In a New York Times op-ed piece on Pope Benedict's visit to Great Britain, Ross Douthat wrote:
And yes, the Church's exclusive theological claims and stringent moral message don't go over well in a multicultural, sexually liberated society. But the example of Catholicism's rivals suggests that the Church might well be much worse off if it had simply refashioned itself to fit the prevailing values of the age. That's what the denominations of mainline Protestantism have done, across the last four decades — and instead of gaining members, they've dwindled into irrelevance.
The Vatican of Benedict and John Paul II, by contrast, has striven to maintain continuity with Christian tradition, even at the risk of seeming reactionary and out of touch. This has cost the Church its once-privileged place in the Western establishment, and earned it the scorn of fashionable opinion. [corrected misuncapitalization of "the Church"]
I don't really buy that.
The Church has always had the scorn of fashionable opinion in the United States, and it's had the scorn of fashionable opinion in England since Henry VIII. It's had the scorn of fashionable opinion pretty much everywhere and everywhen fashionable opinion could scorn the Church with temporal impunity. See the final verse of yesterday's Gospel reading.
As for the Church's once-privileged place in the Western establishment: St. John Fisher was not executed for preaching against contraception. For that matter, I haven't heard that Danton & Co. were overly insistent on same-sex "marriage."
The privileged place the Church has occupied in the United States was granted because of her political clout. The clout the Church has lost in recent decades because Catholics no longer follow their bishops would not have been preserved had their bishops followed them instead. At best, telegenic bishops would have been allowed to be spokesmen for the establishment, but that would have little to do with the Church's mission.
And of course, the molestation scandals have revealed how conditional all Church privileges (not to mention how unhealthy some of them) were all along.
How meaningful it is to be Catholic in a given time and place is inversely related to how Catholic the time and place are. If the Church, in a given time and place, ceases to be Catholic, then the Church in that time and place ceases to be meaningful, even if it does sustain its membership. It's entirely possible, by abandoning Jesus' founding commission, for a local Church to grow into irrelevance.