Crossroads for Catholicism

Crossroads for Catholicism

High-level infighting, Islamic aggression, global secularization: How will the Vatican respond to these grave crises? History gives us a clue.
From the July 2017 Trumpet Print Edition

The Roman Catholic Church is in crisis. Both within its traditional stronghold of Europe and without, it is under attack.

For one, the church stands on the brink of civil war. Cardinal Robert Sarah warned on April 18 that the church faces a “grave risk” of schism over the issue of divorce and remarriage. Some—most notably among the wealthy German church—want to loosen restrictions, while Catholics elsewhere are against it. Antonio Socci, a well-regarded Vatican watcher, has reported that some former Pope Francis supporters are so worried about schism that they are trying to persuade the pope to step down.

“It is no secret in Rome that certain cardinals who voted for Francis are now worried that he is leading the church towards schism, and that he must therefore be stopped,” wrote Damian Thompsonin the Spectator. ”There are many more than a dozen of them and, though they may not yet be ready to act upon their concerns, they would like this pontificate to end sooner rather than later” (March 11).

Meanwhile, what was once called Christendom is becoming “seculardom.” In France, one of Europe’s most Catholic countries, only 1 person in 20 attends mass. Two thirds of French youth describe themselves as “nonreligious.” Since 1980, the number of Catholic priests across Europe has dropped by nearly 80,000—a decline of nearly a third. In the United Kingdom, 10,000 people stop attending church services (of any kind) each week. Catholicism is shrinking faster in Western nations than any other major denomination.

While the Catholic Church is still the world’s largest Christian denomination by far, its popularity is shrinking fastest in the areas it has historically been strongest. In 1965, approximately 9 out of 10 Central and South Americans identified as Catholic. By 2010, nearly every country in the Western Hemisphere saw its Catholic population decline—in many of them by more than one third. In the United States, for every individual who becomes Catholic, another six leave.

At the same time, Christianity is literally under attack in the Middle East. On April 9, an Islamic State terrorist came within a whisker of assassinating the Coptic pope. As it was, the Islamic State killed 44 people in two bombing attacks that day. Since the Arab Spring of 2011, some 200,000 Christians have reportedly fled Egypt. Iraq’s Christian population has fallen from 1.4 million in 2003 to an estimated 275,000. If Christians in Iraq cannot be protected, “they have no future—it’s as bleak and as simple as that,” wrote Benedict Kiely, a priest who runs, a website drawing attention to the plight of Christians in the Middle East.

Recent popes seemed to acknowledge the ongoing crisis and have reached back in history for ways to fix it. The last pope, Benedict xvi, named himself after St. Benedict, the founder of a system of monasteries that helped Catholicism survive the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The current pope named himself after St. Francis of Assisi, who reinvigorated Catholicism with his message of pious poverty.

But there is perhaps a more effective—albeit far more threatening—template for the church’s current problems: the late 11th century.

Pope Gregory vii had decided to pick a fight with the most powerful king in the Western world, Henry iv, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. Gregory launched an audacious power grab, pushing what historian Paul Johnson calls “a theory of papal world-government” in his book History of Christianity.

At one point, Henry iv was reduced to groveling barefoot in the snow outside the pope’s residence, a testament to the power of the papacy. But the fight between pope and emperor continued, and it took a heavy toll on both sides.

Gregory was forced out of Rome. His successor, Pope Victor iii, was in poor health and held the papacy for little over a year. At this point, the situation for the Vatican was dire. The papacy was still at war with the Holy Roman Empire. It had also made an enemy of Europe’s second-most powerful ruler, King Philip i of France. After the already-married king married an already-married woman, the church excommunicated him, earning his enmity.

Besides that, a few decades earlier, a major chunk of the church had split off, when in 1054 the Eastern Orthodox Christians split from Rome. To make matters worse, Christianity’s eastern bastion was at risk of being wiped out. Invaders poured into what is now Turkey and were banging on the doors of Constantinople, Christendom’s richest and most glorious city. Even though Eastern Christianity was now independent of the Roman Catholic Church, its fall would deal a major blow to the Vatican. If it fell, Eastern Europe could turn Muslim, the way so much of the rest of the world already had. The church’s political power seemed on the brink of being broken forever.

Few would expect that in just a few years, it would blaze with renewed glory.

The Solution

In 1088, Pope Urban ii took the throne. He found one solution that solved all these problems. It is the single event for which he is most remembered—the act that wrote him into the history books forever. He launched the Crusades.

“War with Germany, conflict in France, a rival pope and Christians in the East under siege: Remarkably, the Crusade could solve all of these problems,” writes Jay Rubenstein in Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse. ”If the initial rallying cry were successful, it would unite behind Urban ii a significant portion of Christian Europe …. The advantages of the Crusade, in retrospect, seem obvious.”

