I just attended the twenty-fifth anniversary of a priest’s ordination, and it got me thinking about how far the Church has come in the past quarter century. Many journalists and even Catholics would say, yes, the Church has gone quite far in recent years alright – right into a global crisis of sexual abuse by priests and criminal negligence by bishops: some merely incompetent, others naive believers in psychological “experts” claiming they could manage manipulative predators. Yet this general impression, understandable in many respects, misses the main story. The abuse crisis has temporarily obscured what can only be called a remarkable renewal.
Think about it. John Paul II was shot and almost killed in the early 1980s by a Turk who probably had ties through Bulgaria to the Soviets. The Russians, as we now know, had active measures ready against him and his offices in Rome were bugged. Communists were squeezing the Church from Central and Eastern Europe to South and Central America to the Far East.
In addition to outside threats, the pope often faced open rebellion within the Church from radical feminists and dissenting clergy in America and Europe. Marxist-inspired movements like Liberation Theology were rampant in Latin America and elsewhere. A number of Catholics thought authentic Christianity simply was some sort of social revolution. Theological and liturgical chaos following the Second Vatican Council – to say nothing of the affronts to simple common sense – was still quite widespread. The Nobel Prize winning poet Czeslaw Milosz, said that, of all the world leaders at that time, only JPII had the grandeur of one of Shakespeare’s kings. But if so, it was embattled grandeur.
In 1985, no one could have predicted that the pope would help bring down the Soviet Empire and raise the international status of the Vatican. Stalin famously asked: “How many divisions does the pope have?” As it turned out, quite a few, even within the Warsaw Pact. But also in the “free” world. When he and Cardinal Ratzinger issued the two instructions on Liberation Theology in 1984 and 1986, they effectively put an end to the radical socialism that had marked certain social justice currents in the Church – without denying that social engagement is a dimension of the Good News.
In roughly similar fashion, John Paul II and Ratzinger (later, as Benedict XVI) began to restore confidence in theological orthodoxy and renewed the liturgy. Both were called reactionaries, liberals during the Second Vatican Council who later betrayed the conciliar spirit. But neither sought a mere return to the past. Wojtyla’s studies in phenomenology and Ratzinger’s Augustinianism reflect something few believed was even a possibility: a first-order engagement with the modern world that did not liberalize Christianity into near-term self-destruction, as many Protestant churches have done.
This great leadership – over thirty years of it at this point – exceeds that of any institution or nation over the same period, errors and failures notwithstanding. JPII is now sometimes accused of mismanaging the abuse crisis. But in 1992 – a decade before the crisis erupted – he wrote Pastores Dabo Vobis, which heightened the sense of the necessary human and spiritual formation of men in seminaries. Many abusers came out of seminaries that, before the Council, ignored the human dimension or, after it, basically swallowed the values of modern culture. The better formed priests being ordained today owe much to what JPII set in motion.
Catholic higher education remains troubled. But it is not impossible to get a Catholic education at Notre Dame, Georgetown, or Boston College. It just takes more effort than it ought to. And even those institutions have begun to take tentative steps towards protecting “Catholic identity,” a halfway house from which they will either emerge as Catholic or go the way of formerly Protestant universities.
Most dioceses are now run by bishops appointed by John Paul II or Benedict XVI. Again, those appointments haven’t solved every problem. Not least, world culture as a whole underwent a major shift on every continent in the 1960s and the Church continues to have to face all that. But the institution is much more secure in its own identity. One quite intelligent bishop remarked when the abuse crisis arose during the Long Lent of 2002 that not only was it a terrible tragedy in itself. It gave some of the elements in the Church that had been sidelined for the better part of two decades a new, undeserved lease on life.
In the true Christian perspective, the Church is always embattled because she’s battling the world for souls. Historically, when the Church gets too cozy with the world – as it has in past centuries and sometimes did in the 1960s and 1970s – we can be sure it’s partly failing at its main task. The media-dissenter complex now ascendant will not long prevail, if only because the older dissenter’s are dying out. As it recedes, a truth will become evident: On the whole, the Church today has stronger and surer energies than at any time in quite a while, including the sometimes idealized period before the Council. It’s a force to be reckoned with – which is why it it so often attacked.
With one caveat. The priest celebrating his anniversary this weekend told a touching story. From his earliest days, he knew he had a vocation. An Italian grandmother would often take his hands between hers at big family gatherings and ask, “When will you become a priest?” The clergy shortage in the developed world is a weak spot. The number of ordinations in America, though much lower than before the Council, has remained basically even since the 1980s. But holding steady is not enough. Catholic parents and grandparents need to put that question again now. Because we can’t say how many very good potential priests were and are missing for lack of encouragement, good men who were needed not only to help avoid the crisis, but to fight the never-ending good fight.