Secularism, a new papal contender and Catholic humor

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Two-thirds of the world's Catholic population today is in the southern hemisphere, a share that should reach three-quarters by mid-century. To discern where the church is headed, it's critical to keep an eye on what's bubbling down south, and two recent stories thus deserve to be on the global Catholic radar screen.

The first comes out of Brazil; the second, from the Philippines. Both are Catholic superpowers, among the top four Catholic countries in terms of population, and both are destined to be pace-setters in the church of the 21st century.

In Brazil, a respected national research institute, the Getulio Vargas Foundation, has published a new study suggesting that secularism -- defined, in this case, as throwing in the towel on religious faith and practice -- is making rapid inroads among Brazilian youth. Based on 200,000 interviews conducted for Brazil's 2010 census, the study concludes that the Catholic share of Brazil's population has dropped to 68 percent, its lowest level since census data began to be collected in 1872, in part because of the rising percentage of youth who disclaim any religious affiliation.

The key finding is this: The number of people under 20 who say they follow no religion is growing three times more quickly than among those over 50, with 9 percent of young Brazilians saying they belong to no religion.

Those results track with other data from Brazil. In 2007, Fr. Jose Oscar Beozzo, who directs the Center for Evangelizing Services and Popular Education in São Paulo, said that between 1980 and 2000, the percentage of the Brazilian population that identifies itself as Protestant, with most of that number being Pentecostal, rose from 12 percent to 17 percent. In the same period, the percentage with no religious affiliation went from 0.7 percent to 7.3 percent, a tenfold increase.
"This is the infinitely more important movement in the Brazilian religious situation," Beozzo said at the time.

In numeric terms, Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world, with its 163 million Catholics representing 85 percent of the population. Those, however, are baptismal totals, while the new study reflects the share who actually identify as Catholic. Among other things, the difference between the two indicates that 17 percent of Brazilians today were born Catholic but have subsequently left the church.

Competing explanations abound, with various commentators pointing to some version of at least four theories:

  • Brazil's economic boom, which has convinced a share of today's youth that they simply don't need religion.

  • Alleged remoteness and arrogance on the part of Catholic officialdom, combined with elements of church teaching that don't play well with progressive-minded young people, including the church's positions on abortion, contraception and homosexuality. (Not surprisingly, that's especially popular with the liberal wing of the Brazilian church.)

  • An over-concentration on politics by the Brazilian church, especially what's left of the liberation theology movement, with the result that young people today are spiritually adrift. (That tends to be the favorite account on the Catholic right.)

  • The raging priest shortage in Brazil, coupled with difficulties in mobilizing laity to compensate for it. (That's often what one hears from front-line pastoral workers in the country.)

Whichever account one favors, the basic picture seems clear: A growing share of the younger generation in Brazil is being effectively secularized.

This could have implications beyond the country's borders, because given Brazil's new economic and political muscle, trends there pack a broader regional and international punch.

Two thoughts about what this means:

First, the $64,000 question about religion in the southern hemisphere has long been whether economic and political progress necessarily goes hand-in-hand with secularization. There doesn't appear to be any ironclad law; China's economic growth in the last quarter-century, for instance, has been accompanied by a spiritual boom. Yet it would seem to be the case in Brazil, which prompts the following thought: Latin America, in some ways, is closest to the historical patterns of Europe, in that the Catholic Church traditionally was a state-imposed monopoly. If secularism takes hold in Latin America more than other regions, might that be the final confirmation that relying on state power is, over the long run, always hazardous to the faith?

Second, the idée fixe of the church's leadership class in the West has become the defense of Catholic identity, as a means of protecting the church against being assimilated by secularism. In sociological terms, it's a "politics of identity," which is a classic defense mechanism for embattled subcultures. Developments in Brazil suggest that similar politics of identity could take shape in other parts of the Catholic world, giving that trend even more staying power.

Manila receives a new archbishop

The big news from the Philippines has been the Oct. 13 appointment of Luis Antonio Tagle as the new Archbishop of Manila, putting him in line to become a cardinal the next time Benedict XVI hosts a consistory.

In church terms, Tagle is still a kid at 54, and he looks even younger. The story goes that back in the mid-1990s, when then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger introduced Tagle to Pope John Paul II as a new member of the Vatican's International Theological Commission, Ratzinger jokingly assured the pope that the youthful-seeming Filipino had, in fact, received his first communion.

