, or Attila, or Voltaire) and still survived. Time after time, G. K. Chesterton wrote, “the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs.” Each time, “it was the dog that died.”

But if the Church isn’t finished, period, it can still be finished for certain people, in certain contexts, in certain times. And so it is in this case: for millions in Europe and America, Catholicism is probably permanently associated with sexual scandal, rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ. And as in many previous dark chapters in the Church’s history, the leaders entrusted with that gospel have nobody to blame but themselves.


  1. I just happened to catch that yesterday with that issue. The way it was couched on the contents page seemed inflammatory. But, as you can tell from its brevity quoted above, much ado….
    But for a reasonably educated Catholic, Mr. Douthat seems a tad equivocating.

  2. If you want the Church to survive, thrive even, for Christ’s sake persecute us. But, the current “persecution” is of our own making and we oh so deserve it.

    Anyone for a game of “rearranging the liturgical deckchairs”?

    1. From Catholic belief, I believe, Jesus took our punishment upon Himself on the Cross, no? So whatever we deserve and in whatever era, He took the punishment Himself. In the temporal order of things, we deserve what we get, normally, but even justice on this side of life is tainted and resembles revenge more than justice. But Jesus died for the vengeful too.

  3. “But for a reasonably educated Catholic, Mr. Douthat seems a tad equivocating.”

    No kidding. Frankly, I was pretty shocked by this article. If the Church is tainted, Mr. Douthat is obliged to work to change peoples minds about it, not to merely concede the point and move on.

  4. @ Samuel Howard – Why is it specifically Mr. Douthat’s obligation to change people’s minds? What authority places this burden upon him? I’m not being snarky, I just don’t see where you’re coming from.

  5. Why is it specifically Mr. Douthat’s obligation to change people’s minds? What authority places this burden upon him?

    Christ’s command: “Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” (Matthew 28:19)

    1. Samuel, this is the mission of the Church, but I’m not sure that it’s the mission of every magazine analysis or editorial, even if written by a Catholic or Christian.

      1. And changing people’s minds doesn’t mean contradicting their valid impressions. In fact, it may start with validating them. The Great Commission is not fulfilled in eliding the reality of deeply sinful acts and omissions on the part of the shepherds in the Church.

  6. I assume that Douthat was making a sociological observation, not a theological one. And I think that he is, sadly, probably correct: at least for the foreseeable future, Catholicism (and, more generally, Christianity) is finished in Europe and North America as a majority ideology (though the situation is more obvious and advanced in Europe). Christianity will undoubtedly hang on as a (perhaps large) minority voice, but its ability to shape the whole culture is most likely spent, at least for now.

    Unlike Douthat (or at least his rhetoric in this one piece), I don’t think this solely the responsibility of the bishops and their response to the sex abuse crisis — it has as much to do with larger cultural shifts: post-industrial society, etc. I also think it is unfortunate for Western society, since many of the values of the West, including our conceptions of justice, human worth, etc., have their roots in Christianity and I am not sanguine about their continued health cut off from those roots. But only time will tell.

    Douthat may be the bearer of sad news, but that’s no reason to kill the messenger.

  7. What is Catholicism?

    First, for most people its our Catholic families. The sexual abuse scandal has had very little impact here in comparison to the increasing pattern of divorces and interfaith marriages.

    Second, its our parish. Little impact here in comparison to parish closings and mergers, now and into the foreseeable future.

    Third, it is our priests. Here we begin to get real impact. We have to be on our guard against abusers. Is this priest gay? Is this priest faithful to his vows? Is he skimming off the parish money? Suspicion and caution are replacing respect.

    Fourth, it is the bishops. Again there is real impact. Bishops by and large were corporate executives not pastors. Moreover they were not just unwise, they were immoral. They did not care for children or for victims. Large questions hang about them as moral leaders.

    Fifth, it is the Pope. JPII had gathered almost universal admiration. B16 has had mistake after mistake: the Moslem insult, the Jewish insult. His inability to get ahead of the sexual abuse story. JPII knew how to deal with the media, B16 does not. If it stays at this level we have one damaged Pope but not a damaged papacy.

    Sixth it is the Papacy. Deeper unsettling questions are surfacing. Episcopal appointments are made in Rome, and curial appointments are made by the Pope. JPII’s mishandling of Marciel threatens his reputation. Does the Pope control the curia, or the curia control the Pope? or both? Or neither?

