The western world has not seen an empire collapse as spectacularly as the Catholic Church since the Habsburg and British empires began to lose their unquestioned — and unquestionable — power just over a century ago. On this historical scale the relatively brief terror of communism is irrelevant.
Caught in a pincer movement between strengthening pluralism and the hubris that convinced it that it need not recognise democratically appointed civil authorities, the Catholic Church has seen its influence and active membership in the West dwindle to unprecedentedly low levels. How else could an Irish Minister for Education — Ruairí Quinn — suggest that the school time given to religion be reduced to allow for greater focus on the sciences?
This loss of influence has not occurred in swathes of South America, the developing world, or indeed in the lives of millions of Europeans whose beliefs and faith have withstood the acid tests of recent decades. Because of this, especially under this pontificate, the Church’s focus seems to be moving away from Europe. Yesterday’s scathing report from the UN will do little to alter that policy or the drift away from formal, institutional Catholicism in the West. However, Catholicism’s response to it might.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child document is one of the most damming and direct challenges made to the Vatican since the role of thousands of clerics in child sexual abuse and paedophilia changed the Church’s place in society forever. It was uncompromising, unsparing, and demanded that the Vatican “immediately remove” all clergy who are known or suspected child abusers and turn them over to civil authorities.
That an organisation as powerful, as worldly wise as the UN still believes, after decades of traumatic revelations and expulsions, that so much remains to be done is chastening and another challenge to those who cherish their place and belief in the Church. Unfortunately, even very recent evidence — the Vatican’s refusal last month to extradite Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski to the Dominican Republic where he faces child abuse charges because, they claimed, he enjoyed diplomatic immunity — justifies the UN’s attitude.
The report represents one of the first major challenges faced by Pope Francis. Since his elevation, he has used his powerful charisma, mostly by just behaving in a modest and humble way, to try to remake the world image of the Vatican. He has made statements far less confrontational or judgmental than his predecessors. He has shown a human side that his immediate predecessor did not show easily and he has appointed cardinals from the wing of the Church not usually so honoured.
In the public relations war for the hearts and minds of wavering or lapsed Catholics, Francis has been a game changer, but the UN report is a direct challenge that requires something far more concrete, something far more difficult to deliver, than soothing words about the poor and the need for the Church to be humble.
The Vatican knows that as long as these issues remain unresolved, its position in the world will continue to decline. The great majority of Catholics, the millions appalled and betrayed by errant clerics, await the Vatican’s response to the UN report with interest and probably some degree of justified trepidation.
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