“To govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
With those brave, wise, simple words, Benedict XVI announced an end of his papacy. How stands the Church he has led for eight years?
While he could not match the charisma of his predecessor, John Paul II, his has been a successful papacy. He restored some of the ancient beauty and majesty to the liturgy. He brought back to the fold separated Anglican brethren. The Church is making converts in sub-Saharan Africa. And in America, new traditionalist colleges and seminaries have begun to flourish.
That is looking back eight years. Looking back half a century, to that October day in 1962 when Pope John XXIII declared the opening of Vatican II, the Church appears to have been in a decline that, in parts of the world, seems to be leading to near extinction.
At Vatican II, the Rev. Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI, was among the reformers who were going to bring the church into the modern world. The encounter did not turn out well.
In 1965, three in four American Catholics attended Sunday mass. Today, it is closer to one in four. The number of priests has fallen by a third, of nuns by two-thirds. Orders like the Christian Brothers have virtually vanished. The Jesuits are down to a fraction of their strength in the 1950s. Parochial schools teaching 4.5 million children in the early 1960s were teaching a third of that number at the end of the century. Catholic high schools lost half their enrollment. Churches have been put up for sale to pay diocesan debts.
And the predator-priest sex-abuse scandal, with the offenses dating back decades, continues to suppurate and stain her reputation and extract billions from the Sunday collections of the abiding faithful.
The highest-ranking Catholic politicians, Vice President Joe Biden and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, support same-sex marriage and belong to a party whose platform calls for funding abortions to the day of birth. Catholic teaching on contraception, divorce and sexual morality is openly mocked.
Yet, while colleges like Georgetown appear Catholic in name only, others — like Christendom in Front Royal, Va., St. Thomas More in Merrimack, N.H, and St. Thomas Aquinas near Los Angeles — have picked up the torch.
Among Catholics, there has long been a dispute over the issue: Did Vatican II cause the crisis in the Church, or did the council merely fail to arrest what was an inevitable decline with the triumph of the counterculture of the 1960s?
As one looks around the world and back beyond the last half-century, it seems that Catholicism and Christianity have been in a centuries-long retreat. In the mid-19th century, Matthew Arnold wrote in “Dover Beach”:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar …
In Christianity’s cradle, the Holy Land and the Near East, from Egypt to Afghanistan, Christians are subjected to persecution and pogroms, as their numbers dwindle. In Latin America, the Church has been losing congregants for decades.
In Europe, Christianity is regarded less as the founding faith of the West and the wellspring of Western culture and civilization, than as an antique; a religion that European Man once embraced before the coming of the Enlightenment. Many cathedrals on the continent have taken on the aspect of Greek and Roman temples — places to visit and marvel at what once was, and no longer is.
The Faith is Europe, Europe is the Faith, wrote Hilaire Belloc. And when the faith dies, the culture dies, the civilization dies, and the people die. So historians and poets alike have written.
Surely that seems true in Europe. In the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, Western Man, under the banners of God and country, conquered almost the entire world. But now that Christianity has died in much of the West, the culture seems decadent, the civilization in decline.
And the people have begun to die. No Western nation has had a birth rate in three decades that will enable its native-born to survive.
Dispensing with Christianity, Western peoples sought new gods and new faiths: communism, Leninism, fascism, Nazism. Those gods all failed.
Now we have converted to even newer faiths to create paradise in this, the only world we shall ever know. Democratic capitalism, consumerism, globalism, environmentalism, egalitarianism.
The Secular City seems to have triumphed over the City of God. But in the Islamic world, an ancient and transcendental faith is undergoing a great awakening after centuries of slumber and seems anxious to re-engage and settle accounts with an agnostic West.
As ever, the outcome of the struggle for the world is in doubt.