William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Catholicism’s CEO falls upon his staff

These are tough days for Christianity Inc. The product is stale, traditional markets are shrinking, and employee criminality has brought police attention. No surprise then that the CEOs are bailing out.

Last year it was head of one of its minor subsidiaries, the Church of England, who unexpectedly threw in the towel. This week was altogether more dramatic, as the head honcho of its biggest multinational, the Roman Catholic Church, resigned.

One of every two Christians is Catholic and with 1.1-billion believers this is the biggest denomination of any brand of religion – it has marginally more adherents than Sunni Islam – so it’s a mind-blowing development. Obviously, it’s not quite the long awaited Second Coming, but given that the previous papal resignation was in 1415, the Second Going is probably as dramatic as it gets, bar the resurrection of the dead.

Pope Benedict XVI – a former draftee of the Hitler Youth and dubbed God’s Rottweiler for his savaging of liberal theologians – cited a failing mind and failing body. But Benedict quitting because he is tired is not quite what the College of Cardinals would have expected of him when they chose Joseph Ratzinger, as he was known before his surprise elevation in 2005. Being pope is supposed to be forever, or rather until God decrees an involuntary recall to the great head office in the sky.

On the other hand, business chief executives are often encouraged – with appropriately lavish pecuniary inducements – to fall upon their swords if their corporations are floundering. So given how poorly the Church has performed under Benedict stewardship, it is meet and right that the faltering octogenarian fell upon his staff.

The holding company, Christianity Inc, is growing slowly worldwide but brand loyalty is weak in the developed world. Church attendance is dropping, belief in God is flagging, and most critically, religious leaders are less influential and accorded less authority, especially on issues like abortion, contraception and homosexuality.

The problems are especially acute in Catholic Church (Pty) Ltd. In the United States the number of priests dropped from 59 000 in 1975 to 41 000 and over roughly the same period the number of seminarians dropped from 37 000 to 3 600. There are thousands of parishes today with no resident priest.

In Europe, especially in the historically devout Catholic countries, the decline has been even more precipitous. Two decades ago, 84% of the Irish went to Mass once a week; now it’s below 50%.

There are bright spots. In Latin America, Asia and especially Africa, Catholicism is growing vigorously, although it faces stiff competition from Protestant evangelicalism.

What especially damaged the Church is the ongoing child sex abuse scandal that exploded publicly in 2010. It has shaken the faith of ordinary congregants, seen clergymen imprisoned, and is hurting church finances with multimillion-dollar damages settlements – totalling well over $2 billion so far, in the US alone – just at the moment when tithing is decreasing. The National Catholic Reporter described it as “the largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in church history”.

While the abuse didn’t start on Benedict’s watch, his management of it reeks at best of wilful ignorance, at worst of complicity in cover-up. He has since as pope apologised for the Church’s failings on this issue, however, it was after all Benedict who, while serving as an archbishop, prohibited on pain of excommunication the sharing of abuse evidence with the police.

Since then, en passant, Benedict inadvertently insulted Muslims, causing worldwide riots, bad-mouthed gays, blamed condoms for the spread of Aids, and lifted the excommunication of a schismatic bishop who denies the Holocaust.

But you’ve got give the old man points for style, retro though it might be. In an era where the departures of CEOs have been announced in angry emails, in tweets, or on Facebook, Benedict was more measured. It came in ancient Latin, unheralded and at the end of a routine canonisation ceremony, to be translated on the fly for the rabble of uncomprehending reporters.

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