The Roman Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandals have now reached the papacy itself. Der Spiegel is reporting that hundreds of German Catholics have left the faith in the past month, while internal criticism of the church hierarchy continues to grow.
Reading some of the comments filtering to my Facebook account, there are many who wonder if this is the final death-knell for Catholicism itself. With Benedict XVI caught between a rock and a hard place, it would seem that the Vatican's credibility can only go further and further down. And so I see some actually proposing that the Church itself must inevitably go the way of the Byzantine Empire.
Not so fast.
For one thing, the Church and papacy have survived far worse scandals than this. It's also important to remember that faith has a logic all its own. People will choose to remain, perhaps to weather the storm, or more hopefully to rebuild from within. Some will argue that Catholicism is bigger than the papacy, or even the hierarchy of priests and bishops. Others, like Bill Donahue, will persist in trying to dismiss the current wave of criticism.
So the question is not whether the Church will survive, but in what form. Will it revert and retreat into a conservative core of true believers? Or will it accept the challenge to examine the contradictions between its highest values and its most questionable practices?
Ultimately, the Church need not become more "worldly" to maintain influence in the world. But its leaders do need to be mindful of what the world sees -- how we "picture" Catholicism. At one end of the spectrum are cold, cloistered clerics in denial about the damage they have inflicted on their own flock. At the other end are the charities and street ministries reaching out to, and speaking out for, the impoverished and disenfranchised. The College of Cardinals behind closed doors, versus the local church with its doors wide open to all. It is these contradictions which have defined Catholicism in the modern era, and which Catholics must now address.