Is anti-Popery at work again?

In 19th century England, there was a tidy little cottage industry in anti-Catholic tracts. In 1856 the Rev R. P. Blakeney DD, LLD, an Anglican vicar, published “Popery in its social aspect: being a complete exposure of the immorality and intolerance of Romanism”. This was a supplement to his Manual of Romish Controversy. Bigotry was serious business for the Rev. Blakeney.

Unsurprisingly, one of the Reverend’s principal targets was the celibacy of Catholic priests. Readers learned that it was “the most truly hellish device that the wit of man has ever contrived”.

One hundred and seventy years later, the words of English critics of the Catholic Church have changed, but not the tune. The Economist recently ran an editorial and a feature calling for the abolition of celibacy. Like the Rev Blakeney’s handiwork, it neither displays a good grasp of theology or the facts.

Back in 1856 Rev Blakeney described the “Romish clergy” as lustful beasts who seduced young women in the confessional.

“The prohibition of clerical marriages, did nothing but corrupt the morals of the clergy; it gave occasion to illegitimate and promiscuous intercourse, and to deep hypocrisy, from the necessity of concealment. The fatal effects became every day more manifest.”

Admittedly there were such priests. Some of them covered their tracks by becoming Protestant ministers who fulminated against the Scarlet Whore of Babylon. Such was the case, for instance, with Giacinto Achilli, a defrocked Dominican who had seduced a number of women in his native Italy. As a fiery Protestant pastor he wrote a book denouncing the iniquity of Catholicism and was subsequently employed by the Evangelical Alliance to confirm Protestants in their prejudices. In the 1850s Achilli sued Father John Henry Newman (later Cardinal and Saint), the most famous Catholic of the age, for libel. He won – the judge was manifestly biased -- and then disappeared into the mists of history … after seducing some more women.  

However, genuine scandals and lurid exposés did little to clip the wings of the growing Catholic Church in England. Newman and others attracted many converts and the Church grew steadily in size and influence.

In some ways, the tropes of anti-Catholic rhetoric have not changed all that much. In 2022 the Church is still being indicted for opposing the doctrines of the established church, for sexual corruption, and for requiring its priests to be celibate. Nowadays the English establishment worships in the church of emotional subjectivism rather than in Canterbury Cathedral, but there is no less hostility.

Like the Rev Blakeney, The Economist rails against the corruption of the Papists: “Catholic sex abuse involves not only bad apples, but a rotting orchard”. And it advises Catholic to abjure celibacy. “If the church stopped requiring priests to be celibate (or male, for that matter), it could recruit from a much larger pool,” it declares.

To the shame of all Catholics, there have been a number of priests around the world who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing children. Many have been jailed. Abuse is a crime that cries to Heaven for vengeance. Had there been only one case, it would be one too many. But there appear to have been thousands of them.

However, most of this abuse took place between 1950 and 1990, before authorities in the Church became aware of the extent of the problem. Many of the offending priests had been educated in seminaries in the 1960s and 1970s, in the glory days of the Sexual Revolution. But the Church has since implemented reforms and the incidence of abuse has declined sharply. As MercatorNet reported a couple of years ago:

“The relentless press attention gives the impression that sexual abuse of children is still commonplace in the Catholic Church, even though the vast majority of cases of clerical abuse occurred before the mid-1980s. After the Church reforms articulated in the Dallas Charter and Essential Norms, the number of new cases in the United States averaged about a dozen per year; during the past five years, it went down to about one new case per year.

“The Church has gone from averaging about 660 new cases of abuse per year during the 1970s to about 1 new case per year since about 2014. In fact, few realize that the well-known Pennsylvania grand jury report on clerical abuse in that state during the past 70 years found only two cases from the 21st century—with both cases already known and managed.”

Similar positive trends are evident in other countries as well.  

At least with respect to the Catholic Church, the Rev Blakeney and The Economist employ the same logic. They assume that its wickedness is so flagrant that fact-checking allegations, however improbable, is hardly necessary.   

For instance, The Economist reported: “The number of victims in France alone was estimated at 216,000 in the 70 years to 2020.” MercatorNet fact-checked this claim last year. The words “was estimated” should have been “was guesstimated” as it was based on questionable extrapolations. In the 70 years covered by the French study there were 115,000 priests. The investigators calculated a rate of offending of about 3 percent over seven decades – much less than other countries – and most of the offending was historic.

This also means that 97 percent of clergy in France between 1950 and 2020 were not offenders. After the revelation of paedophilia scandals involving BBC staff like Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris, Stuart Hall, and others, the Catholic Church may have a better record than the BBC. Who knows? Unlike the Catholic Church, the BBC refused to have an independent review.

Furthermore, the results of a 2020 French study found that Catholic clergy were far from being the worst offenders. The rates were: in the family (3.7%), unknown (2.1%), friends of the family (2.0%), friends (1.8%), clergy (0.82%), lay Catholic employees (0.4%), holiday camps (0.38%), and public schools (0.34%). As well, the figure for public schools is hardly credible, given the number of scandals which have surfaced in the French press.

As I said before, one case of child abuse is one too many in a Church which champions the vulnerable and preaches the beauty of chastity. But The Economist’s conclusions are based on dated and dubious data.

So what does that imply about "let them wed", its cure-all for the Catholic Church?

Unlike the Rev Blakeney, to support its call for the abolition of clerical celibacy, The Economist is able to draw on advice from opponents within the Church. Catholics in Germany have set up a dissident body called the Synodal Path. It is agitating noisily for a reduction in the power of priests and bishops, the abolition of mandatory celibacy, and a change in the Church’s attitude towards homosexuality.

However, the Catholic Church in Germany is by no means a “light to the nations”. Despite, or perhaps because of, its wealth, church attendance and vocations to the priesthood in Germany are plummeting. Taking advice from the Synodal Path is like engaging MySpace as a social media consultant. The Synodal Path leads to a dead end.

If The Economist had bothered to consult the Facebooks, or TikToks, of the Catholic world, they would have proposed very different strategies for a way forward. The figures for 2019 are revealing. In Germany, six diocesan priests died for every newly ordained priest. In Nigeria, about nine were ordained for every priest who died. Africa is exporting priests around the world. The archbishop of Guadalajara, in Mexico, ordained 70 men for his diocese last month. The archbishop of Munich, a supporter of the Synodal Path, ordained five in 2021.

Which is not to say that the Catholic Church in India (tied with the United States for the most ordinations in 2019) or Nigeria doesn’t have problems. In an imperfect world full of imperfect people, they are inevitable. After all, Facebook’s motto was “move fast and break things”. Still, it is the biggest social media app in the world. When was the last time you heard of MySpace?

The Catholic Church has 1,360,000,000 members, which is to say, 1,360,000,000 sinners. But experience shows that it somehow survives. And thrives.

Let a contemporary of the Rev Blakeney have the last word here.  Lord Macaulay was one of Victorian England’s greatest writers and an Evangelical, by no means a Catholic. The Reverend may have ignored it, but the journalists at The Economist still have a chance to read this famous passage written in 1840 before they dismiss the Catholic Church as a corrupt and mummified relic:

“No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. … She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's.”


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