Youthfulness aside, a striking number of people who know Tagle believe that this is a guy who, one day, could be pope.

Born in Manila, Tagle went to seminary in Quezon City and later did his doctoral work at the Catholic University of America. He also studied in Rome before returning to the Philippines to serve as a pastor and teacher. He quickly came to be seen as a rising star in the Asian church, explaining his appointment in 1997 to the Vatican's main doctrinal advisory body. He was named bishop of Imus in 2001.

Theologically and politically, Tagle comes off as balanced. He's taken strong positions against a proposed "Reproductive Health" bill in the Philippines, which includes promotion of birth control. Yet his towering social concern is defense of the poor, and he's also got a strong environmental streak.

Tagle's doctoral dissertation at Catholic University, written under Fr. Joseph Komonchak, was a favorable treatment of the development of episcopal collegiality at the Second Vatican Council. Moreover, Tagle served for 15 years on the editorial board of the Bologna-based "History of Vatican II" project founded by Giuseppe Alberigo, criticized by some conservatives for an overly progressive reading of the council.

Alberto Melloni, an Italian academic and writer, directs the Bologna project. He calls Tagle "a thinker of real value" whose dissertation represents an important chapter in the history of Vatican II, and someone who's "talented and serious."

Back in the Philippines, it would be a gross understatement to say that Tagle, who goes by the nickname "Chito," is simply well-liked. In truth, most Filipino Catholics I know love the guy -- for his warmth and humor, for his simplicity (he routinely eschews clerical dress), for his ability to express complex ideas in attractive and understandable argot, for his balance and openness, and for his lack of ego. He actually told a Catholic radio station in the Philippines this week that when he first heard he was going to Manila, he didn't tell anybody, because "I thought maybe the pope would change his mind."

One Filipino commentator this week said Tagle has "a theologian's mind, a musician's soul and a pastor's heart."

In the Imus diocese, Tagle was famous for not owning a car and taking the bus to work every day, describing it as a way to combat the isolation that sometimes comes with high office. He was also known for inviting poor beggars outside the cathedral to come in and eat with him; one woman was quoted this week describing a time she went looking for her blind, out-of-work, alcoholic husband, suspecting she might track him down in a local bar, only to find that he was lunching with the bishop.

Here's another typical story. Not long after Tagle arrived in Imus, a small chapel located in a run-down neighborhood was waiting for a priest to say Mass for a group mostly made up of day laborers at around 4 a.m. Eventually a youngish cleric showed up on a cheap bicycle, wearing simple clothes and ready to start the Mass. An astonished member of the congregation realized it was the new bishop, and apologized that they hadn't prepared a better welcome. Tagle said it was no problem; he got word late the night before that the priest was sick, and decided to say the Mass himself.

Tagle is a gifted communicator, making him a highly sought-after speaker and media personality. He drew rave reviews for his performance at a 2008 International Eucharistic Congress in Quebec, where observers say he brought an entire stadium to tears. Vatican-watchers also rated him among the most impressive contributors to both the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist and the 2008 Synod on the Word of God. He's also a very 21st century prelate -- he hosts a program on YouTube, and he's got his own Facebook page.

Although a loyal churchman, Tagle is unafraid to raise tough questions (at the 2005 synod, he pointedly said the church must confront the priest shortage, which struck some as a way of hinting at flexibility on celibacy) or to challenge what he considers abuses (some of the toughest language you'll ever find denouncing clerical arrogance and privilege is in his writings).

One Filipino priest wrote this week: "Who knows, we may have in (Tagle) the first Asian pope." Even if that doesn't pan out, Tagle is destined to be an important face and voice for the burgeoning Catholic population in Asia and the entire developing world, and that makes him someone worth getting to know.

A humorous tour of the country

It's no secret to anyone who knows the Catholic church that it's a community of both deep passions and great humor. I've been on the lecture circuit the past week, where I've seen classic examples of both points.

During the last few days, I've been in:

  • The St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese in Minnesota, for its "Communications Day" event;

  • Santa Fe, N.M., for a governance conference of the Christus Health system;

  • Montreal, Canada, for a conference on the sexual abuse crisis titled "Trauma and Transformation" organized by McGill University;

  • West Lafayette, Ind., for a lecture at the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center at Purdue University.

