In his last interview, the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini lamented that the Catholic Church was 200 years behind the times. Give or take a few years or decades, he was not wrong.
The interview spurred debate across Catholic countries, and Malta was no exception. Malta may be an anomaly in Europe – a country where people are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, or practically assumed to be in any case – but it is not immune to the region’s trend towards increasing secularisation.
Societal pressure may play a part in people’s participation in religious ceremonies. Marriages may be held in church, simply to please one’s relatives or because the venue seems more suitable than a ceremony in a government office. Children may be put through MUSEUM lessons, first communion and confirmation to avoid sticking out when practically all their peers are involved.
But church attendance is decreasing steadily according to the church’s own statistics. And in a place where God might have been watching but others certainly weren’t – the voting booth – many Catholics defied the church’s directions to vote against the introduction of divorce last year.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that fewer people are seeking ordination, forcing the church to rely on a shrinking – and aging – clergy.
There are a number of reasons behind this, including the fact that greater accessibility to higher education has reduced the priesthood’s relative prestige.
Priestly celibacy is a likely obstacle, possibly discouraging many devout men from joining the priesthood as long as they are required to forego their natural urge to have children. Christian churches allowing their clergy to marry have not suffered from the lack of new trainees in the same manner.
Barring women from joining the priesthood is another hindrance, apart from the rule’s potential effect of alienating women at an age where the concept that they are somehow inferior to men is wholly discredited.
That is one of many realities that the church is failing to accept, doing itself a disservice in the process. Its stance on marital breakdowns and gay people is also behind the times, whatever the theological justification may be.
Cardinal Martini had mentioned the example of a woman who started a new relationship after being left by her husband. While the church may find this arrangement unacceptable, the number of people who do is falling, and as the cardinal pointed out, the church risked losing the woman and her children as a result.
A similar situation exists with gay people in an age where homophobia, thankfully, seems to be on a terminal decline. By positioning itself as an organisation which condemns their natural orientation, the church is not only alienating gay people, but also their relatives and friends.
We are not theologians, and neither do we intend to tell the Catholic Church what it should do.
But any organisation seeking followers or supporters – a religion, a political party, an NGO and even a business – has to appeal to its audience to be successful, independent of the worthiness of its cause.
And as things stand, the church’s message is sounding increasingly dated and unconvincing. Barring a radical change in society, a church stuck in the past may not have much of a future.