The Catholic Church is in a funk.
The resignation on March 1 of Pope Benedict XVI, the first in 600 years, raises theological (Does the man lose his infallibility at midnight Feb. 28 ?) as well as strategic issues for this institution of 1.1 billion followers.
The surprise departure of its leader comes after an 8 year tenure that saw the unveiling of rampant sex scandals in the clergy and, more important, their cover ups; a decline in church going membership (down to 20% in places) and priest rosters, anomalies in the Vatican finances, and a loss of political ascendancy.
The decline of the Church’s political influence is global. In the U.S., the Party Of St. Peter has lost its place in the right wing of the political spectrum to Christian evangelicals and the Tea Party with their broader platform of economic reform (fiscal discipline), social vision (small government) and moral values (pro-life). The American bishops’ ideological alliance with the Republicans in the last Presidential election further divided a constituency still reeling from the sex revelations and their million dollar legal settlements. Church organizations have started running TV ads to bring back the flock.
In Latin America, the Church’s conservatism faces a rising social tide with origins in liberation theology. It is interesting that at a time when an unprecedented number of democratic countries voted in leftist governments (Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Nicaragua and Bolivia), the Vatican elected in 2005 one of its most conservative leaders in Benedict XVI.
In the Philippines we are witnessing the same kind of disconnect between the Church as represented by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) and the community. To recall, certain CBCP officials threatened to excommunicate PNoy (yes, he with the 70% popularity rating) over his stand on reproductive health. Some prelates have refused to bless politicians who supported the RH bill. Then there was the Carlos Celdran matter. For an institution that is big on offering the other cheek, where comes this penchant for political, criminal and religious damnation? Do they envy the Ayatollah and his hold on Iran? Do they yearn for a Catholic state?
Many devotees -even in the clergy- quietly admit the Church lost goodwill on the RH debate not on the weight of its arguments but in the mean-spiritedness with which its leadership attacked its proponents. The Bill was a popular and legitimate exercise in public education and parental self-determination. However Church leaders chose to frame it as infanticide, as a holocaust on the unborn. With this mindset, it is no wonder they became so emotionally engaged.
Church leaders are arguably out of touch with the times (although Pope Benedict did activate a Twitter account). In the Philippines, they believe they still have the sword of the “Catholic vote” to hold over the heads of elected officials. Yet the verdict of the Senate (13-8) and the House (133-79) in favor of the RH Bill shows the threat of the Catholic vote has become an old wife’s tale. The Church can no longer compete with the monoliths of the Iglesia and the pastoral movements in mobilizing voters.
Which is a shame because the Church is still the Philippines’ single most important institution in the work it does for the marginalized and those in search. Let us also never forget the role played by Cardinal Sin and the nuns in EDSA: Without them this country would not be where it is today. Since then, however, we have witnessed a growing calcification in its hierarchy. Is this a reflection of the conservative tone set by Pope Benedict, the reaction of a wounded tiger to the sex scandals or a desperate attempt to restrain the currents of social change ?
There is good news. In Cardinal Chito Tagle we have a breath of fresh air. He is a rising star in the Church’s firmament who is looked upto by the rank and file in the clergy. The election of a new Pope with visionary ideals could also trigger a reset. Let us not therefore not give up on an institution which has and continues to serve the community well.
Many good things are in store for this nation and the Church can and must be a part of this mission of change. It has the infrastructure, the troops and the bloodline to build values and propagate the message. However there must be a shift in the mindset of the Church leadership. As suggested by Cardinal Tagle, they must talk less and listen more particularly to the aspirations of the young and the poor. They must dispense with their seeming vindictiveness, smallness and sense of entitlement (and their ivory figurines). They must be inclusive. They must resist the temptation to overreach into secular matters.
They must understand the world has moved on and that only by returning to its core competence of dealing with what is God’s can the Church remain relevant to the community it serves.