The Catholic Church Is Cool Again
OPINION SPIRITUALITY 10/06/2039 4:06 PM ET
The Catholic Church Is Cool Again
by Naomi Welch

CC0 1.0 Untitled by Unknown author | Writer image: CC0 1.0 Untitled by Free-Photos | Images were cropped. Images used for illustration purposes only. Image changes released under the same license as the original.
Pope Innocent, from Time Magazine's 2033 piece.
They say if you travel far enough, you will eventually find yourself.

The Catholic Church may agree because, to my great surprise, it has found itself cool again.

A Pew Research Survey undertaken earlier this year has produced some startling results regarding the Church's standing among people of all generations, with a notable uptick in public perception the net result.

It seems years of Pope Innocent's "turning the long corner" have paid off.

According to Pew, 76% of people surveyed approved of the Church generally, while 18% disapproved (6% either didn't know or didn't care). 88% believed the Church was doing a better job than it used to, while 72% felt the Church was having a real impact on people's lives.

75% thought that the Catholic Church could be trusted to have a positive effect on people's spiritual wellbeing, which is a significant positive for Church authorities.

Further down Pew's report revealed that 65% of respondents who identified as "raised Catholic but no longer attending a Catholic Church" would either consider or strongly consider returning to regular worship.

The responses are a dramatic turnaround from the results of a similar Pew Survey conducted ten years ago, in which those numbers sat mostly in the 40s and 50s.

Clearly the church is celebrating tonight. It seems that gone are the dark days of child abuse scandals and vexing opposition to issues like same-sex marriage, trans rights, and women in leadership - issues which real people consider important in their lives.

In the place of that Church is a new face, promoting a new doctrine, which seems to be winning people over.

It began with Pope Francis, whose "Who am I to judge?" papacy opened the doors for a revision of traditional church doctrine on those issues stated above and others. Divorced and remarried Catholics found acceptance, and in 2026 priests were finally able to marry.

After Francis' death two years later, German Cardinal Gerwald Freudenberger was elected Pope. The conclave was not without controversy, after reports leaked which suggested a rigged voting process and that pressure had been placed on some to vote for Freudenberger. However, a strong consensus of Cardinals commenting after the election noted the benefits of a mostly unified conclaval voice for a Church struggling to regain its credibiliy. The criticism quickly died away.

It turned out to be the first step in healing the Church's deep divisions over its official position on social issues. As Freudenberger chose the name Innocent XIV, he signified a return to a posture that would be less threatening and more loving.

I was among the skeptics when he appeared to the people of Rome for the first time, waving from the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica after his election, and I was skeptical as he remained largely silent for the next year on all the issues which had eaten away at the Church for decades.

In December that year the first signs of a renewed attitude began to be seen as without warning, Innocent issued an Apostolic Epistle addressing the victims of child abuse by Catholic officials. Its tone of compassion and caring toward the victims contrasted sharply with the blistering broadside levelled at the perpetrators of "this foul abuse of trust and the sacred duty of a priest to protect his flock". It was in this document that the Pontiff's "turning the long corner" phrase was coined.

Innocent followed up the statement with a whirlwind global tour (nicknamed "the Pastor's role") in which he personally apologized to victims. He was photographed holding hands and praying with victims and their families. He publicly and privately vowed serious action against guilty priests.

Crucially, word leaked out from several sources in 2029 that Innocent had directed the Vatican to begin a massive program of expenditure, as the Church paid victims substantial sums of money and committed to funding counselling for victims for as long as necessary.

The move was seen as a balm to individuals who had suffered twice - once at the hands of abusive priests, and again when a viciously defensive church sought to silence or diminish sufferers and their claims in order to protect its bottom line.

Further, Innocent embarked on a mission to rid the church of predator priests and their enablers - Bishops and Archbishops who had shuffled priests around in order to avoid dealing with the problem. Famously, three Cardinals (whose protection of abusers occurred when they were bishops) were caught in the Vatican's net and were dismissed with a strongly worded public statement condemning their lack of responsibility. Altogether, 148 Church officials were removed completely from the Church and a further 67 were demoted as the inquiry concluded March 2030.

In the shadow of such an aggressive move, 14 ex-priests and 3 ex-Bishops committed suicide.

