Rebranding the Catholic Church

This much is obvious; the Catholic Church in the US is set to hear its own Last Rites. Scripted by an indifferent corporate media, hustled along by a federal government with every plausible interest in strangling the Vatican into irrelevance, the Church very well might be done even without the recent sex scandals. The priests are old and getting older. The seminaries are closing, never to reopen. The phrase “lapsed Catholic” has been used as a self-descriptor by millions of disaffected folks with liberal-arts educations. And as of 2000 less than 400 men were studying to be Jesuit priests. All that adds up to the Holy See losing a major revenue force.

And this is as it should be. The American Mass is a tedious affair, stripped of any spirituality through its reliance on a curiously secular ritualism. Stand, sit down, kneel. Sing along with the book. Maybe if you’re lucky we’ll bring an acoustic guitar into the church for the choral numbers. That is, if you don’t threaten to bash the toothless pedant behind the altar over the head with it.

It is no surprise that the priesthood sex scandals proceeded as they did. In the heart of this Babylon we call home, the predominant image of a Catholic clergyman is not that of a saintly figure but of that of a self-engendered eunuch. Pat Buchanan and others believe that Vatican II was an unmitigated disaster for the Church; they are likely right, in the sense that the Church exposed itself to public scrutiny when it embraced ecumenism and eschewed time-honored traditions that seemed to be profitable enough for Rome. To them, one might argue, the post Vatican II church suffers a “branding problem”.

I would be inclined to agree that the operative paradigm is as simple as “Old Coke V. New Coke”, except that the problems in the Catholic Church cannot be rectified through simply reverting to discarded practices. There has to be a reinvention of the US Church for it to have any chance of remaining financially viable to the Vatican. And for the church to reinvent itself, it has to dedicate itself institutionally to the honorable work of directly challenging the US government.

For that challenge to work, there has to be a shift in the way the Church relates to its members. Though one appreciates the value of tradition, the fact is that the Catholic Church has a commitment to internal democracy worthy of the Trilateral Commission, and it is hard to miss the connection between the stifled intellectual climate and the dying institution. Most symbolic of the current malaise in the US church is the communion wafer itself. A dry saucer, cardboard in taste and texture, denuded of any mystery. The Church might consider co-opting a Rastafarian position and adopting marijuana as a sacrament. Catholics could cling to that subliminal state of elevation, and perhaps come to understand why Christ overturned the tables in the temple and devoted so much action to exposing “strong central government” as a base fraud. By understanding those mysteries and others, perhaps the Catholic Church as a whole can finally live up to the radicalism and the commitment to enlightenment embodied by Christ Himself.

ANTHONY GANCARSKI makes his base in Spokane, Washington. Emails are accepted at


ANTHONY GANCARSKI is a regular CounterPunch columnist. He can be reached at