The Slow Collapse of the Catholic Church
This image may have been created as a joke, but the fact that it exists is a symptom that something is deeply wrong with the Catholic Church. If it is true that the Church has been existing for nearly two thousand years, it is also true that no structure is too big to fail. The churches are empty, the faithful have been turned into masked zombies afraid of each other, and the very sanctity of the human body, one of the pillars of Christianity, is in doubt. Are we going to see the end of God-based religions, replaced by scientism as the state religion? According to the Seneca Principle “increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.”
It is a long story that of religions. The first forms of religious organizations go back to the birth of civilization in Mesopotamia, during the 3rd millennium BCE. At that time, there was no such a thing as a “Church,” but there existed temples dedicated to local deities that were a mix of manufacturing centers and shopping malls. But what made temples unique in human history was their role as banks. The priests would assist economic transactions by weighing the silver and the gold involved. The benevolent local God would ensure honest weighing.
This role of the temples lasted for millennia and we still find traces of it in the gospels when Jesus chases out the money changers from the temple of Jerusalem. Actually, they were not “money changers,” they are defined as “trapezitai” in the original, which translates as “bankers.” But, at the time of Jesus, this role for temples was already a relic of the past. The invention of coinage during the 6th century AD had changed the rules of the game. Coins could simply be counted, and their weight was guaranteed not by God, but by the King or the Emperor.
With the Roman Empire, religion took a position of complete subordination to the state. The priests would bless the troops leaving for battle, provide potions, charms, and amulets to those who could pay, but little more. From the time when Augustus Caesar took the title of Pontifex Maximum, in 12 AD, the religious and the political leader of the state were one and the same person: the Emperor. In time, the emperor started to be considered a living God himself.
But the great wheel of history keeps turning and soon the mighty Roman Empire found itself in trouble. The mines that had made it rich were exhausted with the 3rd century AD. And one constant of history is that if you have no money you can have no empire.
So, the Christian Church arose from the ashes of the Roman Empire as a structure that, within some limits, provided the services that the state could not provide anymore. The security once guaranteed by the once mighty Roman army was now in the hands of the ἐκκλησία (ecclesia), the gathering of the faithful, and the επίσκοπί, (episcopes, or bishops), the overseers. The Church replaced the old Empire in many ways and for centuries was a fundamental force in maintaining the cultural unity of Europe. It provided services that the small states of the time could not provide: a common culture, a common language, a common heritage.
Toward the end of the first millennium, the great wheel of history turned again. The discovery of new precious metal mines in Eastern Europe remonetized the European economy. In 800 AD, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, became powerful enough to have himself crowned “Holy Roman Emperor” by the Pope. The idea was to recreate the ancient Roman Empire, but the Church stubbornly refused to cede the title of Pontifex to the new emperors. It would have meant, again, the complete subordination of the Church to the State.
There followed centuries of struggles, with the Church slowly losing ground. With the Church becoming more and more corrupt, in 1520 there came Luther’s reformation that forever broke the unity of Western Christianity. The last time when the Church tried and failed to have an important political role in Europe was with the “Controversy of Valladolid” in 1550, an attempt to soften the harsh exploitation of the Native American peoples by the European colonists. Not only the Church was ignored, but the attempt backfired, generating the legend that it was the Church that had promoted the extermination of the natives. This is the way propaganda works.
With the 19th century, the states were turning to a new kind of ideological support for their domination of society. It was “Scientism,” usually called just “Science.” The new set of ideas emphasized growth and expansion, providing also new weapons and technologies that allowed Europe to conquer most of the world.
The last attempt of the Catholic Church to escape the growing encroachment by the state was with the encyclical letter “De Rerum Novarum” of 1891. It was an attempt to “reset” the huge, millenarian structure by returning to its original vision of a revolutionary force on the side of the poor and the oppressed. With the “De Rerum Novarum,” the Church strongly reaffirmed its international status and its privileged relation with the poor.
It was a valiant attempt, but it failed for several reasons. One was that the Church had placed itself in direct competition with the Communist party for the souls of the workers. But the Communist party had better leverage because it wasn’t contaminated with the superstructure of compromises with the rich that the Church carried along. Another was that the national states were simply too powerful to be contrasted by the internationalist movements (Communism, Socialism, and Christian reformism). By 1915, Europeans assisted to the disheartening spectacle of two Catholic countries, Austria and Italy, making war on each other. And, on both sides, Catholic priests were blessing the soldiers and exhorting them to kill their Christian brothers on the other side of the frontline. The same sad spectacle was taking place on all frontlines. Something was deeply wrong at the core of Christianity.
Both the Church and the Communist party managed to remain important political forces for most of the 20th century, but they faded with the turn of the millennium. The Communist Party went first with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Right now, it has no organized presence in the world, except in China. But the Chinese Communist Party has no pretense of organizing proletarian revolutions anywhere.
