The Catholic Church—along with Protestant Christianity—is in the midst of a culture war pitting traditionalists against progressives. For average parishioners, the conflict should elicit important questions.
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Ever since Benedict XVI announced he would become the first pope in 600 years to resign, Catholic theologians, canon lawyers and others warned of the potential confusion in having two popes living side by side in the Vatican, one reigning, the other retired but calling himself “emeritus pope” and still wearing the white cassock of the papacy.
Their fears came true in January—in an event that laid bare a growing rift in the church.
In a saga befitting the Oscar-nominated movie “The Two Popes,” Benedict co-wrote a book reaffirming the “necessity” of a celibate priesthood. There was nothing novel with his position, but the book came out at the same time Pope Francis was weighing whether to ordain married men in the Amazon because of a priest shortage there.
The potential implications of Benedict’s intervention were serious since the issue of priestly celibacy is perhaps the most consequential and controversial decision on the current pope’s agenda. It raised the specter of a parallel magisterium, or official church teaching, at a time when the church is already polarized between conservatives longing for the orthodox purity of Benedict’s reign and progressives cheering Francis’ liberalizing reforms.
Benedict and Francis represent old and new, conservative and progressive, past and future. Their positions reveal a religious institution in the midst of its most significant shift perhaps since the Protestant Reformation.
“It’s one thing to publish, as a private citizen, a book about Jesus as Benedict did before he resigned,” Jean-Francois Chiron, a theologian at the University of Lyon, wrote in the French Catholic daily La Croix. “It’s another thing to take sides in important, current questions facing the universal church.”
Ultimately, Benedict distanced himself from the publication and asked to be removed as the co-author of the book, From the Depths of Our Hearts. The pope emeritus’ longtime secretary, Archbishop Georg Ganswein, said that there had been a “misunderstanding” with his co-author, Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, and that while Benedict contributed an essay to the book, he never intended to be listed as the co-author.
Benedict’s association with the book was surprising, given that he had vowed to live “hidden from the world” when he stepped down in 2013, precisely to avoid any suggestion that he still wielded papal authority.
Cardinal Sarah, for his part, denied allegations that he had manipulated the 92-year-old Benedict. Yet the cardinal—a hero to purists and conservatives and a quiet critic of Francis—also admitted that he knew a Benedict-written text on priestly celibacy would create a clamor, and that he persuaded the pope emeritus it was worth it.
Again, historical tradition pitted against modernity.
Francis’ approach is well-known. The New York Times summarized his agenda: “Unlike his predecessors, who cracked down on dissent and promoted bishops and cardinals who emphasized fealty to church doctrine, Francis wants an inclusive church that welcomes back into the fold Catholics who felt geographically, pastorally and ideologically alienated. That mission has earned him the enmity of church conservatives, especially in the United States, who feel he is diluting the church’s teaching for the sake of a cheap embrace.”
For Francis, the world has changed so much that he even declared that “Christendom no longer exists,” during his annual Christmas greetings to the cardinals, bishops and priests who work in the Holy See.
Consider those words: “Christendom no longer exists.” By this Francis means there is no longer a bloc of Christian nations that can work together to evangelize non-Christian ones. He feels the world view and standard operating procedures for the Vatican are woefully out of date. To him, change is a necessity.
Yet the conservative block of the Catholic Church will not go down without a fight.
Regardless, Catholicism and Protestant Christianity are both in decline, the road forward obscured. These religious institutions are fighting over whether to stay the same or adapt to societal trends.
The rapidly shifting societal and religious landscape can make those who identify as Christians feel unmoored. Because the Catholic Church has 1.3 billion adherents worldwide—over double the rest of Christianity put together—it becomes the case study to examine the situation.
As you read, ask yourself: “With modern Christianity in flux, where can I turn to shore up my faith?”
During Pope Francis’ speech when he declared Christendom dead, he warned that “rigidity” in living out the Christian faith is creating a “minefield” of hatred and misunderstanding. He called for Vatican bureaucrats to instead embrace change.
Francis’ message appeared aimed at conservative and traditionalist Catholic leaders who have voiced increasing opposition to his progressive-minded papacy. Their criticisms have accelerated over the past year, amid Vatican financial and sex abuse scandals that may have predated Francis’ papacy but are nevertheless coming to light now.
The pontiff issued a stark reality check to the men in the Sala Clementina of the Apostolic Palace, acknowledging that Christianity no longer holds the commanding presence and influence in society that it once did. He cited the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, a leader of the progressive wing of the Catholic Church, who lamented in 2012 that the church found itself “200 years behind” because of its inbred fear of change.
“Today we are no longer the only ones that produce culture, no longer the first nor the most listened to,” Francis told the prelates. “The faith in Europe and in much of the West is no longer an obvious presumption but is often denied, derided, marginalized and ridiculed.”
The mainstays of Catholicism are in decline. In the U.S., the church has seen an 8 percent dip in membership from 1965-2010. Mexico had an 11 percent drop during the same period. It was even worse in Honduras, 39 percent, and Brazil, 33 percent. All nations in the Western Hemisphere reported negative numbers.
What about Europe? Spain was down 22 percent, France 18 percent, and Austria 21 percent. Even Italy, home to the Vatican itself, saw a drop of 11 percent.
Overall, numbers of Catholics worldwide continue to increase, due to surges of numbers in Africa and Asia. But the church’s landscape is quickly shifting.
As a result, the pope urged the Catholic hierarchy during his speech to embrace the necessary pastoral reforms and outlook that will make the church attractive so that it can fulfill its mission to spread the faith.
