The revelations of the Dead Sea Scrolls could hardly have come at a worse time for the Church. At a time when church attendances - especially in Europe - are at historically low levels, the doctrinal foundations of Christianity have also come under a cloud, making things doubly difficult. According to some scholars, even the historicity of Jesus - something that most people including non-believers had accepted as fact - is now in doubt. More fundamentally, some of the highest officials in the Church hierarchy feel that they and their institutions are under siege. This in many ways is a purely secular crisis that bears close examination.
In the previous chapter we saw how the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal a picture of the origins of Christianity12 that is radically different from the one presented by the Church. The same is true of the Church as an institution: it is nothing like its public image. It is time to take a look at the state of the institutions of the Church as they are today, and see how they may be affected by these revelations. We shall be looking at the impact of the Scrolls on the doctrinal foundations of Christianity in the next few chapters, but to understand the Church's true predicament, we need to review its current condition in some detail. In this chapter, we shall see the Church as it really is by examining its secular affairs. This we shall do, not by exhuming its sins of the past, but by focusing on its recent history, in particular, following the chain of events surrounding the death of Albino Luciani, better known as Pope John Paul I. This will help lay to rest once and for all the pretence that the Church is a religious institution.
While the Scrolls threaten the foundations of Christian belief, it is the state of the great structure that stands over that foundation - the world of churches, parish priests, followers, and above all, its secular operations like political and economic activities that are of more immediate concern to the Pope and his officials today. If the foundation is Faith in Jesus, the superstructure, composed of the day to day activities of the Church - the part with which the flock and the public come in daily contact - is what keeps the Church and its dependants going. And the condition of the Church as seen from within and without is far from healthy. Its officials therefore have every reason to be concerned.
The Church today is plagued by problems that, on the surface at least, are entirely secular in character. (The fact that these problems might not have been so severe as to threaten its very existence, had the Church been a spiritual entity, is a different issue.) Its problems include: falling Church attendances and the rejection of its message by an ever-increasing number of people, especially in the West. What
12 While I have concentrated mainly on the Catholic Church, the various Protestant denominations are unlikely to remain unaffected by the revelations of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Also. as previously noted, by 'Church' I mean the Roman Catholic Church unless qualified otherwise.
little regard for the Church there still remains in the West is due mainly to the personality of Jesus Christ as understood by the public, and the image of Christianity as a religion of compassion and service embodying his message. As we shall see in later chapters, the Scrolls now shatter this last illusion. The Doctrine of the Faith -the bedrock of Christianity - is shown to be a later fabrication used in building up a theocratic institution that serves itself in the guise of serving Jesus. The exposure of this and other facts can only accelerate the decline, which happens also to be the great fear of the Church.
The cause of this entirely secular decline may be attributed to the fact that through most of its history the Church has been a despotic state deriving its legitimacy from the word of God revealed to Jesus of which the officials of the Church claim to be the sole and undisputed spokesmen and guardians. This is the exclusivist doctrine upon which the Church rests its authority; the Pope and his clergy are the police, the judge and the jury in this Kingdom of Faith. We shall be examining it in more detail in later chapters, but for the present it suffices to know that without this dogma to support it the Church can hardly exist. It is the single prop of authority and legitimacy upon which Christianity rests. The Pope of course claims to be the ultimate servant of Lord Jesus and also the spiritual head.
The reality however is different: the Pope is the successor to the head of the Roman Empire rather than the early Church - more Nero than St Peter. The Scrolls now bring this fact sharply into relief as we shall also see in the next few chapters. But old habits die hard, and the Vatican has continued to act as though Catholics the world over are still its loyal subjects. This has now run its course - at least in the West.
Until 1870, the Roman Church was for all practical purposes a sovereign state of which the Pope was the absolute monarch; even today it has many of the trappings of a state. It is becoming clear that Christianity being a communal religion and not one of self-exploration, cannot exist purely as a religious institution without some form of government support, or, preferably, being in control of the government and the lives of its subjects; loss of this temporal power is what has led to its collapse in Europe. Recognizing this, the Church has always paid more attention to political and economic affairs than to the problems of the spirit. At the same time, being a public relations organization par excellence, the Church has sought to present itself as an institution concerned mainly with saving souls.
Europeans, with their long history of struggles against the Church have seen the Emperor without his clothes. But Asiatics, Indians in particular, have failed to understand this history, and have accepted Church propaganda as truth. It is time that the people of the so-called Third World countries who have now become the target of the Church, following its near total rejection by the West, see the truth and recognize the real face of the Church. In this, India, with its deep philosophical roots, must take the lead. The Church is no more a soul-saving institution than the British East India Company was an organization devoted to the spread of civilization. Indians with their long association with European countries, backed by an unmatched pluralislic civilization of their own, should be in an ideal position to explore and expose the theocratic aims of Christianity. But with rare exceptions this has not happened. It is a source of unending wonder to me that despite the great number of educated Indians who have travelled in the West, how misinformed most Indians are about the state of Christianity in the West, especially in Europe. This was brought home to me in a recent conversation I had with the editor of a well-known weekly magazine in India. We were discussing the threat of Islamic terrorism to world peace, and how concerned Western countries are about the rise of fundamentalism.
"It is only a matter of time," he told me, "before we have another great war. This time, it will be a fight to the finish between Christianity and Islam. Europeans will be forced to defend Christianity against the threat of Islam."
"Christianity is already finished in Europe," I replied. "Europe is no longer Christian, but secular humanistic. Their fear of Islam is not religious, but political and economic. It poses a threat to their peace and prosperity. That is the way the Europeans are looking at it."
The editor, a Hindu, was incredulous. In fact, I don't think he understood me at all.
"But what about the Pope?" he asked. "Will not the Europeans unite and fight to defend the Pope and Rome if threatened by Islamic fundamentalist forces?"
By Rome he really meant the Vatican. Like most Indians, he believed all Romans to be devout Catholics. This is part of the image projected by the Church and its missionaries in India which Indians by and large have swallowed. Most Indians believe that all Europeans look to the Pope as their spiritual leader - laughable though it will seem to Europeans.
"Highly unlikely," I told him. "The people of Europe had to fight for more than a Ihousand years to free themselves from Church tyranny. They are not going to lay down their lives to defend an institution that has been their main oppressor through most of their history. They recognize that Islamic fundamentalism is just another theocracy on the march - not much different from what the Church and the Pope used to be. "
I then quoted for him a popular Italian lament: Italians have long complained how God has cursed their beautiful country with impassable mountains in the north, two volcanoes in the south and a Pope in the middle.
I don't think I got my point across, for, in our next meeting, he repeated his statement. I mention this only to bring out the fact that most Indians have little idea of how irrelevant and unimportant the Church and its message have become to the people of Europe. The only Europeans who look to the Church for liberation are those that have known tyranny worse than Christianity - at least in their recent memory -like Poland under the Communist yoke, and the Balkan countries under Ottoman Turkey. Even this is wearing thin; the 'official' Church candidate Lech Walesa was defeated in the recent presidential election in Poland despite his endorsement by Pope John Paul II. As a result, almost the only Europeans who have any use for the Church today are those whose livelihoods depend upon it. Here is what the Belgian scholar Koenraad Elst has to say about the current state of Christianity in Europe:13
Anyone who cares to look, can see that Christianity is in steep decline. This is especially the case in Europe, where church attendance levels in many countries have fallen below 10% or even 5 %...
Even more ominous for the survival of Christianity is the decline in the priestly vocations. Many parishes that used to have two to three parish priests now have none, so that the Sunday Service now has to be conducted by a visiting priest, who has an ever fuller agenda as his colleagues keep dying, retiring or abandoning the priesthood without being replaced...
Outside observers may join the Church leadership in asking why this decline is taking place. As a participant observer of the emptying of the churches in Europe, I will argue that certain circumstances and tactical mistakes may have accelerated the process, but
13 Koenraad Elst, Psychology of Prophetism, New Delhi, Voice of India, 1993, pp. 1-2.
the fundamental reason for the decline is intrinsic to the nature of Christian faith... Any attempt to bridge the gap between modernity and Christian faith has only underlined their incompatibility.
... The notion that there is a single God, Creator of the universe, who is interfering with his Creation by sending messages to privileged spokespersons called prophets, flies in the face of rationality. People will accept that reason isn't everything, but not that your central belief system is so militantly opposed to reason. (Elst, pp. 1-2)
Church teaching had overruled reason and declared its own dogmas, inspired directly by the Holy Spirit, to be above anything the human mind could think up or envision. ...The idea that humanity's intrinsic imperfection or sinfulness had been remedied by Christ's crucifixion was so absurd... that it could only be upheld as Christianity's basic dogma by declaring reason incompetent. (Elst, p. 3)
The third century Church father, Tertullian, solved the problem, at least for himself, by proclaiming: Credo quia absurdum - I believe because it is absurd. It is this faith - built around a dogma utterly opposed to reason, and one that has been losing its hold over the minds of Westerners - that the Church now is trying desperately to sell in Asia. It is no more than a strategy for survival, for the Church has been forced to recognize that it has no future in Europe. And now, even the rickety foundation of this doctrine of redemption through faith in Jesus has been dealt a severe blow by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. So to place the Church's predicament in perspective: not only is the public refusing to buy the sales pitch for the product, even the product is not what it has been advertised to be. And like other businesses whose products no longer have a market in the West, the Church has been forced to seek customers in the Third World.
Elst is far from being the only European to see Christianity virtually on its last legs, at least in Europe. David Yallop has this to say, speaking of Rome, the home of Christianity in most people's minds:14
The new Concordat recently signed between the Vatican and the Italian Government makes a fitting epitaph for the current Pope's [John Paul II] reign. Italy, for nearly two thousand years regarded by Catholics as the home of their faith, no longer has Roman Catholicism as 'the religion of the State'. The Church's privileged position in Italy is ending. (p 323)
Rome has a Catholic population of two and a half million [in 1978]. It should have been producing at least seventy new priests per year. When Luciani (John Paul I) became Pope [in 1978] it was producing six. ...Many parts of the city were, in reality, pagan, with Church attendance less than 3 per cent of the population... (p 194; emphasis added.)
Shades of Nostradamus! This is like Saudi Arabia disestablishing Sunni Islam as
14 David Yallop, In God's Name, London. Jonathan Cape, 1984.
the state religion, with its people abandoning the mosques. As observed previously, Christianity, like Islam but unlike Hinduism, is a communal religion, not a religion of self-exploration. Loss of participation in communal activities can spell its death. And yet this is precisely what is happening to Christianity in Europe. This bleak picture painted by outside observers like Elst and Yallop is confirmed by official Vatican reports. Peter de Rosa, a former Catholic priest who had access to official Church documents cites a secret Vatican study:
It revealed that from 1963 to 1969 over 8,000 priests had asked to be dispensed from their vows and nearly 3,000 others had left without waiting for permission. The study estimated that over the next five years 20,000 would leave. The estimate proved to be far too conservative.
Matters were worst in countries that pontiffs had relied on for providing missionaries. Holland for example, used to produce over 300 priests a year. Now ordinations are almost as rare as mountains [in Holland]. ... The average age of those who remain is a startlingly high 54. The future, too, looks bleak. Over the last twenty years, the number of Seminarians in the States [America] has fallen from 50,000 to 12,000.15
A loss of 76 percent in less than two decades! Even this understates the real loss because seminaries that do remain open have fewer students and teachers than they used to. Many of them have been kept alive only through a massive infusion from Third World countries like India and the Philippines; even the United States Army has been reduced to employing many of these non-Americans as chaplains. And these men and women have been lured less by faith than by the attractions of a more comfortable life in the West.
The situation has grown steadily worse since that time. When Pope John Paul II visited the United States in October 1995, newspapers reported that the number of Seminarians in the country was only 3,500 in 1993! It is probably less than 3,000 today. If present trends continue, it is not easy to see how the Church can survive without a clergy to lead its communal organizations.
What is true of the losses in the priesthood, is true also of its age profile: the numbers understate the real loss. Elst tells us that the average age of Catholic priests in the world is 55, whereas in the Netherlands (i.e. Holland) it is an astonishingly high 64 and still rising. And those that leave the priestly professions are invariably the younger members. All this is silent testimony to the spiritual bankruptcy of the institution. The simple fact is that the Church is imploding. Thus the condition of the Church is of far greater importance to its officials than to its devotees who are deserting it in droves.
This state of affairs no doubt accounts for the siege mentality bordering on paranoia that is displayed by Church authority whenever faced with the threat of a rational alternative to Church dogma. It is this fear that lies at the bottom of the openly expressed hostility to Yoga and Buddhism by the present Pope (John Paul II). The Church is deeply perturbed by the West's discovery of non-dogmatic Eastern spirituality and empirical disciplines like Yoga. These do not ask the faithful to suspend their rational judgement and accept dogma.
Freedom of thought has always been seen as the great enemy of credal religions like Christianity and Islam. That is why they have need for a thought police calling
15 Peter de Rosa, Vicars of Christ, London, Corgi Press, 1988, p. 23. The report he cited was later leaked to the press.
itself the 'clergy', as well as elaborate machineries like the Inquisition and blasphemy laws to suppress all dissent. It is difficult to imagine either Christianity or Islam existing without clergy. In contrast, pluralistic religions like Hinduism and those of ancient Greece have never needed clergy or blasphemy laws. They can resolve disputes through debate. The Upanishads and the Dialogues of Plato are full of them. As that great rationalist Thomas Jefferson once observed: It is error alone that needs the support of the government. Truth can stand by itself.
Elst goes on to contrast this declining state of Christianity in the West with the situation in India, particularly the attitude towards Christianity shown by many Hindus:
When staying in India, I find it sad and sometimes comical to see how these outdated beliefs are being foisted upon backward sections of the Indian population by fanatical missionaries. In their aggressive campaign to sell their product, the missionaries are helped a lot by sentimental expressions of admiration for Christianity on the part of leading Hindus. (Elst, p viii)
This chasm between the real state of Christianity and its image in India must be attributed to the skill of the Catholic propaganda machine which has succeeded in portraying itself as an institution full of vitality and vigour. Hindu gullibility and the subservient mentality of many Indian intellectuals and journalists has also helped.16 It should be noted that the state of Christianity is far healthier in former European colonies like India and even the Americas than in Europe. (Catholic priests are despised in much of Mexico and Central America, and, horror of horrors, Christianity is being absorbed into pagan cults, but that is a different story.) This being the current state of Christianity, the Vatican can hardly afford another blow like the revelations of the Dead Sea Scrolls. That is a story we shall be looking at later.
In order to understand the Church's predicament, and its near hysterical reaction to the Dead Sea Scrolls, it helps to recognize that what is at stake today for the Church is not so much the loss of spirituality in the world as the loss of the marketplace to itself; if the scene in Europe were to be repeated in the rest of the world, Christianity would be finished. Through much of its history, officials of the Church - the clergy - have functioned mainly as a thought police - an occupation that is no longer open to them. As a result, the Vatican today is not so much a religious organization as a secular business empire, like IBM or General Motors. Its concerns are the same - loss of customers leading to unemployment within its official ranks. The theocratic state has been replaced by the theocratic business enterprise that may fairly be called Vatican Incorporated. The business is troubled, and the Dead Sea Scrolls can only hasten the inevitable.
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