The recent Economist magazine features a helpful article about Catholicism in contemporary Europe, ” The Fate of Catholic Europe: The Void Within .”

The title is misleading, suggesting a spiritual vacuum. The substance of the article is more nuanced, however, drawing attention to the diversity of Catholic experience in contemporary Europe.

What caught my attention were astute observations about the changed social status of the Church in much of Europe, what in a recent reflection I identified as the end of clubby elite status for the leadership of the Catholic Church.

After giving details about recent scandals in Ireland and Belgium, the Economist writes:

“What the Belgian and Irish stories suggest is the collapse of a centuries-old order in which the church functioned as a sort of ‘state within a state’‹administering its own affairs, and often the affairs of its flock, by a system of law and authority that ran in parallel with, and could trump, the authority of the state. Europe’s enlightenment may have put an end to the sort of formal theocracy in which popes commanded armies and kings ruled by divine right. But in a messy mixture of ways the authority of church and state has remained intertwined across Europe.

Even now quasi-theocracy dies hard. Ireland¹s hierarchs have lost their grip on secondary and higher education, but primary schooling is still a church-based affair; even non-Christian youngsters are drilled in Catholic teaching. In France the Catholic hierarchy had until recently an informal place in the establishment. Nicolas Sarkozy may be the first French president who does not see the archbishop of Paris as a natural interlocutor. Mr Sarkozy, whose own roots are secular and Jewish, speaks of the church from an outsider’s distance.

As the Irish case shows, the most insidious links between church and state are often informal ones, which can leave priests and bishops virtually exempt from scrutiny. But all over Europe the child-abuse scandal has made secular powers keener to reassert their authority, and less willing to accept the Catholic church as a semi-autonomous power.”

I would modify the final paragraph. By my reckoning the child-abuse scandals have precipitated a desire to assert of authority over the Church that has been building over the last few decades.

But in the main, the analysis is correct. The Vatican has been disoriented by the vigor of the responses to the sex abuse scandals, because the leaders of the Church are only beginning to reckon with sociological reality: the hierarchy now finds itself on the outside the magic circle of elite culture.

The sex abuse scandals in the United States have followed a different trajectory, and for two reasons.

First, there is no legacy of ecclesiastical establishment in America. As a result, however powerful bishops may have been in the machine politics of major American cities—and they were very powerful—they were never intertwined with the WASP elite that dominated American culture for so long. Perhaps Cardinal Law imagined himself a the prince bishop of Boston, but his colleagues didn’t, and therefore they understood that the Church stood naked before the storm of public outrage, unprotected by the unspoken agreement of elites to shield each other.

Second, because church attendance remains relatively strong, the American Catholic Church exercises a still considerable power in the public square. The pastors still have flocks, and in a democracy boots on the ground matter.

There is a third dimension to the American Catholic Church, one shared by the European Church. Her views of morality, culture, and politics represent one of the most cogent and intellectually sophisticated alternatives to the secular liberalism that has gained the upperhand in the public square. In a word, Catholicism remains ideologically powerful. For this reason, the Church is not just outside the magic circle of the elite. She is also increasingly seen by the secular elites as an adversary to be defeated, which is why we’ve seen such an explosion of polemics against Christianity in the last decade.

In all likelihood, the Catholic Church will become still more ideologically powerful, because animated by a much clearer sense of her own vision of human flourishing. Meanwhile, postmodern liberalism will become increasingly unnerved by the extremes that seem to arise from its own first principles (e.g., euthanasia, infanticide, genetic engineering).

Outcome? My crystal ball remains cloudy.

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