I would like to say that I am a long-time member of the Catholic laity. I almost said “Church” but it is not yet a reality when laymen feel they are the Church. I admit there have been some noticeable effort compared to the none of a not-so-long-ago past but it is too little, too inconsequential. For so long, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church had almost total power over its flock, even the power of life and death at long intervals in history. Transitioning to a laity-driven and operated Church seems already an impossibility unless a radical disruption happens first.
Yes, the Catholic Church has withstood all the challenges that man and events threw at it for two thousand years. That is no small achievement. To count lay membership in 2019 at 1.3 billion is not to be scoffed at. Yet, the numbers (and consequently, the influence) of the Catholic Church has never been as challenged as it is today and in the next twenty years. It is not as though the signs have not been there from decades ago, but today’s environment is particularly dangerous. I must assume that the Catholic Church knows it only too well. Its response, though, is sadly inadequate and remains characterized by a combination of paralysis, resistance to change, yet seemingly confident it will not die.
There are many things going for the Catholic Church. Belief in Jesus Christ is the strongest factor, of course. The best proof is the early Christians, a most persecuted sect where martyrdom seemed normal or at least a daily risk. Faith can move mountains and their faith did. Through several centuries, Christians suffered the fate of the minority in a world that was so physical in its expression of control. Yet, they did not give up, they took on the risk of death as par for their course, and their tenacious adherence to Jesus Christ and his teachings actually inspired many more to join
Many of us know enough of the Catholic Church history and the significance of the famous mother and son tandem, Helene and Constantine. As the Emperor of the Roman Empire heavily influenced by his mother’s faith and his own dream experience about Jesus and the cross, Constantine mandated Christianity as the official religion in his realm. This turn of events effectively converted Christianity from the persecuted to the favored religion. In its long journey and stay as the dominant religion of Europe, The Catholic Church even experienced being the persecutor of those who would not submit to it and its teachings at any one time as several centuries of The Inquisition shows.
History is not a dead issue when its influence had been so deep that it continues to play in the human psyche. That same history shows that The Inquisition began around the 1200s and lasted until its last recorded execution by the Spanish Inquisition of a heretic in the 1800s. Of course, the execution of Jose Rizal could have been classified as the last but, technically, it was his political views, and not his participation in Freemasonry, that was claimed to be his crime.
The Inquisition is an ugly history of the Catholic Church, maybe the ugliest. More than the deaths it caused, directly and indirectly, The Inquisition symbolized the greatest power – the power over life and death. The whole mindset of Catholicism for approximately seven centuries was control and domination, not only of one’s beliefs but of everyone’s life within the sphere of Catholic control. The Crusades and the colonization by Western Europe of all countries it could reach and subjugate are actually recent as far as history goes. It was not primarily evangelization but invasion that expanded the boundaries of the Catholic Church globally. Naturally, then, the perspective and manner of governing its flock by the hierarchy of the Church can be considered as authoritarian.
It is not easy to rid oneself of deeply ingrained habits, including the most destructive ones. An attitude of domination that manifests in mainstream official behavior has become Church culture. It can look at faith and dogma in ways that can accommodate no other interpretation and quick to call anything else as heresy. And it was not hard to execute heretics either. While physical time and space may have gone, its attitude and habits have not faded as fast. Not even when Catholic-dominated Europe began to shift dramatically away from the influence of the Church. There is truth to the growth of the Church in Africa, and maybe Asia as well. But there is equal truth to the decrease of Catholic membership in Brazil, Mexico, and the United States – including the Philippines in percentage.
The warning signs are all over and the alarm bells should be ringing incessantly in the ears of the most concerned in the Church. Not all are that concerned, of course. In fact, Church conservatives would rather see the clock turned back – and why not? The power and domination were in that just-gone past. The memory of the early Church of martyrs is not exactly the direction they want to go back to.
The Catholic Church expanded rapidly through political power. Unfortunately, it does appear that the Church does not know how to retain its dominant influence with the waning of its hold in its traditional and most voluminous markets. It does not quickly collapse either, not even with the worst of mismanagement, simply because it has a transcendent cause, because it has a most attractive icon in Jesus Christ, and it carries a truly noble set of teachings that intuitively refreshes the human spirit.
It might be good for the Catholic Church to remember that it may teach about heaven and the eternal afterlife, but it operates in the realm of the material and the human. Its leaders and its faithful must honor both realities although the teachings heavily load the dice in favor of the life hereafter. Still, the heavens sent its exalted son to earth. Mankind and creation must be that important.
“There is always a philosophy for lack of courage.” – Albert Camus