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How this Pope's Church set in the West

After the official announcement of the Pope's death on Saturday, CBC Radio switched to holy music for the rest of the afternoon. The news announcers were solemn and hushed. On the news, people told stories of how the Pope had blessed them, and how meaningful it had been. The newspapers strove to outdo each other with special Pope supplements, complete with details of the ancient rituals still carried out to ascertain if he is really dead. We learned, for example, that his forehead is struck with a silver hammer and his name is called out three times, just in case.

No wonder the media love the Pope. The papacy is splendid theatre, with great costumes, spectacular stage sets, neat special effects (the puff of white smoke and all), and high drama.

And this show starred a truly charismatic actor -- perhaps the only person in the world who was as big as the Beatles.

You might think, from all the saturation coverage, that this man was immensely important to his audience, that he had shaped their lives and their world in some profound way. And yet, I'm sure that for the vast majority of those thousands of journalists assigned to the death watch, and the millions of people in the West tuned in to the spectacle, and even among those assembled in St. Peter's Square, the Pope's beliefs and teachings made little difference at all. They ignored much of what he had to say on how to live a moral life. If anything, his beliefs and teachings drove many of them away.

Many people argue that this Pope was one of the great popes, and certainly the greatest religious leader of our time. The truth is that he presided over the collapse of his Church in the West.

Throughout the First World, the Church is all but dead. In Italy, the cradle of the papacy, the birth rate has plummeted to among the lowest in the world. Wherever the Church's hold was strongest -- Quebec comes to mind -- it now is weakest. The world where pious women obeyed the priest and gave birth to 14 children is gone for good.

In the U.S., formerly devoted Catholics, like my half-sister, are flocking to new suburban denominations that are less doctrinaire and more democratic. Many people who still profess to be Catholics (Paul Martin, John Kerry) are, by definition, bad ones, or at any rate hypocritical ones -- they've rejected the Pope's absolutist teachings on birth control, abortion, homosexuality and the status of women. Either they're Catholic or the Pope's Catholic, but it's hard to see how both can be true.

One of the worst problems in the West is the decline of the priesthood, a direct result of the Pope's disastrous intransigence on the issue of priestly celibacy. His insistence on celibacy virtually guaranteed that many young men attracted to the priesthood would be sexually confused and emotionally immature, and that a great many would be gay men in denial. "Many observers suspect that John Paul's real legacy to his church is a gay priesthood," wrote Garry Wills, a long-time critic of the Church. A few of these men became sexual abusers, whose crimes were covered up for years as Church officials shuffled them from parish to parish. Rome didn't want to know.

In a rigidly hierarchical culture of secrecy, where loyalty to Rome is of supreme importance, where homophobia is official doctrine and the gay fact is still a matter of widespread denial, the pedophilia scandals probably should have come as no surprise. And yet, the Pope did his best to minimize and ignore them. He saw them as an expression of Western decadence, instead of as a fundamental failure of the Church itself.

In the West, the Pope has ensured that the Church's leaders are ultraconservative and servile. Meantime, the seminaries are half-empty. In Germany, only 161 priests were ordained in 2003, and the average age of active priests is now above 60. Even though the Catholic population worldwide has grown by many millions, there are no more priests today than there were when John Paul II began his reign. In Latin America, priests are so scarce that people wait months to have their babies baptized, and many of the faithful are deserting to join the more colourful, more rousing Pentecostal sects.

John Paul the Great? I don't think so. To many people, the Catholic Church in the West seems like it's on life support. People talk about it as if it were alive, and sometimes it even looks alive. But it's really just a show -- a riveting spectacle for the TV cameras that lost its life force long ago.mwente@globeandmail.ca

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