In 1095, Urban received an ambassador from Byzantine Emperor Alexios i asking for help against the invading Turks. “The help the emperor of Byzantium had in mind was probably a couple of thousand mercenaries,” write Terry Jones and Alan Ereira in their book Crusades. ”What Urban saw in the requests, however, was the chance to make himself the savior of the Eastern Church and thus move closer to his goal of supremacy over the whole church. So instead of writing a few letters to the Western barons, requesting them to send forces east, the pope stood up on the rostrum in that field outside Clermont, before the vast multitude buzzing with anticipation, and made an announcement that would change the world.”

The Crusade was far more than a response to Turkish attacks from the east. It was aimed not only at destroying aggressive enemies, but also at solving problems and divisions within Europe.

“By summoning an army under the banner of the cross, the pope was extending the church’s mantle over all Christendom. This was the idea at the very heart of the revolutionary papacy; in place of separate local churches at the center of discrete communities, there was to be one overarching church, ruled by one overarching pope. The Crusade was to be its expression and its instrument” (ibid).

The plan worked. In 1122, the Holy Roman Empire came to an agreement with the church. (The church never forgave Henry iv: It finally hunted down and killed his last descendants 200 years later.) The church also compromised with King Philip of France. He performed public penance, and the church tolerated his bigamous wife, provided that he kept the matter discreet.

More importantly, the Crusades forged a new unity in Europe. “The Crusade helped to fashion a broader sense of Christian identity in an otherwise divided European homeland,” writes Rubenstein. “Pilgrims came from different cultures and spoke different languages—German, Flemish, Norman, French, Provençal and Italian—but their shared experiences instilled in them a common identity. … It would be no exaggeration to say that the economy, spirituality, technology and morality—the foundations of Western culture—would be remade because of the First Crusade” (op cit).

Only when it came to reunifying East and West did Urban fail. The effort began positively enough. The pope sent Bishop Adhemar of Le Puy as a papal legate to negotiate and boost cooperation with the Eastern Church. He took concrete steps to get Eastern patriarchs and Western bishops working together. But things quickly fell apart. When Emperor Alexius had asked for help, he was looking for a small group of elite mercenaries to bolster his own army. Instead he got masses of Crusaders serving under foreign lords, in foreign armies. He feared the new forces would overrun his lands just as surely as the Turks they had come to fight. With the emperor offering, at best, lukewarm support for the Crusades, the Vatican and the Eastern Orthodox Church quickly fell out.

A New Calling

Today’s Roman Catholic Church has received a plea for help from the East in the form of millions of fleeing Christians. The Vatican is yet to respond with much beyond words. But already those words are healing old divides.

Pope Francis visited Egypt on April 28, meeting with the Coptic pope who had escaped assassination just days earlier. The two signed a joint declaration recognizing each other’s church’s baptisms as valid within his own.

This is a major step in the healing of a divide far older than even the Orthodox Schism. The Copts split off in 451, in a ridiculously complicated disagreement over the exact nature of Christ, in the Monophysite controversy. Much blood has been spilled over the issue. It is part of the reason why the former Christian strongholds of Egypt and Syria are now mostly Muslim.

Yet in the face of renewed persecution, all this history has been glossed over.

“Today, there’s the ecumenism of blood,” Pope Francis told an Italian reporter in December 2013. “In some countries they kill Christians because they wear a cross or have a Bible, and before killing them they don’t ask if they’re Anglicans, Lutherans, Catholic or Orthodox. The blood is mixed. For those who kill, we’re Christians. We’re united in blood, even if among ourselves we still haven’t succeeded in taking the necessary steps toward unity and perhaps the moment hasn’t arrived. Unity is a grace that we have to ask for.”

How much more unity could the church achieve if it mounted a more vigorous defense of Christians in the East? If the Vatican saves the day and arrests the persecution, could it win full unity with the Orthodox churches—a dream that eluded even Urban?

In scoring such a victory, the church would gain renewed relevance in a secularizing world. The debate over divorce and remarriage, which currently threatens to break out in a religious war between the pope and the cardinals, would become a mere distraction. It’s hard to sustain a civil war when you are busy fighting outsiders. This kind of renewed mission and purpose is exactly what the church needs in order to distract attention away from and to diminish its divisions.

By no means is this a recommendation for such a course of action. A crusading Catholic Church is one of the bloodiest, most fearsome threats the world has faced, and it has faced it time after time. But it is important to realize that this exact type of aggression is an option the church is well aware of—a “nuclear option” it has used repeatedly.

Exactly what role the current pope will have in a resurgent, more aggressive Vatican is unknown. But surely the Vatican recognizes the success that such a policy has enjoyed in the Islamic State.

A Rally to War

The Islamic State is doing all it can to pick a fight with the Vatican. It too remembers the Crusades: After all, the other belligerent in those wars was Islam. Last December, the Islamic State attacked a building next to the Coptic Church’s headquarters, which is the biggest cathedral in the Middle East and Africa. In April, on Palm Sunday, it attacked a church the Copts claim is built on the site of a church founded by the man who wrote the Gospel of Mark, and tried to kill the Coptic pope. The Islamic State is specifically and repeatedly targeting this church, and packing as much symbolism as possible into its attacks. It wants war.

