Recently, while dusting my bookcase, I noticed my copy of Malachi Martin’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Church, published in 1981. I flipped through its underscored and annotated pages and realized that Martin’s observations seem even more prophetic today than when I first read them.
He began by noting the “plummeting, non-stop drop” in virtually every area of Catholic practice between 1965 and 1980, and in the laity’s rejection of many Catholic teachings. In 1980, though still “the biggest, the richest, the best educated, and the most influential” religious organization in the world, the Church was having relatively little impact on “issues of war and peace, hunger and plenty, depression and progress.”
He then identified the problem’s origin—Constantine’s decision, in a.d. 322 to make Christianity his empire’s official religion. From that time to the late 20th century, Martin claims, the Church engaged in “invasion of the political and social, as well as the cultural fields of human endeavor,” and over time “accepted purely secular categories,” the result being gradual abandonment of Roman Catholic and general Christian principles.
This pursuit made popes, and eventually cardinals as well, exceptionally powerful. For example, in the 13th century, “the legitimacy of all [European] rulers depended on their relationship with the Roman pope.” Popes struggled to retain that power over the centuries, and largely did so, but Martin claims “the pairing of religion and politics, of the sword and the spirit, never produced peace on earth—nor even deeper religion or more inspiring leadership from [Rome].”
Over the centuries there were good popes and bad, in Martin’s view, but in either case the spiritual and secular roles of the Church remained intertwined. Two popes that Martin considers significant held the Chair of Peter in the mid-twentieth century, Pius XII and John XXIII, but the latter, known as “Good Pope John,” unintentionally “undid what every pope since the fourth century had sought to maintain and foment.”
John was a pastoral pope, rather than a theologian or philosopher, and “spoke amiably about opening windows in his church while, actually and unwittingly, he was leveling the walls.” According to Martin, “Many theologians and bishops used John’s good intentions to undermine Catholic doctrines, including Original Sin.” And John’s successor, Paul VI, largely completed the process by “allowing the evisceration of his church by the same forces that were choking the art, the literature, the hope of that civilization.”
The result was that in 1978 John Paul II (JPII) inherited a “shattered institution waiting at the crossroads of history.” Martin’s book covers only the first two years of JPII’s pontificate (which continued for twenty-five more years) but that was long enough for him to observe and applaud JPII’s efforts against “liberation theology” and “democratic socialism,” and his emphasis on putting the Church’s spiritual mission above promoting social change. He applauded, as well, JPII’s firm declarations that “We do not need or want any politicking priests or priests who take up arms in revolutionary movements” and “Nobody can make of theology a simple collection of his own personal ideas.”
Martin also praised JPII’s opposition to many prelates’ inclination to prefer socialism over capitalism and social revolution over salvation through Jesus.
The book ended as it began, with Martin expressing confidence that the Catholic faith will survive as Christ promised, but in certain key respects become very different than it has been for over seventeen hundred years. Although he did not offer a detailed description of what the new Church might look like, this much can be inferred from what he wrote:
It will be more concerned with spiritual than secular matters.
Martin noted that JPII was unable to exercise his spiritual authority “without automatically stepping onto the plane of civic affairs, national politics, and international interests.” He cited, as well, the Pope’s concern about this situation when he wrote to the bishops of Brazil: “We have an essentially religious mission which is not in the first place the construction of a better material world, but the building up of the kingdom which starts here and will be fully realized in heaven . . .”
It will be focused on serving God’s people rather than exercising power over them and/or the world.
Martin recalls what Jesus said on the night before the Passion: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do . . . If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it. If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (John 14: 12-15)
The role of the hierarchy, as Martin noted, was to do what the Apostles were commissioned to do—believe, live, and preach the Gospel. (Matt 28: 19,20) He was not suggesting that they be apart or aloof from the secular world or ignorant of its ideas and actions, or that they hesitate to acknowledge its insights or point out its errors. He meant, instead, that they be in the world but not of it and remain faithful to Christian values rather than embracing secular ones.
The task will not be an easy one for today’s Pope and bishops, who have understandably become comfortable with a considerably less humble role than the one Martin evidently had in mind. But such a role, as Martin infers, is what the world desperately needs them to fill, and one the successors to the Apostles are more suited to fill than that of championing psychological, sociological and political theories. May the Holy Spirit give them the wisdom and courage to accept that role.
Copyright © 2019 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved