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Catholic “Dominoes” Falling?

dominos falling

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

In 1968, I served at the funeral mass for someone who was killed in Vietnam. I knew him fairly well: He was the older brother of a classmate in the Catholic school I attended.

Though people said I was a “smart” kid I couldn’t, for the life of me, understand what my classmate’s brother was doing in a country none of us would have heard of had young men like him not been sent there. I tried to understand the explanations I heard from adults in my family, school and church, and in the media. The word “domino” often came up: supposedly, Vietnam was one. According to that narrative, if the country fell to the Communists, others would follow.

I don’t have the expertise, or the inclination, to debate such a theory. What I am willing to say is that another “domino” phenomenon may be at work today, half a century later. And I must say that I am glad to see the fall of the “tiles” I’m about to describe.

For a millennium after Roman Empire disintegrated, the Roman Catholic Church exercised power that’s hard to imagine today if you’re not living in a theocracy. The monarchs of Europe “reported,” if you will, to the Pope, so a challenge to royal authority was, in essence, an attack on the Church. That is why Henry VIII’s “divorce” from the Church and the French Revolution were such cataclysmic events. Henry, in breaking away from the church and starting his own when the Pope wouldn’t grant him an annulment, effectively declared himself the Pope of England (to this day, the Queen or King is the Head of the Church of England, a.k.a. Anglican Church); when French revolutionaries lopped off the heads of their monarchs and nobles, they were effectively cutting themselves off from ecclesiastical authority, which was intertwined with their class system.

From there, the Church’s influenced weakened, however gradually: France and other countries passed laws that eliminated or limited religion from politics and other public discourse. In a few countries, however, the Church continued to exert its authority. Among those countries were Spain, Ireland and Poland, all of which were known, until recently, for their staunch Catholicism.

One could argue that in Spain, the unhooking of the Church from the nation’s culture and politics began in the late 1970s, after the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who maintained nacionalcatolicismo as part of his dictatorial system. Today, while most Spaniards are at least nominally affiliated with the Church (it doesn’t let go of you easily!), they—especially the young—attend mass at rates on par with their peers in the Netherlands and Norway, which aren’t exactly known as ramparts of religiosity. (But, hey, they’re ahead of the UK, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Estonia!)

Ione Belarra is the Spanish Minister of Social Rights and the 2030 Agenda. Three weeks ago, she made her debut in Parliament. She wasted no time in expressing what too many of us have known and borne in silence. “It must be said that the Catholic Church has been and accomplice too many times in this country,” she pronounced. The Church has been “covering up sexual violence against children,” she elaborated. Such a denunciation of the Church would have been unthinkable a generation ago and possibly fatal a generation before that. Where it will lead, I don’t know, but I don’t think Spain will return to being the sort of country that got a special dispensation from the Pope Urban II for its role in the Crusades, or even the one whose “neutrality” in World War II was protected by Franco playing nice with Hitler and Mussolini.

In Ireland and Poland, Catholic domination of culture and politics endured a bit longer, in part because Catholicism served as a touchstone of identity as those countries were subsumed by colonial powers (England in Ireland and Prussia, Germany and the Soviet Union, among others, in Poland) that tried to erase all vestiges of their culture, including their language.

It’s been said that the first crack in the Berlin Wall opened when a shipyard electrician in Gdansk—guided, he claimed, by his Catholic faith—organized a strike that challenged the Communist regime in Poland.

Lech Walesa would later serve as the first President of his newly-independent country. In that post, and in his life afterward, he fought to liberalize the economy and protect human rights—of some humans, that is. While presiding over his country, he signed a law that sharply restricted abortion rights and said, of LGBT people, that he didn’t “wish for this minority,” which he “tolerates and understands” to “impose itself on the majority.” That’s the sort of language you hear from conservatives who don’t want to sound like bigots but who see equality as “special treatment.” Also under his presidency, publicly-funded catechism classes were introduced in the country’s state-run schools.

His expressed views on LGBT rights have moderated, which may reflect another change underway in Polish society, particularly among the young. In the most recent census, 96 percent of Poles were identified as Roman Catholics. While they attend church at higher rates than in other countries such as neighboring Czech Republic (which has one of the world’s lowest church attendance rates), if pressed, many—especially the young—find other things to do with their Sunday mornings and say they were “raised” Catholics but hedge, or give negative answers when asked about their current church affiliation. And, as in other countries, some claim to attend church more often than they actually do.

Activists contend that many people are counted as “Catholic” because they tick the box without thinking or because other people, such as their parents, fill out the forms for them. Now the “Chce sie liczyc” (“I Want To Count”) campaign seeks to encourage Polish people to think about their identity and, if they are so inclined, choose other answers such as “Christian,” “Deist,” or “Atheist.” That previous census counts presented a “very monolithic and homogenous Poland,” in the words of campaign leader Oskar Zyndul. That gave governments since Walesa’s the rationale—however unjustified—for passing and enforcing laws that restrict abortion access, in vitro fertilization, and LGBT rights, in contrast to the wishes of increasing numbers of Poles.

