The following is an excerpt from the updated and expanded new edition of “Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church” by H.W. Crocker III. It can be purchased here.
It is stunning, in a way, to think how far the Catholic Church has fallen. During the Crusades it could unite Europeans from the Mediterranean to Norway. At the end of the twentieth century, the proportion of Catholics in the Scandinavian countries, to take but one example, was no more than one percent of the population — a terrible figure unless one notes that even the number of observant Swedish Lutherans was only three percent. More than four hundred years after the Swedish Reformation outlawed Catholicism, the faith claimed a quarter of all believers in a land that Protestantism has lost.
Throughout Europe such depressing, and worsening, rates of Christian belief point to a gradual extinguishing of the faith. In America, the rates of church attendance are better, if still collapsing — and they require one serious caveat. In Europe — though this is changing the longer secularism remains dominant — people know what Christianity is and have turned their backs on it. In the United States, people believe what they want and call it Christianity, as a quick perusal of any phone book will show. A similar attitude has spread to Latin America, where Protestant churches have made giant inroads on what were once Catholic countries. In Brazil, at the dawn of the twentieth-first century, the rate of Mass attendance among putative Catholics was less than it was in England. In northern Europe, the faith is weak. In southern Europe, things are generally better, but not much. In America, there is room for hope — but only because hope is a virtue; and it is virtue that requires work, given present trends.
Still, for all its flaws and the hostility it faces, the Catholic Church remains the largest religion in the world, numbering roughly a billion people. It is stretched — unlike any other — over every continent in substantial numbers. It claims to be universal, and is. It is also the most ancient institution in the Western World. Rome and its bishop date back two thousand years. As Paul Johnson has written, “The popes stand for continuity, and they stand for certitude. What they teach is in all essentials what they taught in the first century A.D., when they were hunted men living in the catacombs. That, to most believers, is the central attraction of the Catholic Church, and the chief virtue of the papacy which rules it.”
This is true, and the Church stands, above all else, for a defining historic truth that it has faithfully carried on, expounded, and evangelized. But it is equally true that in the third Christian millennium there are powerful new challenges that only the Church can overcome — namely the challenges of science and technology to human integrity. Already there are humans created in test tubes. Human genes and animal genes have been mixed. Man is well on the road to redesigning what it means to be human. It might soon be possible to clone human beings, to create human duplicates that can be raided for body parts by their selfish masters, or even to create animalized humans for special commercial tasks. The object of Dr. Frankenstein might soon become reality — indeed, his dreams easily surpassed, in the new movement for “transhumanism.”
There is, however, one serious opponent to this future. The Catholic Church is the only substantial institution with a well-articulated philosophy opposed to such artificial genetic engineering of humans, and only if the Catholic Church and Catholic people have sufficient power and influence can it be stopped. If the world truly is ruled by ideas, Catholic ideas need to extend into universities, laboratories, and government councils to a far greater extent than they do now. To stop the “Brave New World” future that might otherwise be in store is an enormous — apparently Sisyphean — task. But it is the Church, and the Church alone, that has even the remotest chance of doing it.
In the late twentieth century, Graham Greene argued in favor of priestly celibacy, saying: “I think that for many people, especially the young, the priesthood must have the attraction of a crack unit. It’s an organization which has to train for combat, one which demands self-sacrifice. . . . I’m convinced that the drop in vocations has to do with the fact that we don’t put across clearly enough the attraction to be found in a difficult and dangerous calling.” Today the Church, more than ever, needs a few good men — or many good men — for such crack units that will win hearts and minds for Christ.
Predicting the future is impossible. Nothing — pace the Protestant doctrine of predestination — is preordained. Man can find his own future. We can only work and pray that he does so with the lamp of Christ held high. The triumph of the Catholic Church, from its beginnings with the Apostles filing out from the Holy Land, to its rising to be monarch over kings, to its continued survival and worldwide development against every conceivable persecution, is the most extraordinary story in the world. The Church is a great force, and perhaps through it — indeed, only through it — Christendom will rise again.
H.W. Crocker III is a popular historian and novelist. His classic history of the Catholic Church, Triumph, updated and expanded, has just been reissued in hardcover.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.