OPINION: Step into virtually any Catholic church on a Sunday morning and the challenge facing the church in the West is apparent. Its congregation is ageing and dwindling.
Pews that were once crowded with families are now empty or occupied only by a smattering of older parishioners setting their religious affairs in order before going to meet their maker.
Pope Benedict XVI, who shocked the Catholic world yesterday by announcing he would stand down at the end of the month, is not to blame for the declining influence and relevance of the church.
The process began long before he succeeded Pope John Paul II eight years ago. Increasing affluence and changing lifestyles have shifted churches of all hues from the centre of Western society to the periphery. Why focus on the hereafter when the here and now is so pressing?
However, Benedict XVI, the first pope to step aside in almost 600 years, has done nothing to arrest or reverse the church's slide.
In fact, his opposition to contraception in the face of overwhelming evidence that it slows the spread of Aids and his refusal to countenance any relaxation of the church's bans on female priests and homosexual acts have cemented in place the church's reputation as a relic of the Middle Ages. Worse, on his watch, the church continued to struggle to take responsibility for the actions of priests who abused the trust of their congregations by preying on children.
In March 2009 the Pope apologised to Irish Catholics for the wrong done by clergy found to have sexually abused hundreds of thousands of Irish children over the course of decades. However, bishops and priests were not ordered to report abuse to police, and senior church officials, who knew of the offending but did not stop it, were allowed to continue in their roles.
In New Zealand, the church now reports all allegations of abuse to the authorities, but that is not the case everywhere. The actions of rogue priests have done incalculable harm to millions of lives.
The church, which harboured the abusers, and in many cases enabled their wrongdoing, must not only acknowledge its complicity but do all it can to bring offenders to justice and prevent further abuse.
Until it does it will lack the moral authority to tell others how they should live their lives.
Benedict XVI's abdication offers the church an opportunity to make a clean break with its chequered past and to appoint a younger, more energetic leader. It should do so.
In recent times, the church has done much that is good and constructive. The Christian values it teaches underpin Western values.
It promotes social justice and it helps to bring communities together. It is no coincidence that some of the 20th century's most progressive and influential leaders had a Catholic upbringing.
However, if the Catholic Church is to be relevant in the 21st century it must find a way to connect with young, educated people who put reason ahead of superstition and are in no mind to accept moral instruction from an institution that refuses to face up to its own wrongdoing.
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