Roman Catholic Church: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

In the 20th cent. the tensions between the church and national governments sometimes led to outright suppression of the church, as in the Soviet Union and Communist Eastern Europe, Mexico, Spain, and China. Mussolini and Hitler also ruined as much of the church as they could. The century has been marked more noticeably, however, by new trends in the practice and outlook of the church. The encyclical of Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (1891), was followed by the Quadrigesimo Anno (1931) of Pius XII, and the Mater et Magistra (1961) of John XXIII, the Progressio Populorum (1967) of Paul VI, and the Laborem Exercens (1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), and Centessimus Annus (1991) of John Paul II. The purpose of these was fundamental readjustment to the moral and social problems of modern life and a greater stress upon the role of the laity in the church. Linked with this was a movement for church “renewal” both by laity and the clergy. This was particularly strong in France, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States.

Some of the issues stressed were the need for liturgical reform, the recognition of the various regional contributions to the living existence of the church, and the recognition of the nonpolitical internationalism of the church (although declarations of implacable opposition to atheistic Communism persisted and were particularly strong under Pius XII, who urged the church to oppose all antireligious totalitarianism). Another growing revival involved the tightening of relations between the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and various Protestant churches.

All of these “progressive” currents came together at the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), which, under John XXIII and Paul VI, initiated broad reforms in the areas of public worship, government, and ecumenism (see ecumenical movement). The long-reigning John Paul II made the church more international and continued his predecessors ecumenical trends, but he affirmed (as the popes preceding him did) the church's traditional stands on marriage, abortion, homosexuality, and other doctrinal matters, opposed relaxing the rule of celibacy, and reemphasized the primacy of the Vatican in church government.

The church in the United States began the 21st cent. confronting a major crisis concerning sexual abuse of minors by Roman Catholic priests and how it is and was handled by the U.S. hierarchy. Multiple revelations in 2002 that some bishops had allowed priests accused of sexual abuse to remain in the priesthood and to continue to perform their duties in situations where abuse could and sometimes did recur sparked outrage in the United States; such cases were also not reported to civil authorities. Various dioceses faced civil lawsuits and criminal investigations, several bishops resigned after their involvement in sexual relationships was revealed, and Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston resigned because of criticism over his handling of sex abuse charges. The issue led to a meeting between American cardinals and the pope in Rome, and, after a meeting of American bishops and discussions with the Vatican, to the establishment of new policies that included barring a priest who has sexually abused a minor from any ministerial role and that committed the hierarchy to alert legal authorities to instances of abuse. Sexual and physical abuse scandals involving Roman Catholic priests and brothers have occurred in other countries including Australia, Austria, Canada, Germany, Ireland, and the Netherlands.

Benedict XVI, who succeeded John Paul II, was regarded as a traditionalist and generally continued John Paul's policies, but he broke with tradition in 2013 when he resigned as pope for reasons of age. Although the church set a retirement age for bishops and an age limit for the cardinals who vote to elect a pope, the tradition of lifetime tenure for the pope was longstanding; the last pope to resign was Gregory XII in 1415, who abdicated to facilitate the end of the Great Schism. Benedict was succeeded by Francis, an Argentinian who was the first pope from the Americas and the first Jesuit to hold the office. In 2018 the church reached an accord with China on the nomination of bishops in an effort to unify the state-sanctioned and underground branches of the Chinese Roman Catholic church.

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