The Church survived a little longer, but its decline is evident. In the 1990s, it received a heavy blow from a propaganda campaign that painted Catholic priests as pedophiles. It should go without saying that there is no evidence that pedophilia is a larger problem in the Church than it is in other organizations. But the accusation stuck and the polls show that, still today, a majority of people are convinced that the Catholic Church is a den of pedophiles. It is not known who started the campaign or why. In any case, it was another devastating blow.
The coup de grace may have arrived in 2020, with the Covid epidemic. The Catholic Church found itself completely defeated by a propaganda campaign that turned some of the basic tenets of Christianity over the head. Already in Roman times, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, considered one of the precursors of Christianity, had said “Homo Sacra Res Homini” — “humans are holy to each other.” And the Church had at its basis the sacred value of the human body. Just think how the central belief of Christianity is that God himself incarnated inside a human body, in flesh and blood, for the love of humankind. And that the believers are supposed to reincarnate in the flesh on the day of judgment.
Suddenly, the Church saw the human body turned from a holy image of the divine spirit into a receptacle of dangerous germs. Whereas St. Francis would kiss lepers, the devout Catholic is now advised to hide their face and keep at a distance from their Christian brothers and sisters. The holy water, a basic feature of Church rituals, was suddenly turned into a dangerous bacterial soup that no one sane in his mind would even dream to touch. Once, the Christian mass ritual required shaking hands with each other as a sign of peace. Now, the mass has turned into a gathering of zombies, unrecognizable and afraid of getting too close to each other. Even worse, the dead of Covid were denied the last sacraments and even a Christian burial. Their bodies were considered unclean and treated in the same way as urban waste is treated: first dumped into trucks and then into incinerators.
Given the situation, you may understand how the Pope recommended to the faithful to vaccinate themselves “as an act of love”. Of course, you may argue that it was not the business of the Pope to recommend that, not any more than recommending the use of flushing toilets as an act of love. But the pope was not alone: the whole Church hierarchy is recommending vaccination. They hope that with vaccines everything will return back to normal and the churches will fill again with unmasked people not afraid to shake each other’s hands.
Unfortunately, the Pope’s recommendation may backfire. One problem is that by now it is becoming clear that the vaccines do not guarantee full immunity and that all the other “non-pharmaceutical measures,” masks, distances, etc. will be maintained for a long time, perhaps forever. So, we may never return to what we once considered as “normal.” Then, by recommending vaccines, the Pope was officially declaring that the Church was powerless and subordinated to the dominant Scientism.
The Covid may well be the bullet at the head that kills the zombie that the Catholic Church has become. It managed to exist for nearly 2,000 years, one of the longest-lasting organizations in history, but no organization has ever been too big to fail when its moment comes. Surely, the collapse will not be sudden, especially considering that the Church still has important economic assets, and even a small state, the Vatican City State, with a seat in the United Nations, a small army, a diplomatic corps, and much more. But, when things take a certain direction, the flow may be impossible to reverse. Sic transit gloria mundi.
But is this so bad? Sometimes, change needs to be radical, otherwise it does not occur. Even the pope emeritus, Cardinal Ratzinger, said that the Church “needs a reset” in a recent interview. In the book “Niente Sarà Più Come Prima” (2021), the Catholic theologian Stefano Didoné says,
“The collapse of the religious form that Christianity had taken in the West does not automatically mean the collapse of the very experience of the Faith, but its transformation in a human experience characterized by the strong desire of authenticity. <..> A formal religiosity without relations and without love does not attract the young (and not even the adults). This would open the way to new (and urgent) theological interpretations of this post-secular age.”
In other words, there is no religion without an authentic experience of Faith. And in the Christian tradition, no one can save himself or herself alone, praying in front of a TV screen. There is no salvation except in the gathering of the faithful, the ecclesia. Religion intended in this way has existed since the times of the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna and will not disappear so soon. New forms of religion or renovated forms of the old ones may appear. It may be a good thing that we badly need to get rid of the current vision of the world that sees everything (including human beings) as an economic resource to be exploited.
(*) This analysis of mine does not pretend to be exhaustive and it deals mostly with the Catholic Church, which I know reasonably well. Other organized religions are facing the current situation in different ways. If we take the resistance to vaccination as a proxy for independence from the state, the data show that Protestants are less integrated than Catholics in the US. In Eastern Europe, the Orthodox Church has suffered a long period of persecution from the state and has emerged out of it rather wary of everything that the state recommends. Asian religions, such as Buddhism, have ceased all attempts to affect politics, at least from the time of the Japanese warrior-monk, Benkei. Finally, about Islam, we have a completely different organization. Whereas in the West the state and religion are two separate entities, in Islamic countries religion is the state. Muslims have a historical diffidence on the tricks created by Western-style states. For the time being, Islam generally recommends vaccination, but things might change. As they always do.