Pope Benedict dates the beginning of the church's decline to the social and sexual revolutions of the 1960s; to the passing of the age of deference and the concomitant challenge to traditional authority. It was the secularisation of society, he once said, that had seen Catholic ethics and morals fall into grave decline.Demographics are indeed half the story. The other half is money. At least in the United States, major donations to the Church come from ideologically conservative Catholics, particularly through organizations such as the Legionaries of Christ (whose founder, fundraising champ and John Paul II favorite Marcial Maciel was beyond monstrous) and Opus Dei (which, so far, has successfully evaded public inquiry into its accounts and its founder). As long as the church continues to promise its rich, selfish donors that the eye of the needle is wide enough for an SUV, the cash will flow.
This message was evident in his recent pastoral letter to the church in Ireland. The stated purpose of the address was to express "shame and remorse" about the abuse of Irish children by predator priests. It did so with sincerity. Yet Pope Benedict felt compelled to make another connection - this time between paedophilia among the clergy and the "rapid transformation and secularisation of Irish society". One problem, he implied, had been the liberalising instincts of the second Vatican Council.
The absurdity of this supposed link is exposed by a simple chronology. Most of the crimes against children uncovered by investigations in Ireland long pre-dated that country's embrace of what the Pope sees as a lethal moral relativism. To the contrary, it was the opening of Irish society that exposed the sins that had been inflicted on its children.
The Vatican narrative casts the church as victim - as an institution assailed by secularism, the media, and just about everyone else. Thus the Pope's insistence that his faith will shield him from the "petty gossip of dominant opinion". One close adviser has compared recent criticism to anti-semitism. Others, just as scandalously, have sought to blame the crisis on Jews and homosexuals. How much further can they fall? [...]
John Allen, a biographer of Pope Benedict and analyst for the US National Catholic Reporter, recently told the FT's Rome correspondent that the Holy Father was untroubled by crises of the moment because he had the "great gift of thinking in terms of centuries".
Mr Allen, as it happens, has also charted the shift in the church's demographic centre of gravity. Catholicism is booming in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Europeans and North Americans, Mr Allen calculates, now number only 350m in a church of some 1.2bn. About two-thirds of Catholics live in what is the emerging world - about 400m of them in Latin America. Brazil boasts twice as many communicants as Italy. Mexico and the Philippines have larger congregations than Germany or France.
This perhaps is where Pope Benedict's gaze is fixed. Catholics in the emerging nations, after all, have been largely untroubled by the scandal that has rocked his authority in the west. They are less inclined to challenge the pontiff's moral absolutism and his demand for unquestioning obedience to Rome.
So what of the Catholics left behind in a declining west? Many will join those who have already departed. Others will conclude that Pope Benedict can rob them of their church, but not of their faith.
In short, between the continued support of millions of Asians and Africans and the ill-gotten gain from American and European usurers and dupes, there's no reason to think this game can't go on indefinitely. This Pope will go soon; another will take his place. With no document tying him by signature to any major abuse scandal, he (John Paul III? Pius XIII? Benedict XVII?) will say that Church has turned a page. The media will move on, and the "smaller, purer Church" that Benedict spoke of during his savvy campaign for the papacy will be a reality.
The Church doesn't need the allegiance of the many educated and rational Europeans and Americans, increasingly alienated from its dirty hierarchy, to survive. It only needs money from the tiny proportion of the Catholic population that shares its patriarchal theology, its increasing preference for the external accoutrements of religion rather than its essence, and its right wing politics. No, John Paul II's invented, ahistorical "traditionalism" is here to stay.