The Church's actions against its own continued a long process of healing (that long corner turn). Word began to spread that a new Vatican had emerged, one which placed an emphasis on caring for individuals more than the institution, more than rigidity of belief.

In 2029, the Church held its XVIII Synod, at the conclusion of which the Innocent's Apostolic Exhortation redefined the Vatican's fundamental approach to all issues of ministry and doctrine with the doctrine of absit iniuria - "let injury be absent".

Taken holistically, it grew from the Church's need and desire to put the child abuse scandals behind it by concentrating its efforts on healing and reconciliation with those affected. But it also introduced Catholics around the world to the "adjustments" to some aspects of Church teaching, which were to come:

"We must, as always go forth with a spirit of love. Said Christ, Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends. So we must. One must make the effort to see the one different from him as a special creature and as unique and worthy of God's love as any other.

We lay down our lives for our friends - which is to say, all of us, each other - by reducing our dependency on dogma until we reach only one: love. If we can love someone we can see that he or she is capable of being brought to a knowledge of God, and we can see in each other our own true selves, a knowledge that concludes within us our primary understanding of the Gospel."

The document finished with a sweeping doctrinal change, as Innocent formally supported the teaching of same-sex love and marriage as compatible with the mission of the Catholic Church. The Code of Canon Law and Catechism of the Catholic Church were altered two weeks later.

This seismic reorientation of Catholic teaching on sexuality fundamentally reframed the Church's position and opened up the general public to the possibility of a less judgemental understanding of the Church and its leaders.

But it was not without its challenges. By some estimations as many as 30-35% of Catholic priests and 10% of Bishops worldwide resisted affirming same-sex love and refused to perform same-sex marriages (those who accepted the change began conducting same-sex marriages almost immediately). Some went public with their discontent with Innocent's 180° turn, and for the next few years the Vatican waged an embarrassing war of attrition with almost one third of its clergy.

It was eventually seen as an opportunity. Many Catholic churches in the western world had become skeletally attended and the Church could not economically justify keeping them open. The Church also needed to find a way to reposition its finances after everything it had expended on abuse victims, and so the opposition paved the way for a reshuffling of the Church's assets.

Intransigent clergy were to be fired, churches would close, and dioceses would merge, saving money. Those dioceses which were still well attended but which saw their priest dismissed would be assigned a new padre.

The Vatican issued several rounds of laicization (defrocking) of priests and Bishops, as decreed by Innocent (under Catholic law). Cardinal Bernardo Faletti, no-nonsense head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and long-time friend to Innocent, and Congregation for the Clergy head Cardinal Justin Venegas oversaw the process.

It was thought that an initial round of dismissals of the most intractable opponents (about 15% of priests and 5% of Bishops) would be enough to steady the Church's financial position. It was further believed that it might scare the remaining priests into falling in line - which is largely what happened. After three rounds of laicization a total of 20% of clergy and 2% of Bishops were dismissed globally, a reorganization of western dioceses occurred and a more streamlined Church was established under a unified pedagogic banner. Approximately 40,000 priests had been dismissed.

The church had begun to speak with one voice on the issue of sexuality - it was to be a crucial step toward winning back the public's trust.

The next battlefield of absit iniuria was to be Catholic schools and colleges, which had long been an archipelago of opposition to LGBTQSTP concerns.

In 2031, President Stader expanded Kaley's Law to cover private schools and colleges, but it was widely understood that in some institutions teachers and administrations had managed to underground language which vilified LGBTQSTP people. Catholic campuses were not exempt from this trend (state CHURCs uncovered conspiracies to circumvent Kaley's Law within 48 Catholic schools and colleges the following year).

At a 2032 Forum in Los Angeles, Innocent pressed for a change in attitudes to hate speech and a return to compassionate discourse which brought people together. He also stressed that any Catholic institution caught violating the hate speech laws of its host country could not rely on the Church to defend it.

A poll conducted shortly after by Tangere showed a small but significant uptick in the Pope's popularity, and confirming another public perception win for the Church.

The following year the XIX Ordinary General Synod was held. At its end, Innocent's Apostolic Exhortation signalled another change in the approach to a discriminated against demographic: he called for women to be admitted to the priesthood.