Islamic State leaders have perverse theological reasons for what they are doing. But conveniently, their aggression also helps fulfill their domestic goals within Egypt. “Targeting Egypt’s Christians is a cold and calculated strategy for the group,” wrote the Atlantic magazine. The Islamic State “hopes that inflaming sectarian strife in Egypt will be the first step in the country’s unraveling” (April 9). Islamic State leaders believe that if they can divide Egypt’s Muslims and Christians, the Muslims will side with them.

When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi first declared an Islamic State caliphate in 2014, he said, “Rush, O Muslims, to your state. Yes, it is your state. Rush, because Syria is not for the Syrians and Iraq is not for the Iraqis …. The land is for the Muslims, all the Muslims …. This is my advice to you. If you hold to it, you will conquer Rome and own the world, if Allah wills” (emphasis added). All along, Rome has been the top target. The Islamic State’s main propaganda magazine is called Dabiq. Why? “According to the hadith [tradition], the area [of Dabiq] will play a historical role in the battles leading up to the conquests of Constantinople, then Rome,” the cover article of its first issue stated.

This is the same strategy that it is employing in Egypt, but on a much larger scale: Pick a fight with Christianity in the hope that it rallies all Muslims.

It may not work for the Islamic State. But as the conflict over the Copts shows, it is already working for Rome.

A much more forceful defense of Christians in the Middle East is the next logical step. A Catholic leader traveling around Europe goading politicians to take real action to defend Christians in the Middle East would be instantly popular.

So far, the evil building in the Middle East within the Islamic State and Iranian-backed terror groups has been met with an incredibly soft response by Europe and the rest of the West. But Europeans are starving for someone to finally respond with strength.

The Catholic Church greatly benefited from the First Crusade, but many people did not. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims and even Jews were massacred. And only a century or so after Urban’s speech, the crusading knights began spilling the blood of Europeans themselves. Constantinople fell, not to invading Muslims, but to Crusader armies attacking and killing Eastern Orthodox Christians as heretics. Five years later, Pope Innocent iii sent Crusaders to southern France to kill Christians he regarded as heretics.

Once the Roman Catholic Church rose in power, all non-Catholics suffered.

This has been a constant throughout history. As recently as the 1960s and ’70s, when the Catholic Church had major power in Ireland and Spain, it carried out atrocities such as the sale of infants, mass child sexual abuse and child slave labor.

History warns of what can happen when the Catholic Church rises in power. Bible prophecy gives the same warning.

The Warning in Prophecy

The Bible often portrays churches symbolically as women (e.g. Revelation 12). Isaiah 47 describes a church called “the lady of kingdoms.” She has power over many nations. This church has protesting daughters: separate churches that owe much of their heritage to the mother church but have split away. However, this chapter prophesies that the Catholic mother church will bring them back, saying, “I shall not sit as a widow, neither shall I know the loss of children.”

This forecasts that the daughter churches which left the Catholic Church in protest will be brought back under its control. The church has already made huge strides in this regard. The push for unity with Christians of all different kinds has been one of the biggest themes of Francis’s papacy. The church has signed agreements with Lutherans, Orthodox, Methodists, Anglicans, Armenian-Apostolic, Presbyterian and now Coptic Christians recognizing the validity of each other’s baptisms. Pope Francis has even held receptions with top American televangelists, including Joel Osteen in 2014.

So much of this prophecy is already fulfilled. “Five hundred years ago, wars were fought over the very issues about which Lutherans and Roman Catholics have now achieved consensus,” said Elizabeth A. Eaton, the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, in October 2015.

In November 1963, in the midst of the Second Vatican Council, the Plain Truth reported: “Today, the time is ripe—according to official Catholic views—for making the final effort to unite the church bodies of the Christian world. The mighty problem of achieving unity is twofold. First, it involves reconciliation of the Orthodox Schism that officially commenced in 1054 and divided the churches in the East—Greece, Russia, the Balkans and the Near East—from Rome. Second, it involves restoration to the Roman communion all Protestantism, which developed from 1517 onward.”

Isn’t it logical to trust the source of forecasts that have already proven so correct?

The Bible prophesies the next move of this church. This same “woman” will lead the political power in Europe (Revelation 17). This church-state combine is prophesied to attack Iran, cutting off the head of its Islamic terrorist empire (Daniel 11:41-44). Many other prophecies show that the resulting conflagration will explode into globe-encompassing war.

This is where the Catholic Church is heading! This is what a Pope Urban-inspired solution to its current crises will produce!

However, prophecy is also clear that, though this nightmare-inducing solution will boost the church’s fortunes, this victory will be extremely short-lived. Read the rest of the story in Isaiah 47 and Revelation 17. God will bring this unholy empire to justice, and the world will never have to suffer under its dominion again!