It's weird, isn't it, how Easter coincided with the latest round of handwringing about the Catholic Church. And it's easy, I think, to look at the latest revelations in isolation - yet more indication of how deep the priest-child abuse scandal went within the church hierarchy - and miss that there's a broader point here about religion generally.
For one thing, the problems the Catholic Church faced this week were not the only religion story to have legs: Scientologists scrambled to respond as further charges of abuse by David Miscavige surfaced, and more questions were raised about the Sea Org and Scientology generally.
And in all of this, I think, there's a point here about religion in the modern age, a point that links these troubles and others: the gradually decline of the ability to sustain a faith on mysticism alone.
That may seem less immediately apparent in the Catholics case, but stay with me on this one; one of the problems that showed up this week was the sense of the current Pope having a past. The various questions about what Cardinal Ratzinger did or didn't do, as Archbishop of Munich or as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, were ones that seemed, very much, to just bloom out of the blue. And "a past" is generally not what we talk about with Popes. It violates, as some noted this week, the general directive of the Church that the Pope is infallible and not to be questioned or challenged. Maybe... but how about the jobs the Pope held before he was Pope?
And isn't that question, really, a good indication of what it means to bring a centuries old organization into the 21st Century?
It's harder, after all, to shroud religion, any religion, these days in a sense of mystery. Many have noted the trouble the Church has finding Saints to canonize in recent years - too easy to explain away what used to be "miraculous" with science, or videotape, or such. And the abuse scandals too have lifted the veil on secretive workings of the Church's organization - the shifting of abusers to different parishes, the uselessness of their system of "counseling", the failure to report misdeeds to the prop[er authorities (never mind the legal agreements of enforced silence). None of that, really, is as possible to do now, or to hide as effectively.
Scientology, and other more recent religions face even bigger challenges, because so much of their basic text, and their tenets of belief, have been up for scrutiny long before they could enter the hazy realm of beliefs that we uphold on tradition as much as anything else (yeah... let's just leave it at that rather than discussing Virgin Birth or, say, the Resurrection). Scientology's odd discussions of aliens and bad energy, "clearing" and such have been under scrutiny since about the time Dianetics first appeared; and those questions, as much as anything, have driven the skepticism that leads to further investigation of Scientology as an organization. It's easy to say Scientology invited many of the problems it has now... but really, what faith can stand the kind of questions aimed at Scientology's beliefs?
Just ask the Mormons. It's been a while since Mormonism faced more public investigation, but that's likely to change if, as expected, Mitt Romney renews his chase for the Presidency in 2012. Questions about the Book of Mormon, about the veracity of cliams of golden tablets and other legends within the faith, are bound to reoccur, along with further examination of the curious history of the faith, more looks at Utah, and of course, more discussions of polygamy and outliers in their faith. Even without Romney - his viability is by no means assured - it's entirely likely more polygamist stories alone will drive further examinations, and more struggles for Mormons to back away from extremists and traditions within their own church.
How can faith survive, in such a graceless age? Not easily... but I think it's too soon for triumphant atheists and agnostics to assert religion is dead. Many people need... something. The continued popularity of some evangelical churches, "Christian" pop music and such suggest that there is a modern compromise to be made. In Tucson, I noticed that Joyce Meyer is back with another book, and like Joel Osteen, I think she represents one of the ways to make a modern compromise about faith: make religion less about automatic belief in quesitonable mysteries and unexplainable phenomenon; and focus, instead, on teaching ourselves to be better people, based on internal faith. The real "prosperity gospel" after all, is that we have the potential be better people, already within ourselves.
The question for religious organizations, then, is how to navigate this modern world, and how to live in a world that's more real, more present, that leaves less room for mysticism and the inexplicable. Expecting people to give over control to religious leaders who rely on dogma and legend and myth, strikes me as unrealistic, and getting worse. We know too much, can see too much... and that knowledge cannot just be explained away, or driven out. Progress may not be perfect... but fighting the changes wrought by our scientific advances, tghe electronic world, and now the internet seems like fighting the inevitable. That fight against the very nature of our modern world, I think, is why the Catholic Church and the Chruch of Scientology seem to be on the losing end of the news, these days. The heart of the matter of faith, really, has to be about more than believing in the unbelievable.