It was a sign of the times that there was next to no opposition. The lack of a response from the clergy contrasted heavily with the uproar which had sounded against the Vatican on the issue of same-sex marriage.

A month later, Innocent announced that Catholic seminaries would begin accepting women and that a campaign designed to attract women to the priesthood would be launched in 15 countries. Two years ago the Church boasted 23,000 female clergy members.

At the close of the document was another Innocent bomb: he would end the convening of Ordinary General Synod of Bishops.

Held since 1967, the assembly had been an advisory body of sorts to the Pope. It had allowed a collegial atmosphere of governance, even if it had been formed without any actual powers. The assemblies had facilitated the view that the Pope was engaged in actual discussion with the Bishops, rather than acting as a spiritual monarch.

The announcement that Innocent no longer "felt the spiritual need to inconvenience Bishops" shocked but did not surprise the Catholic world (if that is possible), which was by then used to the radical ways of Francis' successor. A splashy piece in Time Magazine featured images of Innocent surrounded by his Cardinals (in what was probably an effort to foster the idea that his is a consultative approach).

In that interview, Innocent proclaimed a view to a "better-functioning, quicker-responding, more fully-loving approach". He dismissed criticism from conservative Catholics who he encouraged to embrace a more nimble church.

His theory seemed more than ably proved, when in the following year he deftly responded to an influx of Saudi refugees fleeing increasing violence by organizing for them to be housed among ordinary Italians.

In April that year, he appealed for an easing of tensions after a string of attacks against the Muslim community after the abduction of the Bonn Eight. He brokered talks soon after with prominent German and French Muslim organizations seeking a solution to anti-Muslim violence.

It didn't stop the violence, either against or by Muslims, but public opinion definitely began to swing with ordinary people viewing the Vatican as compassionate, invested, and unafraid to act quickly. It was a change of heart from a public used to seeing the Catholic Church move at a glacial pace on everything.

Later that year saw a meeting with polygamous Catholics from around the world, as another threshold was crossed and more support garnered.

In 2035 Innocent issued what some spectators saw as a necessary and obvious addendum to the Church's support for same-sex marriage in the form of a Papal Bull addressing transgenderism.

The document outlines the freedom of Catholics to determine their gender autonomously, to change gender through whatever means are available to them and accords them the right under the Code of Canon Law to be identified as any or no gender. The addition to the Law, the wording of which is purposely broad, grants them full inclusion at all levels within the Church. There was once more little to no resistance from within the ranks of Clergy or leadership.

Later that year, Innocent embarked on his second global tour addressing rapturous crowds many of whom waved Pride flags and held up pictures of the Pontiff. The dark days of scandals and oppressive legalistic codes governing sexuality and identity seemed to be over.

However, it hasn't been completely smooth sailing for the Rock Star Pope.

Rumors of a small but determined group of Vatican insiders, seeking to undermine the Papacy, have persisted despite multiple investigations. The whispers address a band of more than a dozen whose intentions are so far inscrutable. Speculation has centered on the obvious: that reformers have moved far too quickly for some in the Church, and that the faction in question is tending the possibility of taking action of some sort against the Pope.

No concrete evidence has as yet been presented to prove the claims one way or the other, but the Vatican can't seem to shake the innuendo. It may just be the natural tendency of observers to see conspiracy in large organizations, or it could be the Catholic Church's shroud of spirituality which portends mystery for some people. It could be both.

The allegations have not affected the reputation of the Church. Respondents usually tell pollsters they place no stock in the rumors.

In the four years since his last global tour, things have settled somewhat for the Pope. He has remained a public presence, zealous to stay ahead of changing norms on sexuality and identity (his thoughtful and charitable comments on loving families take some getting used to given the Vatican's institutional lethargy), whilst showing a side of him bordering on playfulness.

Innocent regularly wears jeans and t-shirts even when out in public, shirking traditional vestments for most occasions. Footage of him participating in training with Serie A (soccer) team Inter Milan brought legions of new fans, while his routine still relies heavily on ministering to the poor. He regularly sees Rome's homeless fed and clothed, and has arranged for Romans to take them into their homes. His acts mirror the Gospel he preaches so passionately.

It has been a long time coming, but it seems Innocent has done the impossible: he has made the Catholic Church cool once more.
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