Who's going to church?: Commentators have assumed that faith is now the preserve of poorer communities. The opposite is true
No institution can be counted upon to provide such operatic drama as the Catholic Church. February opened with sinister hints in the Italian media of yet more scandals involving sex and money within the Vatican bureaucracy's higher ranks. Then came the unexpected resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the first such papal exit in some 600 years. This was followed in March by the (also unexpected) election to the papacy of the Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, one brimming with its own series of precedents: the first non-European Pope since the 700s, the first from the New World, and the first to choose the spiritually potent name and legacy of St Francis of Assisi as synecdoche for this surprising new pontificate.
For Catholics, their well-wishers in other faiths and perhaps even for some of their adversaries, it has all been an unavoidably diverting set of spectacles. Even so, the pageantry has obscured a rather sobering fact: it is continuity in the Church, rather than change, that is the real order of the day from Pope Francis I on down. In particular, the Church of tomorrow, like that of today, will inevitably find on its agenda a problem even more vexatious than the past decade of sex scandals, because even more intractable. It is a problem that Francis I will no more be able to avoid than was his predecessor — or other occupants of St Peter's Chair in years to come.
That problem is the conundrum of Western secularisation. Certainly no one was more aware of its centrality than the retiring pontiff, Pope Emeritus Benedict. That great theologian and prophetic thinker made the re-evangelisation of Europe the cornerstone of his pontificate. This was true starting with his very name. As he explained, St Benedict of Nursia — founder of the Benedictine order that kept Christianity alive in the Dark Ages, and one of the two saints from whom he took his papal title — was chosen specifically because his life evoked "the Christian roots of Europe".
Even before his election as Pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had revealed a deep preoccupation with reclaiming Europe for God. Most notably, he engaged the grand old man of the German intellectual Left, Jürgen Habermas, in a debate on faith and reason that demonstrated their symbiosis and appeared as a book, The Dialectics of Secularisation. In 2010, on the feast day of St Wilfrid, who helped to re-evangelise the British Isles, Pope Benedict XVI further tried to institutionalise the battle against secularisation by creating the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelisation — a body specifically charged with countering what he called "a serious crisis of the sense of the Christian faith and role of the Church", and "an eclipse of the sense of God".
No issue, in sum, appears to have been dearer to Pope Benedict's heart. All of which raises a question entirely overlooked in all the global media attention lately focused on the Vatican: did he succeed in his mission? The answer, so far anyway, can only be: no. But the reason why deserves more illumination than it has received so far. It is hardly the Pope Emeritus's fault that the Church has not yet figured out what to make of secularisation. Modern sociology hasn't got it right, either.
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