Church must undergo profound reform to survive

The Catholic Church may be at a turning point in its history, believes Danièle Hervieu-Léger, a leading French sociologist on religion.

To survive in secularized Western societies, the institution will have to reform itself, she says.

In a new book with fellow sociologist Jean-Louis Schlegel that came out this past spring, “Vers l’implosion? Entretiens sur le présent et l’avenir du catholicisme” (“Toward Implosion: Interviews on the Present and the Future of Catholicism”), she dissects the causes of the current model and suggests possible changes.

The book has been generally well received in France.

“My conviction is that the Catholic Church is threatened with implosion through the dislocation of its internal structure,” she told Presence info, based in Montreal.

“It is a pessimistic diagnosis that the book assumes, and which concerns France, the countries of Western Europe, Canada, the United States — with certain differences — and some Latin American countries.

It is an observation of an extremely serious crisis that implies that the institution must lay new foundations to overcome this course.”

She said she sees it as the consequence of a system built in response to the Reformation, then reaffirmed in the face of the sociopolitical changes of the 19th and 20th centuries.

“This ‘Roman system’ allowed the church to overcome these great crises by strengthening its doctrine and its disciplinary system.

Today, it has become a burden that is leading it to implode.

The church is sick of a system of clerical power and a territorialised relationship to the world through the parish, which it can no longer manage today in secularized Western societies,” she said.

The sexual abuse crisis is forcing the institution to question the deep roots of clericalism and how to redefine the place of the priest in communities, said the sociologist, who points out that the “sacred construction” of the priest is based on the exclusion of women.

Considering the female priesthood would, according to her, not allow “women to move to the side of the sacred, but (to) deconstruct the sacred figure of the priest.”

“What is very difficult is to redefine theologically the function and status of the priest as a service to the community.

“If the Roman Church goes down this road, it will be destroying the system of power that defines it and which has been the framework of its own ecclesiological constitution,” she said.

However, if the problem is not solved through reform, it will be solved through the exhaustion of the clerical body, she added.

A few years ago, she popularised the word “exculturation” to refer to a recent stage in the process of social disqualification that has affected the church since it was hit by the advent of political modernity.

At the heart of this process is the affirmation of the individual and his or her ability to take charge of his or her own destiny, especially in the political arena.

Expelled from political life in France, then in other countries, the church reacted by “massively investing” in families.

“It made the family the foundation of its social intervention.

“It was at this time, in particular, that the control of the sexual life of the faithful — who were not to use contraception under any circumstances — became its main obsession,” she states. Continue reading

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News category: Analysis and Comment, Palmerston.

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