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Breaking Faith: The Pope, the People, and the Fate of Catholicism

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Breaking Faith: The Pope, the People, and the Fate of Catholicism, by John Cornwell

Breaking Faith: The Pope, the People, and the Fate of Catholicism, by John Cornwell

What is going on with the Roman Catholic Church? During the past few decades, rancorous divisions have appeared over a variety of issues, including sexual morality, the state of the priesthood, the role of the laity in church polity, women in the church, the Vatican’s squelching of dissent, the creation of saints, and much more. These are rarely treated as arcane theological debates — a lot of anger and bad blood have been created over them.

Summary

Title: Breaking Faith: The Pope, the People, and the Fate of Catholicism
Author: John Cornwell
Publisher: Viking Press
ISBN: 0670030023

Pro:
• Examination of many key issues
• Sympathetic to conservative position
• Explains common factors in many debates

Con:
• Probably won’t be believed by the people who need it most

Description:
• Analysis of important debates in the Catholic Church
• Differences between progressives & traditionalists
• Offers suggestions for resolving some of the conflicts

Book Review

Where do the fault lines lie? The division in the Church is commonly described as being between liberals or progressives and conservatives or traditionalists. But the division can also be characterized as being between those who wish to see church power returned to the local level and those who wish to see it remain among the upper hierarchy, and particularly with the Pope.

This was a theme which Cornwell addressed in his earlier book, Hitler’s Pope. As he describes it, Catholic political and social organizations were consistently undermined in their efforts by Pacelli (Pope Pius XII), both before and after he became pope. Right up until Hitler was made chancellor, German Catholics comprised an impressive and independent democratic constituency which opposed National Socialism:

    ...the immense tragedy of the abdication of political Catholicism can be glimpsed by considering two examples of Catholic protest, one before and one during the war: reactions to the removal of crucifixes in 1936 and to the “euthanasia” program of 1941. Had these protests been repeated and extended in a multiplicity of local instances across Germany, from 1933 onward, the history of the Nazi regime might have taken a different course.

A primary focus of Cornwell’s Breaking Faith: The Pope, the People, and the Fate of Catholicism is to describe the two factions in the debate, conservatives and progressives, summarizing their views and why they hold them. Some of the conflicts are over very obvious issues, for example sexual matters involving contraception, abortion and extra-marital sex. He quotes Andrew Greely:

    A large proportion of Catholics no longer accept the thesis that sexual pleasure must be limited to married persons who are open in each sexual act to the possibility of procreation.

This, then, creates a serious disconnect from those in the Catholic leadership (which is the vast majority of them) who insist on the truth of such a proposition. Divisions manifest across a wide range of issues. With marriage itself, more and more Catholics are willing to get a divorce — and the Catholic Church grants more annulments in America than anywhere else. But those Catholics also look to get remarried within the Church, and that is why they want annulments in the first place. This means that they still believe in the importance of a sacramental marriage, even if in a different way than the hierarchy would like.

Breaking Faith: The Pope, the People, and the Fate of Catholicism, by John Cornwell

Breaking Faith: The Pope, the People, and the Fate of Catholicism, by John Cornwell

Abortion is an extremely divisive issue, and one on which the Church leadership demands even stricter adherence and unity than usual. Most Catholics do appear to endorse the Church’s teachings on this issue, but not to the extent of being willing to have those teachings form the basis of anti-abortion legislation. They will even vote to elect Catholic politicians who are pro-choice, despite opposition from Church leaders.

There are also other, less obvious conflicts, but they touch upon much deeper issues in the Church. For example, there is a serious disconnect between Church hierarchy and Church members over the nature of morality. The faith of Catholic youth today is not weaker according to current research, but the experience of that faith is fundamentally different from that of their parents — there is no trace of the “sin cycle” and guilt syndromes which plagued older Catholics.

» Next: Catholics Becoming More Protestant

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