Friday, April 15, 2005

Religion: An African Pope?

An African Pope?

For those of you who have wondered about the results of an African cardinal being elected Pope in the next few weeks, Philip Jenkins’ article, “The Next Christianity,” in the October 2002 issue of The Atlantic Monthly (reproduced here) is informative.

Pointing out the great numerical differences and theological perspectives of the “first” and “third” worlds, Jenkins argues that the big issues for Western Catholic Christians – birth control, homosexuality, the ordination of women, et al. – are not such big issues in the minds of Catholics in the Global South.

As a result, the great liberal reform of the Roman Catholic Church that many North Americans and Western Europeans hope for could go the other way altogether.

An ever greater reliance on individual choice, the argument goes, will help Catholicism to become much more inclusive and tolerant, less judgmental, and more willing to accept secular attitudes toward sexuality and gender roles. In the view of liberal Catholics, much of the current crisis derives directly from archaic if not primitive doctrines, including mandatory celibacy among the clergy, intolerance of homosexuality, and the prohibition of women from the priesthood, not to mention a more generalized fear of sexuality. In their view, anyone should be able to see that the idea that God, the creator and lord of the universe, is concerned about human sexuality is on its way out.

If we look beyond the liberal West, we see that another Christian revolution, quite different from the one being called for in affluent American suburbs and upscale urban parishes, is already in progress. Worldwide, Christianity is actually moving toward supernaturalism and neo-orthodoxy, and in many ways toward the ancient world view expressed in the New Testament: a vision of Jesus as the embodiment of divine power, who overcomes the evil forces that inflict calamity and sickness upon the human race. In the global South (the areas that we often think of primarily as the Third World) huge and growing Christian populations — currently 480 million in Latin America, 360 million in Africa, and 313 million in Asia, compared with 260 million in North America — now make up what the Catholic scholar Walbert Buhlmann has called the Third Church, a form of Christianity as distinct as Protestantism or Orthodoxy, and one that is likely to become dominant in the faith. The revolution taking place in Africa, Asia, and Latin America is far more sweeping in its implications than any current shifts in North American religion, whether Catholic or Protestant. There is increasing tension between what one might call a liberal Northern Reformation and the surging Southern religious revolution, which one might equate with the Counter-Reformationan enormous rift seems inevitable.


It may be true that from the liberal Northern perspective, pressure for a Reformation-style solution to critical problems in the Church — the crisis in clerical celibacy, the shortage of priests, the sense that the laity's concerns are ignored — seems overwhelming. Poll after poll in the United States and Europe indicates significant distrust of clerical authority and support for greater lay participation and women's equality. The obvious question in the parishes of the developed world seems to be how long the aloof hierarchy can stave off the forces of history.

From Rome, however, the picture looks different, as do the "natural" directions that history is going to take. The Roman church operates on a global scale and has done so for centuries. Long before the French and British governments had become aware of global politics — and well before their empires came into being — papal diplomats were thinking through their approaches to China, their policies in Peru, their views on African affairs, their stances on the issues facing Japan and Mexico. To adapt a popular activist slogan, the Catholic Church not only thinks globally, it acts globally. That approach is going to have weighty consequences. On present evidence, a Southern-dominated Catholic Church is likely to react traditionally to the issues that most concern American and European reformers: matters of theology and devotion, sexual ethics and gender roles, and, most fundamentally, issues of authority within the Church.


Thanks to Terry Mattingly at the GetReligion blog for the heads-up on this.


Captain Sacrament

1 comment:

Steve said...

One issue that an African Pope might have great insight in *might* be the Global HIV/AIDS epidemic. Maybe an African Pople could address this issue a little better, and help rationalize the use of contraceptives to save millions of lives. This could potentially be one bridge between the African/Latin American and Northern churches (i.e. if they could agree that maybe condoms are not so heretical). I need to look up where African cardinals stand on this issue though - I know some African priests have criticized John Paul II on his steadfastness against condom use, but I doubt that the any African cardinals are more progressive on the issue.