The offenses committed by the institutional church were different 500 years ago than they are today: This was not the sexual abuse of innocents. But the root of the outrage is the same. The beloved institution has betrayed the faithful by taking advantage of their innocence and trust. The betrayal is deepened by the leaders’ insistence on their own authority and power. Luther’s reforms (and Calvin’s) led to a more unmediated Christianity, where what really mattered was not the Christian corporation but the individual’s relationship with God.
The church and the faithful may agree they need another Reformation now, but realities of the modern religious marketplace prevent it.
Five hundred years ago, a disillusioned Catholic faced a brutal choice: He denied his church on penalty of torture or death. Now, he can just slip away. He might be just as happy to be Protestant, finding comfort and familiarity among the Episcopalians, who have made recruiting lapsed Catholics a priority. He might find joy in the preaching of a non-denominational minister. He might find himself among the “nones,” practicing yoga and reading spiritual books, unaffiliated with any church tradition. The nones are the fastest-growing religious group in the country.
Or a disaffected Catholic might stay in the church and tell herself that the church is not its leaders but the billion people in it. She might stay for love of the Mass and the sacraments, the Hail Mary and the Our Father. She might stay because she keeps her grandmother’s rosary in a desk drawer and fingers it when one of her children is in trouble, or because she finds herself saying a prayer for her parents in the middle of the night.
Two-thirds of Catholics say they can’t imagine being anything else, according to a 2011 survey, and an even higher number say that they value the Catholic tradition of loyalty and dissent: loving the church while disagreeing with its leadership. No matter who becomes pope, these Catholics would never say they’re Protestant.
For Lisa Miller’s previous columns, go to www.washingtonpost.com/onfaith.