When I give talks in Europe or North America, I
usually get some version of the following question: "What are the church's plans
for dealing with the priest shortage, or the decline in vocations to the
religious life, or dwindling Mass attendance rates, or the problem of
transmitting the faith to the next generation?"
The premise is usually that
the church is in a crisis, one serious enough to provoke a re-examination of
current doctrines or disciplines.
While there's perfectly legitimate debate to
be had on each of these questions, the underlying assumption of decline reveals
a particularly Western focus. The reality is that worldwide, these are boom
times for Catholicism, not bust.
The numbers are indisputable.
In 1900, at
the dawn of the 20th century, there were 459 million Catholics in the world, of
whom 392 million were found in Europe and North America, and just 67 million
scattered across the rest of the planet, principally in Latin America.
Explore Pope Francis' environmental encyclical. Receive our FREE readers' guide when you sign up for the weekly Eco Catholic email.
2000, there were 1.1 billion Catholics in the world, with 380 million in Europe
and North America, and almost 800 million in the global South. Roughly half of
the Catholics in the world today live in Latin America alone. Given demographic
and religious trends, this population realignment in global Christianity will
continue. By 2025, only one Catholic in five in the world will be a non-Hispanic
Population growth explains some, but not all, of this expansion.
The last half-century has also witnessed a striking wave of adult conversions to
Christianity, especially in Africa.
Between 1970 and 1985, to take just one
index, some 4,300 people a day were leaving Christian churches in Europe and
North America. Over the same period, there were 16,500 conversions to
Christianity a day in Africa, yielding an annual growth of some 6 million new
African Christians. In Roman Catholicism, more than half of all adult baptisms
in the world, generally considered the most reliable indication of conversions,
are in Africa alone.
Moreover, the new growth in Africa and Asia, and to some
extent in Latin America, is not merely replicating pre-existing European
patterns of faith and practice. Instead, it's creating myriad new forms of
Christianity as the faith mingles with indigenous customs and concepts. Experts
have described this as the most important cultural transformation in
Christianity since the period of Hellenization launched by St. Paul.
words, the central challenge for world Catholicism at the moment is not decline,
but growth, and making sense of the new interactions between faith and culture
this growth is generating.
"Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic" has passed
into the cultural idiom as a synonym for blithe indifference to an underlying
crisis. I would suggest that much conversation in Western Catholicism these days
is more akin to arguing over which buggy whips are best, while ignoring the
emergence of the car; that is, a completely new world is taking shape, one
destined to render many of this era's debates obsolete.
What I have called the
"upside down church" of the future, one driven increasingly by the experience
and priorities of the South, is likely to take scant interest in matters that
have set the Catholic agenda in the West for more than a century, such as the
balance of power between Rome and the bishops, or debates over various questions
of doctrine. Instead, it will be the "cash value" of Catholicism in the
confrontation with poverty, disease, corruption, war and cultural conflict that
will increasingly be on the minds of most Catholics on the planet.
So why is
the West still arguing over buggy whips?
* * *
First, religion, like politics, tends to be local. Most Europeans and some
North Americans are indeed experiencing decline, and there's a natural tendency
to assume this is the universal story.
Second, since Westerners are not
responsible for expansion in the developing world, we tend not to notice it.
Iraq's baby steps towards democracy have been huge news in the West, largely
because it's happening as a result of massive American and British intervention;
Mali's emergence as a stable democracy in Western Africa, meanwhile, has not
attracted the same attention, in part because the Africans did it almost
entirely on their own.
Third, as Lamin Sanneh, a native of Ghana who now
teaches at the Yale Divinity School, notes in his 2003 book Whose Religion is
Christianity?, the 20th century explosion in Christianity occurred at a time
when "conversion" had become a bad word. Thus it has largely flown below the
"Political correctness created a PR vacuum," Sanneh wrote.
there is sometimes a smug Western assumption that the dynamism of the church in
the developing world is ephemeral, and that as Africa, Asia and Latin America
develop economically they will experience the same secularism as the global
North. It's an untested assumption, and one that many Christians in the South
Fifth, the expansion of Catholicism in the developing world
is sometimes exploited for ideological purposes by European and North American
conservatives as a blanket riposte to any criticism of the church. If we're
growing like gangbusters, the suggestion runs, what could be wrong?
Yet if the
expansion of Catholicism in the South contradicts leftist predictions of demise,
the corollary does not follow, i.e., that it is an endorsement of conservative
Catholicism in its Western form. In fact, experts such as Sanneh say the growth
of Christianity in the developing world has precious little to do with Western
ideological debates, and is far more connected with the way Christianity
interacts with indigenous cultures and their concerns.
This is perhaps the
bottom line on today's bear market in world Catholicism -- it deserves to be
taken seriously on its own terms, not made into a club to fight Western battles.
On June 19, Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice will convene a summit in Cairo of
Catholic bishops and other leading figures from Africa, the Middle East, and
Europe to discuss human rights and democracy in Christianity and Islam. The idea
is to explore the potential Christian contribution to fostering peace and
stability in the developing world, and to confront radical currents within
Taking place under the aegis of Scola's Oasis International Studies and
Research Centre, the gathering will probably attract scant attention in the
Western press. Yet this is the sort of conversation that will increasingly
dominate the "upside down church" now taking shape.
Those interested in
thinking beyond buggy whips would do well to take notice.
Just $5 a month supports NCR's independent Catholic journalism.
We are committed to keeping our online journalism open and available to as many readers as possible. To do that, we need your help. Join NCR Forward, our new membership program.
Looking for comments?
We've suspended comments on NCRonline.org for a while. If you missed that announcement, learn more about our decision here.