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September 23, 2005
Vol. 5, No. 4

John L. Allen Jr.


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The Word From Rome

John L. Allen Jr.

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Homosexuals in the seminary; A Global Church in a Globalized World


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Many readers undoubtedly have questions about reports concerning a new Vatican instruction on the admission of homosexuals to seminaries. I'll have analysis in the near future, though one note of caution is in order: we don't yet have the document, and as always with church texts, the devil is in the details.

That's particularly true with this instruction, since the Vatican has already twice published documents indicating that homosexuals should not be admitted to the priesthood (a document from the Congregation for Religious in 1961 and another from the Congregation for Divine Worship in May 2002). To what extent the new instruction will mark a change in policy, and what its practical impact may be, therefore remains to be seen.

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I'm in the United States this week, on a speaking tour that takes me to Chicago, Cleveland, New York, New Haven, and Miami. As always, moving across the country in this way is an opportunity to reconnect with American Catholics, listening to their concerns and dreams for the new pontificate, "taking the temperature" of the American church.

While there are obvious tensions -- disillusionment related to the sexual abuse scandals, frustration that church leaders do not always seem committed to collaboration with laity, and so on -- what comes across at least in equal measure is the dynamism of the American Catholic world. One has but to show up at almost any parish, university or conference in the country to find scores of theologically literate, committed Catholics, clergy and lay, engaged in a bewildering variety of ministries. The fractiousness that sometimes characterizes American Catholics is, in that sense, the flip side of their passion; indeed, I sometimes wonder if the high blood pressure you sometimes find in American Catholic circles isn't related to the fact that Americans simply have higher expectations of the church than, say, many Europeans. (As Augustine put it, anger is the daughter of hope; cynics generally don't get angry).

On Sept. 20, I gave a lecture at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois, sponsored by that institution's Siena Center, whose mission is "to bring faith and scholarship to the critical issues of church and society." The topic I was asked to address was "A Global Church in a Globalized World," trying to think about what the historic North/South shift currently underway in global Christianity might mean for Roman Catholicism in the 21st century. What follows is my text.

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While it's almost always a helpful discipline to consider issues from multiple points of view, it's essential in Roman Catholicism, one of the most truly global institutions on earth, with 1.1 billion members scattered in every nook and cranny of the planet. If, as Mark Twain once said, "a conclusion is generally where someone got tired of thinking," then we Catholics needs to be distance runners in the thoughtful consideration of the perspectives of others.

Let me tell one story to illustrate the point.

In September 2001, the Vatican issued a controversial document called Dominus Iesus, about the relationship between Christianity and other world religions. While the heart of its teaching was that the church cannot abandon its faith in Christ as the unique and lone savior of humanity, it also ruffled feathers by asserting that adherents of other religions are in a "gravely deficient" situation with respect to Christians.

Just after it appeared, I attended a workshop for rectors of seminaries around the world, held in Rome at the Casa Tra Noi, down the street from my office. In one workshop, a Jesuit theologian led a discussion on Dominus Iesus. A rector from Bangalore in India popped up and said, "This document is a disaster. It has destroyed our dialogue with Hinduism, since they don't understand these exclusivist claims." Next a rector from St. Petersburg in Russia jumped up to say, "No, you've got it all wrong. This document has saved our dialogue with the Russian Orthodox, because they have an even higher Christology than we do, and this is the first Vatican document since the Council they've been excited about."

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The same document, filtered through two different cultural perspectives, produced diametrically opposed reactions. Catholicism finds itself increasingly faced with the challenge of making room for the instincts, concerns, and aspirations of an astonishing variety of cultural backgrounds. Church officials in a globalized world have to be concerned not merely with how something will play in Peoria, but also in Beijing, in Tehran, in Kinshasa, and in Kiev.

This observation does not mean that all perspectives are equally valid, which would flirt with a kind of relativism, or that the complexity of factoring in all the variables should become an excuse for inaction. Eventually, leaders have to lead. But it does suggest that if we struggle sometimes to understand why our leaders do what they do, or why Catholics from other parts of the globe don't react as we do, sometimes the answer has to be sought by seeing through their eyes.

Setting the Table

Let me offer a few rather random facts and figures about global Catholicism, and try to tease out a few implications. This is by no means a comprehensive survey, merely some basic data and observations that I hope will be useful for further conversation.

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1) American Catholics
The 67 million Catholics in the United States represent 6 percent of the global Catholic population of 1.1 billion. We are the fourth largest Catholic country in the world, after Brazil (144 million), Mexico (126 million), and the Philippines (70 million).

