By Douglas Kohn
I am not a Catholic. I was raised in a Jewish family in an Italian American neighborhood outside New York City. I attended public schools other than a three year stint in a secular private institution. In college I decided on Fordham for several reasons. I liked the Catholic and Renaissance background of the school, I knew many people who went there and it had the perfect location for me. When I desperately needed to move on with my life, Fordham was there for me and took me in as a member of the family, as many a Catholic family did for me when I was growing up. Fordham, The Jesuits and most of all, the Catholic Church granted me my ticket to freedom.
My background, I believe, having been involved in many Catholic traditions out of support for friends, gives me some insight as to the condition of Catholics and the Catholic Church today. This also comes from reading endless volumes of mostly periodical material on the subject.
In spite of how many Jews view the Catholic Church, I have always seen it as a pillar of Western Cultural life. The thought of empty pews in Europe depresses me. The Catholic Church is easily the oldest surviving Western Institution. Its various projects greatly lessened the damage done by the collapse of the Roman Empire. Its monks and scholars wrote down everything they possibly could to preserve the knowledge of millennia that had been built up. The Church was later instrumental (but had less power than many would like to think) in building the national project in Europe. They made kings and empires and allowed people to form into political organizations that last to this day.
Now, if you were to speak to any Catholic on the streets of New York, they are either dissatisfied with the Church’s teachings or disgusted by the crimes of a select few members of the Church. Except in Hispanic communities, the pews are not empty, but they are lacking. Most priests are older, and most New Yorkers cynical. Everyone seems to think the Church is passé and out of touch with the times.
In many ways there is not so much reason to be gloomy. The priests are older, yes, but the number of new priests does not seem to be declining too rapidly, as many men become priests from an older age. This may help them in their struggle to bring God to people’s lives, as they themselves have had many more of life’s experiences which brings wisdom
Roman Catholicism is also growing, albeit not as quickly as Evangelical Christianity and Islam, but it is nonetheless growing. The number of Catholics from 1900 to 2001 increased by 394%. This is not just because of a baby boom, but because of conversion. Therefore, right now as growth slows somewhat, it is probably just because of an era of expansion unmatched by any other in the history of the Church. But these numbers mask overall demographic picture. In 1900, 25% of Catholic lived outside the Western World. In 2001, 70% lived outside the West. Asia, Africa and Latin America are where new Catholic life is to be found.
Those who think the Catholic Church does not reform should realize that in actuality it constantly does so. The problem for these people is that the Catholic Church reforms without telling anybody. It has to save face during reform.
Catholics should keep their faith in the Church. It has done much great goodness in the societies it has touched. The sudden turns to extremism are few and far between considering the whole picture. Regardless of what positions it takes in the future it will always put forward its core beliefs, salvation in Christ and the belief that life beings at conception. The Catholic Church is and will most likely always be powerful and righteous institution.