It is a testimony to the strength of the Church that most of the faithful have persevered through this era of informal official atheism

It is not too soon to celebrate the uplifting virtuosity of Pope Francis, nor the selflessness of Benedict XVI, in engineering a dramatic turn in the fortunes of the world’s premier religion, and thereby of theism and respect for spiritual values generally in the world. Benedict XVI, a brilliant and a brave man who had seen the dangers of physical decrepitude in his saintly predecessor whom he served so closely, clearly sensed what was necessary to free the Church from the partial immobilisation that its atheistic and agnostic critics had inflicted upon it. And he realised that he did not possess the energy or novelty to achieve it himself alone.

The Western anti-Christian media have never ceased to believe fervently that the Catholic Church was a gigantic imposture of a bumblebee, defying all laws of nature and reason, and doomed to fail (unlike the bee) and fold its overworked wings and plunge to the earth in an epochal triumph of materialism over superstition. From the general dissemination of oral contraceptives in the early 1960s, as the inhibiting fear of an inconvenient or morally stigmatising pregnancy receded before the romantic and libidinous impulses of fertile women and their male suitors, it became increasingly easy and irresistible for the Church’s opponents of all camps to revile it as a claque of septuagenarian celibates (infested by an unseemly number of closet gay hypocrites).

It was not difficult to portray Catholic leaders as humbugs scolding the world for engaging in what they had ostensibly renounced for themselves, even when sexual intercourse had become for many merely an intimate pleasurable act that reflected reciprocal affection, but was not loaded with a prospect of procreation. Thus was a moral imperative, heavily reinforced by the complexities of an unsought pregnancy, effectively reduced to a counsel of perfection that was soon ignored by 90 per cent of the world’s Catholics of relevant age, married and unmarried. The theological arguments for the Church’s position, especially in St John Paul II’s recondite and authoritative Theology of the Body, were intellectually distinguished. But they were comparatively uncompetitive in contesting for the adherence of the scores of millions of Catholics who easily satisfied themselves that anything so pleasant and fulfilling, and newly inconsequential, could not possibly separate them from their faith.

To most practising Catholics who ignored the Church’s disapproval of contraception, there is no disrespect in the sexual act between discerning, consenting, mutually attracted heterosexual adults. In general, Catholic episcopates accommodated this view, and when confessed, this sort of conduct did not usually incite draconian penances.

It is a remarkable testimony to the power of the Christian message, and to the strength and legitimacy of the Catholic Church as bearer of that message, that most of the faithful persevered so determinedly through this era of informal official atheism throughout the West, usually tiresomely covered by sanctimonious official platitudes about “the separation of church and state”. There was no boundary imposed by decency or intellectual rigour on the fervour of the assault on Christianity, and particularly Catholicism, by the media and the entertainment industries of the West. They thought they finally smelt the blood of their target, which they had been stalking and nipping at for centuries.

When the scandals of molestation and sexual abuse of young people by the clergy broke in many parts of the world, Catholicism’s foes, ancient and faddish, joined in a frenzy of defamation. From Christopher Hitchens to the New York Times (which virtually offered a city tour and a fine dinner in a five-star New York restaurant to anyone who could claim a novice laid a hand on his/her knee in Patagonia 50 years before), they all seemed to believe that the fall in shambles and moral bankruptcy of the Roman Church was at hand, at last. This was what Benedict XVI thought was better addressed by someone with greater physical energy than he then had and someone with an entire separation from any prior episcopal controversy over priestly misconduct or relations with unacceptable secular regimes (impeccable though his own record was, in fact).

When Francis made it clear that the role of the Catholic Church was not to scold or condemn, but to minister to all human souls who sought it, and that the value of a soul was not dependent on sexual orientation or behaviour, it knocked the principal sword from the hands of Catholicism’s most vocal and fervid enemies. The implicit charge that the Church was not really the bearer of Christ’s message but an antiquarian source of superstitious humbug and hypocrisy was exposed as the ghastly smear that it always was. It soon became obvious even to doubters that 97 per cent of the personnel of the Catholic Church were dedicated and virtuous, and, as if by the light of a papal thunderbolt, the Church’s enemies were exposed in their moral infirmity. The Guardian and the BBC were reduced to the false claim that Francis had abandoned the battlements of faith and belief, when all he had done was incinerate their clothes, discarded at the swimming pond.

For the first time in decades, they are silent and confused, as church attendance and vocations rise in much of the Catholic world, and the Pope enjoys greater respect than any of the secular leaders of the world’s principal countries. There are startling increases in disparate places: by almost 100 per cent in South Korea and nearly 40 per cent in Spain (highlighted by the dramatic entry into a convent of the famous and glamorous model Olalla Oliveros). Even to those who did not waver, it is gratifying to see the increasing numbers at religious services and the lengthening lines of those taking Communion and confessing. It is too early to proclaim a durable reversal of former trends, which sceptics exaggerated anyway. But the awkward silence of most of the former carpers is a blessed development, and we have Pope Francis and Benedict XVI to thank for it.

This article first appeared in The Catholic Herald magazine (5/12/14)