Despite impressions of a rocky relationship with the Vatican, much of the rest of the Catholic world believes the American church already gets too many strokes from Rome. For example, we have 6 percent of the population, but 12 percent of the bishops in the Catholic church and 14 percent of the priests. In fact, the United States has more priests by itself than the top three Catholic countries combined (41,000 in the U.S. to 37,000 in Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines).

As another index, we have 13 cardinals (11 of whom are "electors," meaning under 80 and hence eligible to vote for the pope), as opposed to Brazil, with 8 cardinals (4 electors), Mexico, with 5 cardinals (4 electors), and the Philippines, with 2 cardinals (1 elector). In the last conclave, American votes counted for more than Mexico, Brazil, and the Philippines combined, 11 to 9. (Those three countries represent a block of 340 million Catholics, more than 30 percent of the global total). American votes also outnumbered all of Africa (10 electors).

This context is important to keep in mind when American Catholics wonder why Rome seems to be slow to respond to our crises and needs. From the point of view of many in the Catholic church, America has been at the top of the heap for too long.

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2) The Global South
Africa: Africa in the 20th century went from a Catholic population of 1.9 million in 1900 to 130 million in 2000, a growth rate of 6,708 percent, the most rapid expansion of Catholicism in a single continent in 2,000 years of church history. Thirty-seven percent of all baptisms in Africa today are of adults, considered a reliable measure of evangelization success since it indicates a change in religious affiliation. The worldwide average, by way of contrast, is 13.2. Islam in Africa grew equally dramatically in the same period; today there are 414 million Muslims in Africa. These numbers will continue rising, since Africa has one of the world's most dramatic rates of population growth. Along with the rapid expansion in Catholic population has come an explosion in African bishops, priests, brothers, sisters, and deacons. There are today more than 600 African bishops and almost 30,000 priests, and Africa and Asia each number approximately 30,000 seminarians. In 2004, roughly 20 priests were ordained for all of England and Wales, while Nigeria alone ordained more than 200.

Asia: Asia went from 11 million Catholics to 107 million, a growth rate of 861 percent. Much of this growth, however, is accounted for by demographics rather than conversions, above all in the Philippines. There are only about 37 million Catholics in all of Asia outside the Philippines. (A reported 13 million are in China). Pope John Paul II defined Asia as the great missionary horizon of the church in the 21st century, and that ambition certainly has something to do with the importance attached by the Holy See to diplomatic relations with China. Given the obvious stirrings of spiritual interest in China, and the reality that there is no dominant religious institution in the country, some China-watchers believe an opening on religious liberty could be followed by a rapid burst of Christian expansion. If there are 13 million Chinese Catholics today, there could be 100 million within a couple of generations. Further, just as Latin America set the theological tone for the church in the 1980s with the Liberation Theology movement, today Asian theologies of religious pluralism, reflecting on how Christianity should understand the role of religious diversity in God's providence, set the agenda. We'll come back to this later.

Latin America: Latin America is home to roughly half the world's Catholics, at 520 million. Four of the ten largest Catholic countries in the world are in Latin America: Brazil, Mexico, Colombia and Argentina. Despite its youth and dynamism, the church in Latin America is in some ways under siege, facing pressure from the so-called "sects.," aggressively missionary neo-Protestant movements, often charismatic and Pentecostal. Guatemala, for example, was 95 percent Catholic a generation ago; today it is 60 percent. Peru was 97 percent Catholic at the time of a 1992 national census; in 2002, the figure was 75 percent. Similar figures could be repeated in many other nations. While some observers argue that many of these conversions are either transient or incomplete, pointing to the phenomenon of the "Guadalupe Protestant" (i.e., a evangelical who still takes part in Guadalupe festivals, prays the rosary, and so on), the evidence seems to be that most Latin Americans who became evangelical at least a decade ago have remained in an evangelical church rather than returning to Catholicism.

There's a strong sense among many Latin American Catholics that their time is coming to offer leadership to the universal church. In effect, the runner-up in the conclave of 2005 was a Latin American, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, and many cardinals believe the Latin Americans will be strong runners the next time around.

Summary: Philip Jenkins estimated in The Next Christendom that by 2050, only one-fifth of the world's Christians will be non-Hispanic Caucasians. Increasingly, power and influence in global Christianity will shift with population. Manila and Nairobi and Abuja will be, in a sense, what Leuven and Paris and Milan were for much of church history, i.e., the leading centers of intellectual and pastoral energy in the church. Leadership will come from these regions, and the issues of concern to the South will increasingly become the priorities of the global church.

