The combination of shameful scandal and cultural hostility sometimes makes it a grim time to be Catholic. But they’re not the whole story.
Americans tend to be myopic and see the Church only through the lens of their own nation. But the Church in America makes up only a small fraction of one? billion people who belong to the Catholic Church all over the world. Millions of Catholics live on every continent, and in some of those places the Church is growing at an amazing rate. Now Africa and Asia are exporting priests to parishes in the United States, as many American Catholics have been delighted to discover. The Church is more truly “catholic” now than at any time in history.
So what is the real story of the Church in the twenty-first century?
No one could deny that the Church is facing a crisis. But that’s nothing new. If we’ve learned anything from the past two thousand years, it’s that the Church is always facing a crisis.
In fact, as the historian Philip Jenkins points out, crises are what drive the Church. “The best indicator that Christianity is about to experience a vast expansion is a widespread conviction that the religion is doomed or in its closing days.” Over and over again, the doubters have confidently predicted the end of the Church, only to be overwhelmed at the next moment by a sudden burst of Christian energy.
In the early part of the twentieth century, G. K. Chesterton noticed the same phenomenon: “Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave. But the first extraordinary fact which marks this history is this: that Europe has been turned upside down over and over again; and that at the end of each of these revolutions the same religion has again been found on top. The Faith is always converting the age, not as an old religion but as a new religion.”
The pagan Romans thought the Christians would just go away if they passed laws that were strict enough. Instead, that odd little Jewish sect conquered the empire.
The Arians rationalized the central mysteries of Christianity away, and confidently celebrated their victory. Instead, orthodox Christianity triumphed, and the Arians faded into history.
In the high Middle Ages, heresies and intellectual skepticism seemed ready to make the Church a shell of empty rituals. Instead, the age brought forth both some of the greatest theologians and the greatest mystics in Christian history.
In the Renaissance, the revival of pagan learning and taste threatened to reduce the Church to a crusty old irrelevance. Instead, the same age saw an explosive growth of the Church in all four corners of the world.
The French Revolution, and the secularist revolutions throughout Europe in the 1800s, took away the temporal power of the Church and seemed to threaten the extinction of the whole institution. Instead, there was a great religious revival all over the world, one whose effects we’re still feeling today.
The Communists ruled half of Europe and most of Asia for half a century, and it may have seemed that the Church was wiped out in both continents. Instead, it was Christians, led by a pope from a Communist country, who overthrew the Communists. The Church remains, still doing the work it did in secret for fifty years.
Now, as countless dozen pundits confidently predict the end of Christianity and the beginning of a new, “post-Christian” age, we can predict, if only from the example of history, that they’ll be wrong. The Church will find new energy, and the billion faithful will stay true to what they believe. Even when we suffer with Jesus, we know that we also rise with Jesus.
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10).
This is as true of the whole Church as it is of the individual Christian.
So here we are, back at the beginning. Two thousand years have passed since the birth of the Church. The world is different, and the Church is different, in countless ways. But in the most important ways, nothing has changed. The Church still proclaims the message of the gospel, which is timeless and perfect. The structure of the Church has been refined to fit current conditions, and it will be refined more when more refining is needed. But the fundamental structure will always be the same. The successors of the apostles will always guide the Church, with the successor of Peter as their head.
The pagan Roman Empire is long gone, but the world still persecutes the Church, overtly in some places, more subtly in others. Martyrs still die for the Christian faith every year, and the blood of the martyrs still makes the Church stronger.
Christ’s promise is still good: He is always with his Church, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). The world can dismiss the Church as outmoded, irrelevant, a fading dinosaur. But the Church will always be new. In the end, the latest fashion in secular philosophy, whatever it is today, will join eighteenth-century Theophilanthropism on the forgotten back shelves of history.
Christianity will be the latest thing, the newest revolution, the will of the people.