April 15, 2010
In 1902, Alfred Loisy, a French priest and biblical scholar, wrote with evident disillusionment: "Jesus came preaching the Kingdom of God, and what arrived was the Church."
What would/does Jesus think of what became of his utopian religious vision over the centuries?
To Jesus, the Kingdom of God would turn all conventional kingdoms on their heads. His Kingdom would belong to the poor and the meek. It would have no armies. Its leaders would be servants, getting down on their knees to wash their followers' grimy feet. There would be no priestly class; every believer would have unmediated access to God through Jesus. Complicated religious rituals would be replaced by the simple sharing of bread and wine in memory of him. Mountains of rules and regulations would be supplanted by one great law of love.
It was, I guess, a bit much to ask, even from God himself.
Within a hundred years of Jesus' death, the small communities of believers began taking on the characteristics of "organized religion." By the time the Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476, Christianity was so organized it took over the reins of government as well.
What had arrived was the Church, complete with lands and armies and a rigid hierarchical structure and a mediating priesthood and elaborate rituals — in so many ways the very things Jesus found as obstacles, not vehicles, to God.
Power corrupts, and Church history is replete with the misdeeds of popes, bishops, abbots, and priests. All seven of the Deadly Sins — pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth — were committed with abandon by wanton ecclesiastical potentates. Yet to the pure of heart, the Church in its essence was still the living Body of Christ on earth, a precious treasure held in vessels of clay. It was, to extend Luther's phrase beyond the individual, simul justa et peccator, saved and sinner at once. People like Francis of Assisi in the 13th century looked to the almost-forgotten Jesus of the Gospels and embraced his example of poverty, simplicity, and humble service while remaining faithful to a hierarchy they saw as authentic dispensers of grace, despite disgrace. In so doing, they shamed a corrupt institution into righting itself again and again: Ecclesia semper reformanda.
In the 16th century, Martin Luther, in reaction to egregious abuses of power emanating from Rome, rejected the institution itself, asserting that salvation comes not through priest and sacrament but sola fide, by personal faith alone. The Protestant Reformation was not so much a reformation as a revolution, a definitive break from a religious structure that had remained virtually intact for over a millennium. Protestant denominations simplified both governance and worship, modeling their communities on the ones closest to Jesus' own time, as described in the New Testament.
Yet despite these massive defections, the Roman Catholic Church survived. The question at hand is whether it will survive the priest-pedophile scandal of today.
There are reasons to think it will not, at least in its present form.
From the cultural standpoint alone, there are increasing numbers of people in the Western world, especially among the young, who believe in and pray to God but have little use for religious doctrine and practice. A recent Pew poll found that only 18% of Americans under age 30 who identify themselves as affiliated with a particular faith regularly attend its services; for them, religion is primarily personal. Given those statistics, sustaining any mainline church will become hard to do, scandal or no scandal.
Specific to practicing Catholics, there are many whose notions about religious authority have been demythologized by the scandals. In times past, Catholics overwhelmingly believed that priest, bishop, and pope were by their ordination channels of grace regardless of their sins. Today they subject their clergy to what Marxists of beloved memory called the "hermeneutic of suspicion," critically judging them by their merits, not their office. Whereas Catholics used to respect their priests because they were priests, they now give priests respect only if they've earned it.
The attitude of unwavering obedience by Catholics to religious authority is still prevalent in developing countries, which is why hierarchies there have so far been able to keep the lid on their own scandals. But once the hermeneutic of suspicion begins to take hold, those lids too will blow, just as surely as in the United States and Europe.
What may come of all this is a Catholic Church so weakened by distrust that it will have to reorganize itself on a less hierarchical, more egalitarian model: another Reformation, but this time from within.
Among the weeds and briars of the institutional Church, seeds of the Kingdom of God may be, as Jesus once put it, growing secretly.