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Alienating the faithful

Alexander Görlach
Alexander Görlach
March 17, 2021

The renewed rejection of same-sex unions demonstrates that the once-powerful Roman Catholic Church is fast on its way to self-destruction, DW's Alexander Görlach writes.

St. Peter's Square
Görlach writes that the church risks becoming irrelevant by alienating believersImage: Mauro Scrobogna/LaPresse/AP/picture alliance

When Pope Benedict XVI called for the Roman Catholic Church to become "less worldly" while on a tour of Germany in 2011, many interpreted it as a criticism of the country's church tax system. The gist seemed to be that the Catholic Church should not receive funding via state institutions in order to avoid being corrupted. Today, we know that he meant something very different.

For Benedict, now the pope emeritus, the Roman Catholic Church could not be a people's church because people have attitudes determined by their times, whereas the church operates according to an older "truth." It was preferable to him that the church become smaller rather than move an inch away from this truth. The irony is that this is now happening under Pope Francis, who is at the other end of the spectrum from Benedict in terms of church politics and theology. 

Alexander Görlach
Alexander Görlach is a senior fellow with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and a senior research associate at the Religion & International Studies Institute at Cambridge University. He has also held several scholarly and advisory positions at Harvard University, National Taiwan University and the City University of Hong Kong. He holds doctorate degrees in comparative religion and linguistics.Image: Hong Kiu Cheng

Under the current papacy, the Vatican's hard-liners have consolidated their sectarian monopoly. According to them: Women are not allowed to be ordained or administer sacraments, as this would be anathema to God; people who have remarried are not allowed to receive Holy Communion; the unions of same-sex couples cannot be recognized because God cannot "bless sin"; and the  church rejects all forms of assisted reproduction and assisted dying. According to the hard-liners, God isn't interested in believers who dare to contemplate such things.

Questions of faith

The Roman Catholic Church — once so big and powerful — is shrinking. In many parts of Europe, the church barely plays a role, with few Catholics attending Mass on Sundays. The fact that Catholics are choosing to exit the church is serving to confirm the overspiritualizing hardliners when they say that many are called but only a few are chosen.     

In the metropolitan archdiocese of Cologne, in western Germany, there are currently no appointments at the local court for people wanting to formally leave the church — not because the devil incarnate has been let loose, but because the diocese has covered up cases of abuse with an almost criminal energy. There are similar stories elsewhere. The Roman Catholic Church is experiencing its worst crisis since the Reformation. This time, there will not be a schism, however. The church is sealing its own fate. 

If one asks oneself today why nobody believes in the Ancient Egyptian or Greek gods, the answer is not that the doctrine is no longer appealing. Even before, belief in the virgin birth or the resurrection of the dead was a question of faith, according to the Bible:  "The one who can accept this should accept it," Jesus himself said. But people are wont to give up on religion if it can no longer answer concrete questions. The Catholic Church has nothing more to offer.   

Francis' failed papacy

In Germany, the Roman Catholic Church is increasingly moving outside of the framework granted by the Basic Law to religious communities. Can the state continue to co-finance an institution that rejects the idea that all people are equal and thus human rights and dignity? Certainly not. To the Catholic Church, men and women are not equal and there is further discrimination according to marital status and sexual orientation. Now that the Catholic Church has become a sect, it cannot give guidance and help government agencies in their search for the right answers. On the contrary. 

The papacy of Francis has failed from the Amazon to the Family Synod. The pope has not succeeded in any of his reforms. He does not possess the theological depth, intellect or staff to channel all of his vague ideas and make theologically and canonically watertight. The hardcore extremists in Rome have been able to expose him and frustrate and marginalize the church's more liberal camp to such an extent that it is retreating, under a liberal pope of all things. 

If it is true that God cannot bless a sin, then it would seem that God would bless neither the clergy nor the Catholic Church itself. The sins of the church are more than excessive, and Rome's self-righteousness in the face of its transgressions is obscene. "Crush the infamous," Voltaire said in his day, referring to the abuses of the church. His words still ring true. In 2050, there will be beautiful concert houses, restaurants and clubs in every village and city. Children will ask who the figures in the stained-glass windows are. 

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