14 March 2013, 00:04

Francis might be the last Pope in the history of the Roman Catholic Church – interview

Francis might be the last Pope in the history of the Roman Catholic Church – interview

As the world greets the new Pope, one cannot help but wonder about the overall socio-political influence that he will have in the modern world where, for many, faith in God was substituted by belief in technological innovation and scientific progress. Richard Lester from the Dutch Leiden Institute shares his thoughts about the challenges that the newly elected Pope will face, the grim future of the Roman Catholic Church and the looming possibility that the next Pope might in fact be the last one if he is unable to overcome the problems that the Vatican is currently facing.

Let us begin with a more general question. How would you describe the current state of the Roman Catholic Church as an institution? Does it still have a significant influence on people's lives all over the globe?

Richard Lester: In my opinion, the influence of the Roman Catholic Church and its "holier than thou" dictum seems to be on significant decline. For many, the relevance of the church, both for their personal and their public lives, is a thing of the past. In many parts of the world, including Europe and the Americas, the number of loyal Catholics is rapidly decreasing. In Poland, which has long been known as "the most Catholic country in Europe," people have stopped attending the Mass on the regular basis. In France, Denmark, and Germany churches are being auctioned off including confessionals and furniture due to the constantly decreasing number of churchgoers. Rather ironically, many of these churches are subsequently turned into mosques.

From one perspective, this is a rather natural development of the events. In the modern world we have less and less time even for spiritual reflection let alone going to the Mass. From another, however, the fact that more people leave the Catholic Church is a clear sign of a deficiency within the institution. As the clergy is becoming stronger and more corrupt, the number of suicides committed by Catholic priests is increasing, and the Vatican is becoming richer by the minute, the congregation begins to question the credibility of the institution. As a result, the Church's influence on people's lives is decreasing. Recall the Portuguese bill that allowed homosexual couples to wed three days after Pope Benedict XVI wrapped up his official 'anti-gay marriage' visit to the country in May 2010. To me, the event was particularly emblematic of the diminishing influence of the Roman Catholic Church. Once a mighty force on its home continent, in modern Europe the Church is becoming weaker. Its influence is ebbing and its privileged status is called into question more frequently.

Do you think that last year's child-abuse scandal that involved Catholic priests contributed to the current status of the Roman Catholic Church? It was frequently reported that in the aftermath of the incident many believers all over the world lost their faith in Church and no longer felt comfortable to communicate with the priests during confession.

Richard Lester: The child-abuse scandal is a very sensitive issue. On the one hand, any true believer would tell you that the sin of a very small number of priests cannot and must not shatter one's belief in God. After all, we are all fallen creatures. In this sense, the scandal should not have had a profound effect on the status of the Roman Catholic Church. On the other hand, however, and this is my personal opinion, the priests represent the Church as an institution and their behavior does effect the status of the Roman Catholic Church in a broader sense. In this respect, the scandal has done an immense damage to the institution's reputation. It stroke at the very core of of the Church's structure: the deference of the laity and the authority of priesthood. In essence, it has stripped the Roman Catholic Church of much of its credibility and moral authority.

A recent study by two US professors has indicated that only one seventh of those who sought to convert to Catholicism before the scandal proceeded with conversion after the incident became public. The child-abuse scandal was also found to be the top reason why people all over the world leave the Catholic Church. Millions of dollars are currently being invested into a campaign that invites former Catholics to "come home to church". Those who left the Catholic Church mostly converted to Protestant Christian congregations, finding more spiritual solace in a religion that is perceived to be more able to minister its own priests and is much less implicated in politics and scandals of various sorts more generally.

What can be done to restore people's confidence in the Roman Catholic Church? Indeed, what, if anything, can the new pope do to reverse the trend of global disenchantment with the institution?

Richard Lester: While I do not want to sound overly pessimistic, I must say that there are very few things that can be done to 're-enchant' the congregation. While various scandals surrounding the Roman Catholic Church hardly add to its popularity, one of the main challenges that it currently faces is the overall end of deference. In other words, the institution's authority in moral guidance is gradually imploding. The vast majority of Catholics under the age of 60 no longer expect the priests, or even the Pope, to give them moral instruction. One of the main reasons for such deference is the Church's inability to adapt to modernity. More than 75 percent of European Catholics believe that the Church is quite literally 'out of touch' with the reality. Reflecting enormous weight of tradition, the Roman Catholic Church maintains an essentially medieval structure and outlook which is drastically at odds with contemporary culture. In order to restore its influence Vatican has to modernize. Crucially, when I say 'modernize' I do not suggest that the Church should immediately and full-heartedly embrace gay marriage, encourage abortion, or to broadcast the Papal Conclave live on Youtube. Instead, what I mean is that the Vatican can at least try to discussrather than simply denounce such 'prohibited' issues as contraception, homosexuality, and the remarriage of divorced people. In a similar manner, the Vatican should use the modern technology more actively to communicate its message across the globe.

If Francis  is able to reform the Vatican II in such a way, he will be glorious. If he fails, he might be the last 'real' Pope in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Essentially, if the reform does not come within a decade, the Pope of 2020s-2030s will become the next Queen Elizabeth II - he will continue to dress in robes and live in a 'palace' but his reign will be largely nominal.

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