Saturday, November 26, 2005

Pope Benedict XVI and the Challenge Ahead

The Roman Catholic Church faces an unprecedented challenge. It confronts a multi-faith, secular and a post-Christian Europe. Earlier this year, the conclave of Roman Catholic cardinals had designated conservative Cardinal Ratzinger as head of the 1,000 million strong Roman Catholic community. He assumed the title Pope Benedict XVI. The Pope had previously headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faithful, formerly known as the Inquisition. He had disapproved of liberal Asian priests who viewed non-Christian religions as part of God's plan for humanity. He deemed other Christian churches as deficient, and censured feminism, birth control and premarital sex. The Pope had links to Opus Dei, the enigmatic Catholic group known for its zeal.

The Church is confronted with the dilemma of declining membership in Europe. Several studies report that only 15% of Britain would consider itself practicing Christian (albeit largely Protestant) and just 20% of France practicing Christian. The proportion of observant Christians declines to 5% in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland. Only 30% of Spain and 20% of Italy regularly attended church as per religious requirement in the 1990s. Much of West Europe is post-Christian now. This includes Northern Germany, much of the Netherlands and Belgium.

Moslem immigration to West Europe has altered the face of several cities there. Many European cities have significant Moslem populations i.e. Bradford in Britain, Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Lyon, Marseilles and Nice in France, not to mention several urban centers in Germany. Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe. The number of individuals who pray at a mosque might well equal the number of the faithful who visit church in any given week in Britain and France. This has led to issues of integration and racism as the recent riots in France and the earlier race riots in Bradford, England amply demonstrated. The possible entry of Turkey into the European Union will irrevocably change the demographic equation in Europe even further. Pope Benedict XVI, as Cardinal Ratzinger, had expressed fears of Turkey's entry into the European Union arguing that such a step would challenge that continent's Christian inheritance.

Pope Benedict XVI had earlier expressed concerns on Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East. Age old Christian communities have suffered precipitious demographic declines in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Turkey due to a steady out-migration since the 1960s. Bethlehem, Nablus and Ramallah used to be Christian majority cities in Palestine. Baghdad once had a thriving age-old Chaldean Christian community. There are now more Chaldean Christians in Detroit than in Iraq itself. Lebanon which was 70% Christian in the 1930s is now perhaps only 40% Christian. There has been no religious census in that country since the 1930s. Christians have likewise suffered attacks in Indonesia, Northern Nigeria, Pakistan, Southern Philippines and Southern Sudan. There were violent demonstrations directed at Egypt's ancient 10% Coptic Christian minority last month.

The more robust American Catholic church itself faces a crisis of faith with a shortage of priests. 55% of Christians in the United States are regular church goers unlike in Europe. President Bush made it a point to publicly participate in Sunday Service in Beijing. However, a significant percentage of the Catholic priesthood in that country is suspected to be homosexual given the church's ban on married clergy. The incidence of child abuse cases directed at the Church and the litigation involved has dogged the church in the United States in recent years. The Vatican introduced a policy last week to henceforth ban homosexuals from entering the clergy. This is likely to pose further strains on an already declining priesthood.

Roman Catholics constituted 90% of Latin America when Pope John Paul II assumed the papacy in the late 1970s. This dropped to 70% in the early 2000s with many Catholics leaving the Church to become born-again Protestants. As it is, many below the age of 40 in Brazil, Chile and Venezuela are nominal in their faith. Mexico until the 1990s had a political history of anti-clericalism. This changed with the revolt in Chiapas when the Church positioned itself as mediator between the native Indian rebels and the state. Mexico subsequently witnessed the return of a right wing and pro-Church administration under Vincent Fox for the first time in 70 years in the mid 1990s.

Africa however has been the saving grace with the proportion of Roman Catholics rising there exponentially. There has been the rich harvest of conversions since the 1980s under Pope John Paul II. The continent witnessed a rapid Christianization, a process that inadvertently coincided with the complete unraveling of the continent on all other fronts i.e. economic, social, public health, famine, governance and HIV/AIDS. The increase in church numbers in Africa was offset by the decline in Latin America, not to mention the drop in religious observance in West Europe.

The challenge confronted by the church is real and will need attention. Fortunately, Pope Benedict XVI had reached out to other Christian denominations since assuming the papacy. He then extended a healing gesture to Jews and Moslems reversing his earlier hard-line stance. Let's pray he now reaches out to the world's Buddhists and Hindus in the interests of inter-religious concord. Buddhist and Hindu relations with the Catholic church were strained under Pope John Paul II. Buddhist and Hindu groups had accused the Catholic church of fraudulent predatory conversions of the impoverished. Christian human rights groups in turn accused Buddhist and Hindu organizations of a wave of arson attacks directed at churches in Sri Lanka and India. The time has arrived for inter-religious reconciliation. This would necessitate magnanimity on all sides.


Sri Lankan said...

Pope John Paul II on his state visit to Delhi in 2000 said that the Church had been kept busy spreading Christianity in the first millennium in Europe, the second millennium in the Americas and now with the dawn of the third millennium it should be Asia. This statement has to be re thought of in the present context by Pope Benedict. Asia has awoken from its colonial slumber, thanks to missionaries like Swami Vivekananda, Anagarika Dharmapala, Swami Dayananda Saraswathy and others. To my mind the Pope's approach has to be one of live and let live. He should rethink strategies.

Anonymous said...

Could you post the source of your data for regular churchgoers?

Jaffna said...

Dear Anonymous,

There are several sources. I could not allude to these in my post given the sheer multitude. I tend to rely on conservative numbers. Here are a few of my sources (not all). I have been following this topic for the past 20 years. It is clear the Christianity is relatively on the wane in West Europe.

Best regards

froginthewell said...

This is a naive comment based on casual observations.

In Korea ( according to what some of my Korean friends say, I have no sources ) christianity has overtaken buddhism as the most popular religion. I suspect similar happenings elsewhere in south east asia - Thailand, Indonesia etc. Atleast among the programmes that come in the "AZN international channel" here in US only japanese movies seem to exude some of their native culture.

Jaffna said...

Dear Frog-in-the-well,

I was referring to Europe, not Korea. These observations are based on hard data. Please refer to the western media sources that I gave.

You are somewhat correct about South Korea (i.e. 29% Buddhist and 25% Christian) and perhaps about parts of Indonesia (which by the way is also experiencing an Islamic resurgence) but certainly not Thailand, which is 93% Buddhist.

West Europe is secular and post-Christian.

Best regards

libertarian said...

Jaffna, does your research suggest that post-religion is a natural progression? In other words, is the relative disintegration of organized religion predictable? If so what are the predictors? Per-capita wealth? Democratic tradition? Also, is this disintegration religion-specific?

Jaffna said...

Senor Libertarian,

Your questions are deep and relevant, but let me not trigger an avalanche of protest with a lengthy response. I will be brief :-)

You might have answered your own question in part...

One caveat though, there will always be a spiritual longing for something deeper in our lives. Piety is likely to continue in some form or the other. Doubting Gaurav had a nice quote of Einstein in his blog. Check it out.

In short, I think that religion is here to stay.

Best regards

libertarian said...

sri lankan, Islam and Christianity both have institutionalized proselytizing - unlike Hinduism, Jainism, Buddism and Sikhism. I wouldn't expect that to change any time soon.

Jaffna, looks like you're into Spanish literature right now :-) - would be very interested in your thoughts on the future of religion and the future of different religions.


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