The New New Testament

The Catholic Church has had a rough couple of decades. Can a 51-year-old layman from Westminster help turn things around? The pope thinks so.

October 2012

For years now, the Roman Catholic Church has been in crisis. Although it’s one of the largest organizations in the world—with more than one billion members, including 80 million in the United States—the number of self-described Catholics who attend weekly mass plummeted from 75 percent in 1955 to 45 percent in 2003 before leveling off. The median age of a Catholic priest has also increased from 35 in 1970 to 63 today—an 80 percent bump. The average age of doctors and lawyers, by comparison, increased between three and five percent during the same span.

Nothing has done more damage to the Church’s reputation—and ability to attract new membership—than the widespread allegations that an untold number of Catholic priests have sexually abused boys over many decades, and have had their offenses covered up or ignored by Church officials. One of the largest studies of the scandal—by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, funded in part by the Church—concluded that 4 percent of priests, almost 4,400 out of about 110,000 worldwide, have been accused of sexual abuse.

Although the Vatican has tried to distance itself from the scandal, it hasn’t been able to deny or ignore Catholicism’s waning influence. That’s why, in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI announced the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization—a group of cardinals, archbishops, and bishops tasked with rekindling the Catholic faith, primarily in the United States and Europe. “In the course of history,” the pope’s order read, “[the Church’s] mission...has been particularly challenged by an abandonment of the faith…. The social changes we have witnessed in recent decades have a long and complex history, and they have profoundly altered our way of looking at the world.”

When the pope sought experts to help the council bring Catholicism’s 2,000-year-old teachings to a 2012 audience, Curtis Martin was one of two nonclergy Americans his office called. This month, Martin will travel to Rome for his first formal meeting with the group. There, he hopes to demonstrate what once inspired New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan—the highest-ranking Catholic official in the United States—to say, “If you’re looking for hope, look to FOCUS.”