Could Poland join other former Catholic bastions like France, Spain, Belgium and Ireland, which have legalized same-sex marriage and removed most or all restrictions against abortion? If we look at the Irish Republic, such a scenario in Poland may not seem so far-fetched. In 2015, the country James Joyce described as a “sow that eats its young” became the first in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote. (Other countries and US states had mandated marriage equality through executive decrees or votes by legislative chambers.) Three years later, it finally lifted its ban on abortions. That same year, Pope Francis’s visit wasn’t greeted with anything like John Paul’s visit some four decades earlier. And pundits, Catholic and secular alike, talk about the “waning influence” or even “demise” of the Church in Ireland.

Ireland, like Spain and Poland, has been convulsed by revelations of decades, or even centuries, of priests sexually abusing children and all sorts of other horrors in Catholic monasteries, orphanages and hospitals. And the young, with more formal education and access to information and contacts with people who look, speak, dress, eat and worship—or not—differently from themselves—simply have less use for the Church than their parents or grandparents had. Those countries might be the next Catholic “dominoes,” and any attempt to stop their “fall” will be as futile as the efforts—and lives, like that of my classmate’s brother— expended to keep Vietnam from becoming a “domino” in another game.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    Difficult to say, Gaelic Catholicism is a little different from mainstream Catholicism. You can smoke, drink, live with your partner outside marriage and still go to mass on a Sunday, whilst during the week your aunt for instance might read the tea leaves for you.

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    Davie from Glasgow

    I wish this guy WOULD read some more of your story Bruce. Though still clearly a fundie – it sounded from what he wrote that he had one or two doubts, e.g. about the church. There’s plenty of writing on your site that could potentially force a big fat wedge into such cracks if he could bring himself to give it half a fair chance.

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      Davie from Glasgow

      DAMMIT! Sorry for the confusion. I intended to post that comment after today’s other post – ‘Another Facebook Message From an Evangelical Zealot’. Not sure if I can delete it so apologies. I need to be more careful.

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    dale m.

    In my country (Canada), representatives of the Vatican here, are very concerned about a specific development … the astounding rise of atheism. Back in 2000, it was a fringe movement of barely 2-3% that the church simply ignored. Now, the Nation is 20% atheist. Alberta, somewhat like a northern version of Texas and the country’s backwater stronghold of Christian evangelicalism reached 32% atheism as of 2012.. Of the 18,000 churches across this country, the various churches have calculated that 9,000 are destined to close before 2030.

    One day ago, I finished my act of citizenship by dutifully filling out the Canada Census form. It happens every 4 years. I did notice one very interesting item about the census. The churches’ must have thrown their weight against a certain section of the census (which was immediately terminated). It disappeared completely from the 2017 census (covering 2013-2016) and the current 2021 census covering (2017-2020). So what was it ?!?

    Religiosity/ Atheist demographics.

    I can only guess that the gov’t through the D.O.I. (Department of Immigration) might have felt that it was a very unwelcoming statistic for those Christians and Muslims wishing to migrate to Canada. Today, thanks to the Church, we have no idea what the current stats are.

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    Yulya Sevelova

    The activity in Canada by the Catholic Church shouldn’t surprise anyone. They’re deteremined to get back the power they once had,like they did under people like Franco and Mussolini. They have Opus Dei doing the dirty work for them. One can research thet links Ztm, don’t take my word for it. They’re the military wing of the Church, and meddle a lot in many countries, Bill Barr is a member of Opus Dei. Remember that bastard ?? There’s some great like about them I’ll post here. When I do think of Spain( I’d love to see that place)I think of C.Columbus, and the hideous things he did. Spain alone did unbelievable damage, like the mission system in California. I visited the San Gabriel Mission recently, after someone torched it and the church hid Father Junipero Serra’s statue so no one could destroy it. There’s collective rage in the local Native community. All sorts of hidden documents are finally getting published. There was a slave/ plantation system here as well. Native American slavery, alive and well. Starting with Serra. He’s considered a Hitler here in Cali ! Santa Barbara is similar in scope. I never saw the mission there, and it’s under heavy guard because of protests outside the property. There are 6,000 bodies buried under San Gabriel Mission’s grounds. After local Native discussed this on radio, I went to check this creepy outrage out. People need to pay attention. The Fundies do have a militant side to them, and this includes the Catholic Church.

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    One of my close friends was born and raised in Poland and moved to the US during college. She talks about how the Catholic church seeks a stranglehold on people’s lives. She wants no part of religion – her parents and in-laws pressured her and her husband to baptize the children, but they refused to attend church, Catholic education, or Polish school. The kids know nothing of religion. My friend had to hide her infertility and IVF treatments for years due to Catholic family disapproval. At one point her husband wanted to relocate to Poland, and she said hell no, mostly because she didn’t want the kids to be taught religion and school and have all the cultural pressures to go to church. Her friends and family in Poland have painted a poor picture of circumstances there, much of it due to ultra conservative politics and intertwining of church and state.

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Bruce Gerencser