Everyone loves a spectacle. Only that can explain why the media hordes descended on Rome to breathlessly await the puff of white smoke. Few events could be less relevant to modern life than the election of a new pontiff, who will preside over an archaic institution that has lost most of its power and relevance. But what a show! The costumes are magnificent. The pageantry is thrilling. The bells, the smells and the visuals can’t be beat.
Yet, no institution in our time (except for communism) has failed more miserably than the Roman Catholic Church in the West. The most striking example was in Quebec. So long as people were poor, rural and uneducated, the Church dominated all aspects of their lives. As recently as the 1950s, the faithful would tune in each evening to be blessed by Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger on the radio. “Every night, Montreal would be kneeling, saying the rosary with me,” he was quoted as saying.
Today, only 6 per cent of Quebeckers attend mass every week – the lowest number in the Western world. Although most Quebeckers still identify themselves as culturally Catholic, the doctrines of the Church are irrelevant to their lives. When Cardinal Marc Ouellet publicly apologized for the Church’s sins in 2007, his mea culpa was met with widespread skepticism, even scorn.
The story is similar in the U.S. and Europe. Only 7 per cent of Americans identify themselves as “strong” Catholics, according to the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center – and without immigration from the Hispanic south, that number would be even lower. In Italy, the cradle of the papacy, the number of people who say their religion is “very important” to them has dwindled to 22 per cent. Even in Brazil, which has the largest Catholic community in the world, only 20 per cent of Catholics attend mass. For many of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics, the Pope has about as much credibility as the Easter Bunny.
Can Pope Francis change all that? I doubt it – even if he’s Jesus Christ with an MBA (as one church historian described the job requirements). The world has changed too fast. The Church has been utterly unable to cope with the equality of women and the nearly universal embrace of birth control. Rather than adapt to changing times, it has demanded that Catholics adapt themselves to it.
The Church desperately needs fresh blood. But it has done everything it can to keep out fresh blood. Its pool of talent is disastrously weak – partly because a career in the Church is not the draw it used to be, and also because advancement has only been available to yes-men who toe the party line. There’s no sign that these men have any clue what people want or need, or how to give it to them. As Reginald Bibby, a Canadian scholar of religion, wrote: “Many Roman Catholic leaders in Quebec and elsewhere have a mindset where they see involvement in the Church as something that is simply expected of practising Catholics, rather than being conditional on the quality of ministry of the Church.”
The Church embraces an ancient set of values that the modern world rejects. It’s hierarchical, rigid, top-down, secretive, centralized and authoritarian. It demands obedience at a time when more and more Catholics demand self-determination. It has largely been unable to appeal to a rising, urban, educated middle class.
The yearning for spiritual connection, as Mr. Bibby argues, is as strong as ever. There’s a huge market for religion, even in the liberal secularized West. But the Church has been losing market share to newer and more vital forms of faith. Whether it can expand its franchise outside North America is an interesting question. So far, there’s little indication that it can appeal to a rising, urban, educated middle class.
The mainstream media (who are notoriously irreligious) are confused about covering religion. Most of the time, they don’t like it at all. All we get are stories of clerical wrongdoing, intolerance and sexual abuse. And then a papal conclave comes along and they all fall down on their knees like a girl at her first Communion.
“I can’t help but feel the Holy Spirit right now,” gushed a CNN reporter in St. Peter’s Square. We were solemnly assured that we were witnessing an important moment in history. Everybody’s a sucker for spectacle, I guess – especially if it features men in in fancy hats.