Every 500 Years, the Church Faces a Crisis — Is This the Worst Yet?
There are reasons to believe that we are now entering the biggest crisis the Church has faced
There is a fairly common recognition among historians that every 500 years the Church has faced some kind of horrendous crisis. This is no kind of Nostradamian numerical prophecy, but a noticeable, rough pattern.
Around the first 500 year mark of the Church, the West was being crushed under the political implosion of the corrupt Roman Empire and the onslaught of barbarian invasions. Hence began the Dark Ages, wherein the Church did well just to survive in the following centuries.
The next crisis bubbled up around the year 1000. The papacy had been deeply corrupted by Italian nobles in the previous century — so much so that the historians refer to this period of papal venality in the 900s as “The Pornocracy.” A string of good popes, Cistercian reformers, helped draw the Church out of its own mire in the 11th and 12th centuries.
And then, of course, there was the Reformation, commencing in 1517. Last fall I published a book marking the half-millennium anniversary of the Reformation, The Reformation 500 Years Later: 12 Things You Need To Know. One of the things that especially Catholics needed to know is how bad the popes and cardinals had been in the century leading up to Luther — otherwise the Protestant reaction to ecclesiastical corruption 500 years ago might seem like an unwarranted, peevish reaction of a disgruntled monk, Martin Luther.
And now, here we are in 2018, right on time, 500 years after the Reformation, steeped in another major crisis. As the depth and breadth of the ecclesiastical corruption now unfolds before us, the question is not whether we are in a crisis, but how bad a crisis we happen to be in.
It’s big. Perhaps the biggest so far. Why?
The current systematic embrace of sexual disorder among the bishops and cardinals—even those in the Vatican itself—creates theological disorder. Sexual scandal leading up to the Reformation was sordid enough, but it did not then result in attendant theological malformation. But things are different now because all too many in the hierarchy desire a fundamental change in the Church’s doctrines on sexuality. Grace builds on nature, the supernatural on the natural. If those in charge of guarding doctrine embrace sexual disorder, theological disorder must be bent to fit. Sexual libertinism needs theological liberalism as its theological complement.
This connection isn’t difficult to understand. Marriage is the natural union between male and female — a perfection of their distinct, complementary sexuality. In biblical terms, it is the union of male and female that manifests the fullness of the image of God. In the Old Testament, God defines His relationship to Israel in terms of bridegroom and bride, and Jesus is the bridegroom Incarnate, the husband of the Church, His Bride. These are not mere metaphors, but deep, real connections between God’s mode of redemption and human nature. One cannot, therefore distort natural sexuality without distorting our understanding of the Christ’s relationship to the Church.
If there are any doubts about this, read the Pennsylvania report. Here we find priests sodomizing altar boys and then presiding over the holy sacrifice of the Mass, fishing for prey in the confessional, posing boys naked as Jesus on the cross and taking pictures, using gold crosses to mark out victims for other priests, and using holy water to wash out the mouths of their victims after forcing them into oral sex. No one can go from orthodoxy to sacrilege and blasphemy without passing through heresy. Those posing as orthodox but engaging in these activities are not an exception to the rule, but an even more pernicious form of hypocrisy that destroys from within what it purports to defend from without.
There is another reason to believe that we are now enduring the worst of the 500-year Church crises. The Catholic Church has always been universal in aim, but the world is now a cosmopolitan whole. Therefore, the Church has far more comprehensive reach than it has ever had historically, and that means that the ecclesial rot has a more comprehensive reach as well. We are truly experiencing a worldwide scandal as a result.
And yet another. The last 500 year crisis, the Reformation, split apart the Church — seemingly irreparably. But it was a crisis that took place within a still-Christianized culture, and therefore the various Protestant reform movements still had as their aim to remain Christian — indeed, to become even more deeply Christian. Pushed by these rival claimants who were all striving to be the true church, the Catholic Counter-Reformation had to reform and rebuild orthodoxy to survive, if even sometimes for political reasons.
But today, we live in a largely secularized culture, where the pressure from without is for the Church to shed orthodoxy, and that pressure is matched by secularizing forces deeply embedded within the Church. Protestants are all pretty much in the same situation as Catholics, struggling to stay afloat in the rising secular flood, so they can be of little help. To make matters worse, the scandals now besetting the Catholic Church all serve as fuel for increasing the secularization of the culture.
So, this is a big crisis, arguably the biggest the Church has faced. That is why half-measures, bishops’ committees, solemn and airy declarations and stonewalling must stop. The Church must be scoured, and it seems that the laity must take the lead in the cleanup.
At the end of my book The Reformation 500 Years Later, I argued that the two greatest enemies facing all Christians were Secularism and radical Islam. If I had waited a year to publish and known about the depth of the scandals, I would have named another.