“Here we have to beware of the temptation of assuming a rigid outlook,” Francis said. “Rigidity that is born from fear of change and ends up disseminating stakes and obstacles in the ground of the common good, turning it into a minefield of misunderstanding and hatred.”
He recalled, as he has in the past, that people who take rigid positions are usually using them to mask their own problems, scandals or “imbalances.”
“Rigidity and imbalance fuel one another in a vicious circle,” he said. “And these days, the temptation to rigidity has become so apparent.”
Traditionalist Catholics have denounced Francis’ emphasis on mercy and openness to doctrinal wiggle room on issues such as sacraments for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. They also sharply criticized his recent synod on the Amazon, which called for the ordination of married men as priests, and what they considered pagan worship of an Amazonian statue of a pregnant woman that was featured during the meeting.
Francis has defended his outlook and priorities as a reflection of the gospel, and the axiom that the true tradition of the church is one of a continuous, discerned path of change.
“Tradition is not static, it’s dynamic,” he said.
In a tangible sign of change, Francis then issued a decree limiting the term of the dean of the College of Cardinals, an influential job that had previously been held for life. Francis accepted the resignation of the current dean and decreed that going forward the future top cardinal would only have a five-year renewable term.
The outgoing dean had been the powerful secretary of state under Pope John Paul II, and was blamed in part for the Vatican’s refusal to crack down on pedophile priests. The outgoing dean, who is now 92, continued to wield behind-the-scenes influence in the two papacies that followed, acting most recently as something of a beacon for conservative opposition to Francis.
His ouster is another sign the traditionalist bloc is losing power.
Francis, who is now 83, has worked feverishly during the first six years of his papacy. The New York Times stated that “his effect within the church may be lasting.”
“By appointing cardinals and more than a thousand bishops on the front lines of the faith, Francis is reconstituting a church in his image. It is one that decentralizes power from Rome to the bishops around the world, that is willing to work through the challenges of the modern world together with other faiths, and with atheists.”
A major reason conservatives are losing ground in the Catholic Church is that the Vatican has a long history of reversals and changes. Once ironclad rules have often been tossed out or softened.
A Foreign Policy article detailed a number of major reversals that have come from the Vatican over the years.
Original rule about usury: “Lend freely, hoping nothing thereby, the Bible teaches. Interpreted literally, this prohibition against profiting on loans played a major role in the creation of the European credit markets during the Middle Ages. Bankers had to devise methods of profiting from moneylending without directly charging interest.”
This rule fell by the wayside during the Renaissance when European capitalism took over—as charging interest is a mainstay of the modern financial system.
Original rule on slavery: “No less an authority than St. Augustine said that Jesus Christ did not make men free from being slaves. As late as 1860, the church taught that it was not a sin to own another human being so long as the slave was treated humanely.”
The church did not take a firm stance against slavery until it was largely forbidden in the West. While Pope Gregory XVI first criticized the practice in 1839, it was not until Leo XIII, the first 20th-century pope, that the Vatican declared slavery a moral outrage.
Original rule about Mass: “Traditionally, Catholic Mass was celebrated in the original Latin, with priests facing away from congregants. More generally, the institutions of the church maintained a level of distance from both followers and the modern world as a whole.”
During the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, it was decided to allow Mass to be celebrated in local languages. The council also began a number of initiatives including greater dialogue with other faiths and more decentralization of authority from the Vatican to local districts.
Original rule on limbo: “In traditional Catholic theology, limbo is the halfway point between heaven and hell where the unbaptized, including infants, go after death. Even though they had committed no sins, such people had not been cleansed of the original sin through baptism.”
Parishioners never really latched onto the idea of limbo and it was rarely discussed from the pulpit. Foreign Policy wrote: “In 2004, John Paul II formed a commission to come up with a more coherent and enlightened way of describing what happens to infants who die. In 2007, Benedict signed a report recommending the concept be dropped. Instead of going to limbo, unbaptized babies would enjoy eternal happiness after death, but would not achieve communion with God.”
This all brings out important questions: Should Christianity change with the times? Using modern technology and equipment is a given. Yet what about doctrines? Should those adapt as well?
In the culture war of modern Christianity, there is one thing rarely mentioned—if at all. That is what the Bible actually says.
Every churchgoer owes it to themselves to stop and look at God’s Word. Then, they should take a long hard look at the churches of today. Do these “houses of worship” and their leadership match up to what the Bible says?
A lot of the arguments among modern church leaders are over this: the commandments of men. These are ideas that have no biblical backing.
The celibate priesthood is one example. Notice what I Timothy 3:2 states: “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behavior, given to hospitality, apt to teach.”
For emphasis, read Titus 1:6, which also states ordained men must be “the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly.”
Do not overcomplicate this. While some ministers may be single, the apostle Paul—inspired by God—clearly stated they can marry and have children.
Another example of “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” is taking days with pagan origins and adopting them for “Christian” worship. Jeremiah 10 is clear: “Thus says the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them” (vs. 2).
The pagan roots of Christmas and Easter are well known. Ask: Would God allow these heathen days—even if they are repurposed—especially when the days He commands are swept aside?
Read what God says in Exodus 31: “It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He rested, and was refreshed” (vs. 17).
While the leaders of modern Christianity squabble over the future of their churches, you should focus instead on what your Creator wants. Ignore the political wrangling and petty arguments over tradition!
You need to prove to yourself the Bible is God’s Word. Make I Thessalonians 5:21 your guiding light: “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”
While society is well into a “post-Christian era,” the Bible remains as relevant as ever: “But the word of the Lord endures forever” (I Pet. 1:25).
Read Bible Authority...Can It Be Proven? to begin to understand what God wants for your life.