I found humor pretty much everywhere. It abounded in Minnesota, especially during a session with Lino Rulli, who hosts "The Catholic Guy" on Sirius Satellite Radio. In a performance that was one part reflection on youth ministry and one part stand-up comedy, Rulli (who said that retired Cardinal Edward Egan of New York actually calls him Lino "Unruly") mocked official Catholic verbiage when it comes to the under-40 crowd, such as terming them "young people" as if they're an exotic species. He riffed off that for a while, suggesting that sometimes it's as if church leaders think they're on a bird-watching expedition: "Observe the bearded young person in its natural habitat ... be quiet so we don't scare it off!"

Beneath the laughs, Rulli had some tough things to say about the church's stated desire to reach a younger audience. For instance, he asked: "Are we really serious about it? Or do we just say that because we think it's what the boss wants to hear?" If we're serious, he bluntly suggested, some things need to change, starting with the fact that, in his view, some of the people currently in charge of "youth ministry" just aren't very good at it.

Rulli stressed that if you really want to reach, say, people in their twenties distant from the faith, make sure you've got someone who can speak their language.

The Minnesota gig also offered a vintage illustration of the passions that course through Catholic life, though not in a way organizers had planned.

During a panel discussion, we were taking questions from the audience. At one point, a priest named Fr. Michael Tegeder, who's apparently well-known locally as something of a firebrand, bounded onto the stage to make a point that he felt represented the elephant in the room: Efforts by Archbishop John Nienstedt and the archdiocese to oppose same-sex marriage, which, in Tegeder's view, are themselves a powerful act of communication expressing marginalization of homosexual people. (By that point in the day, Nienstedt himself was no longer present.)

As Tegeder went on, the microphone was cut off, at which point he stepped to the front of the stage and continued to state his case. There were a couple of people applauding and a few others groaning, but most just sat in silence. When he was done, the program resumed, but the point had obviously been made: When we talk about church communications, we have to face the fact that on many issues, the broader Catholic community does not always speak with one voice.

Back on the humor front, laughter cropped up even at the sex abuse conference in Montreal -- not exactly a subject that naturally beckons a lighthearted approach.

Archbishop Anthony Mancini of Halifax gave an overview of his experience interacting with survivors in helping to shape the Canadian response to the crisis. Mancini is a warm and deeply funny guy, and during the Q&A session we got flashes of that side of his personality. At one point, he was describing how the crisis has damaged the public image of the priesthood, and said: "If a priest goes out to dinner with a man, people think he's homosexual. If he goes to dinner with a woman, they think he must be having an affair. I guess the only thing left is to get a dog!"

Jesuit Fr. George Wilson, a distinguished American theologian and expert on organizational theory, gave a powerful presentation on clericalism and the role it's played in the crisis. Along the way, he too demonstrated tremendous wit.

For instance, Wilson argued that one danger facing "clergy" in any realm, whether it's the academy, law enforcement, medicine or the ordained in a religious system, is that people hesitate to contradict them because of their allegedly superior expertise. That led Wilson to offer this piece of advice to the seven Canadian bishops in the room: "If your staff hasn't told you at least once in the last year to go to Hell, you ought to fire them, because they're not doing their job."

Wilson also captured the more traditional clerical style among some of today's younger priests this way: "I've got a stock tip for you: Buy birettas!"

(As an aside, the people at McGill deserve credit for putting together an event that tried to do justice to all voices in the Catholic conversation. They brought along the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops as a co-sponsor, and speakers ranged from fairly liberal perspectives to more traditional ones. The Catholic media outlet "Salt and Light" taped the event, and it's worth trying to catch it not merely for its insights about the crisis, but also as a model of conversation across the usual divides.)

In the wake of these experiences, I came away with two observations. First, we've got serious differences as Catholics, fueled by deep emotions on all sides. Second, we also have a real capacity to laugh at ourselves, which represents a common language with the potential to bridge some of those divides.

The question is: Can we bring our humor and our passion together so we can build friendships across the usual divides based, in part, on shared laughter rather than competing rants?

That, it seems to me, is something worth thinking about.

[John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His email address is]

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