    1. Disagreeing with you on the Holy Father’s supposed “mistakes” with regard to Muslims and Jews, but leaving that aside, the Church has always grown from controversy. When the stories broke in 2002, more men actually entered the seminary and were eventually ordained. Many dioceses have had their largest classes in years over the past few years–all men who entered right at that low point. Think of how many men and women enlisted in the military or went to fire or police departments after 911. Soon we will see the fruit of Pope Benedict’s US visit in seminaries and motherhouses. I have no doubt that we will see another spike in vocations soon due to the recent problems.

      1. Lifting the excommunication of a bishop who denies the Holocaust was not a mistake? Wow, you exceed all of us in your obedience to authority! awr

      2. A public relations mistake and a theological/canonical mistake are two separate things. The Church is not in the business of 24 hours news cycles like the Capitol and the White House. The Church exists for salvation–and in this case perhaps the access to the sacraments is just what is needed for this (probably crazy) man. Would the solution be to lift it for three of them a not for another even though there would be no canonical reason for it. If someoen in your order were to say at dinner tonight the sames things this bishop said, would he be excommunicated? If not, how can that be a reason to prevent the reconciliation of another. When I read the comment, I assumed that the “jewish mistake” was the 62 Missal Good Friday prayers which go against the American Commandment of “thou shall not offend.”

      3. This was a narrowly focused list of possible impacts of the sexual abuse scandal on Catholicism, from the perspective of what Catholicism likely means to the average person. My conclusion would be that it has had some specific impacts but the damage to, much less the demise of Catholicism is greatly exaggerated.

        As to B16, the recent Pew media data clearly indicate the public relations damage. By and large for most Catholics I think that is all that is known. Since the Pew data also clearly shows this has been focused on B16 rather than the Papacy, it may be a one Pope affair. Hey, he could even turn it around. The media loves turn around stories. My entire paragraph was merely to express the media impression left, not meant to be nuanced critique of his Papacy in less than 1500 characters.

        My items by the way were listed in terms of importance, i.e. there are some things like parish closings that are likely to have more of an impact. Also the changed attitudes toward priests may have long term effects, as also changed attitudes toward bishops than the media impact on the Pope.

      4. The excommunications of the four schismatics was for a single canonical reason–their unauthorized ordination of bishops. It had nothing to do with how they felt about liturgy or world affairs. The lifting of the excommunication, therefore, was a lifting of a penalty for that one specific instance. Despite popular opinion and reporting, the pope did not restore them to regular practice as priests or agree with them on any other issue. An imperfect analogy: a prisoner guilty of may crimes appeals to the governor for a pardon. The governor pardons him for a robbery but leaves the more serious sentences intact. Did the governor in this case agree that murder was ok?

        As for the popular opinion of the pope, I think much of the negativity was there before his election and some of it was basically dictated to the people by priests, religious, and other leaders, as well as from the media.

        I was not a big fan of Joseph Ratzinger before his election and was not certain upon his election. However, my opinion has changed after listening and reading his homilies and talks, reading his works, and seeing him in person.

      5. As an intellectual, former academic who became a bureaucrat but did a lot of visionary forward looking policy things in a #2 staff position, perhaps B16 and I have some things in common. But I was smart enough to know that I wouldn’t do very well in the CEO position. Maybe B16 wasn’t.

        As pastors I think both JPII’s philosophical/contemporary man and B16’s more patristic theological teaching models are good for bishops and even priests.

        However B16’s relativism issue is European and misleading for us. The sociologist in me shudders when we are lumped in with Europe. He appreciates the differences but others do not.

        I wished he had emphasized chant and Latin in the OF instead of expanding use of EF.

        The media has done what the media typically does. They basically want a story. Fortunately my CEO had to deal with them not me. I would probably not have done any better than B16.

  8. Many post-Vatican II Catholics have contended that like “anathemas,” excommunications should be eliminated from Catholic practice. Obviously it hasn’t occurred and these are still possible but less frequent. Interestingly enough, there are some in the ecumenical movement who believe Martin Luther’s excommunication even in death should be lifted, read here:
    However, there is certainly a body of evidence to support the fact that Martin Luther had a very strong anti-Semitic streak. So I wonder how grievously mistaken Pope Benedict would be in lifting Martin Luther’s excommunication. After all, it did take centuries of Catholic and Protestant Antisemitism that eventually culminated in the Holocaust and the blind eye so many turned toward it at the time and unfortunately afterward.

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