3) The Middle East
This is a small, but politically and theologically important, constituency. There are roughly 2.1 million Catholics in union with Rome in the Middle East, with the largest groupings in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and the Holy Land. These populations are in decline, as the pressures of the Intifadah, economic stagnation, and the rise of Islamic radicalism are driving them away. Today there are more Palestinian Christians in Australia, for example, than in Palestine. In the town of Bethlehem, the proportion of the population which is Christian has dropped from 80 percent before 1948 to less than 33 percent today. There is considerable alarm that the out-migration of Chaldean Christians from Iraq will accelerate due to fears about weak religious freedom provisions in the country's new constitution. It is almost impossible to overestimate the importance of these trends for understanding the foreign policy of the Holy See. At the symbolic level, the idea that the land of Christ might be empty of Christians, that the holy sites might become museums (like Hagia Sophia in Istanbul) is a subject of deep psychological alarm. Practically, the Holy See worries that if Christianity disappears from the Arab world, then a value bridge between the West and Islam will be lost. Hence while their numbers may be small, the fate of Arab Christians looms large in the imagination of Vatican policy-makers.

1) Europe
Europe claims 283 million Catholics, but in many places the practice of the faith is relatively inert; in countries such as Belgium, France and Holland, for example, rates of weekly Mass attendance dip as low as five percent. This is true for all the traditional Christian denominations. There are now more Muslims who go to Mosque on Friday in Great Britain, for example, than Anglicans who go to church on Sunday. Europe's fertility rates are also dropping; the lowest rates in human history, roughly 1.2 percent, have been recorded in Italy and Spain, traditionally Catholic nations. As one small but significant window into the historic shift underway, it's worth pointing out that today there is only one actual Roman among the 181 members of the College of Cardinals, retired 88-year-old Cardinal Fiorenzo Angelini. In the conclave of April, not a single Roman cast a vote, despite the fact that historically the College of Cardinals is supposed to represent the clergy of Rome. That point alone symbolizes the gradual de-centering of Italy, and of Europe, underway in the Catholic church.

In Eastern Europe, by way of contrast, rates of Mass attendance and vocations are generally higher, outside the Czech Republic and former Eastern Germany, where Soviet-era atheism made its greatest inroads. In some places in Eastern Europe, such as Ukraine, Catholic communities are experiencing a Renaissance, related to the sensation of having survived the Soviet period with new confidence and a sense of mission.

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Themes from the South

Given this overview, one point seems clear: in the Catholicism of the 21st century, the global south, perhaps especially Africa and the Philippines, will play increasingly important roles in setting the global agenda. As this shift unfolds, as the voice of the south is heard, what themes are likely to emerge? Without any pretense of being comprehensive, here are five:

Inculturation: Catholicism is one faith, but it has to be expressed through many cultures. Striking the right balance between unity and diversity will be a defining challenge in the church of the future, especially as a faith incubated in Europe and the West continues to expand and come of age in cultures with very different attitudes, instincts and modes of expression. Generally speaking, theologians and prelates from the developing world will push for greater freedom to adapt Eurocentric models of worship and doctrinal expression of the Western church to their own circumstances. Further, as immigration and cultural mobility increasingly bring the South to the doorstep of the West, the patterns of thought, life and worship of the South will more and more be part of the warp and woof of the church everywhere. Liturgy is one arena in which this tension will work itself out. These trends may push the envelope in terms of Western sensibilities. In general, southern Christianity tends to be more spontaneous, with a much more lively sense of the supernatural - healings, visions, prophecies, possessions and exorcisms, and so on. African worship in particular tends to be heavily charismatic. As Roman Catholicism in the future speaks with an African and Hispanic accent, it will also speak in tongues.

Poverty/Globalization: During the daily General Congregation meetings that led up to the conclave in April, several African cardinals gave moving interventions pleading with the next pope, whoever it would be, to put the struggle against poverty and chronic under-development at the top of the church's agenda. For many African Christians, the defining issues for the church are not the usual topics in the West -- birth control, women in the church, theological dissent, and so on. African Catholics will of course have different views on these questions, but by and large the overwhelming majority of Southerners regard them secondary. The truly urgent matters, they tend to believe, are poverty, war, the arms trade, HIV/AIDS, and structural reform of the international economic system. Hence as the South comes of age in the church, its focus will to some extent be increasingly ad extra rather than ad intra.

Religious Pluralism: There's a sense in which Asian Catholicism is to the Catholic church today what Latin America was in the 1970s and 1980s, that is, the frontline of the most important theological question of the day. In Latin America, the debate was over liberation theology, and more broadly, the proper relationship between Christianity and politics. Today, it's over what theological sense to make of religious diversity, meaning whether or not we can say that God wills religious diversity, and if God does will it, what does that do to Christianity's missionary imperative? In Asia, the social reality of Christianity as a tiny minority surrounded by millennia-old religious traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism makes this an urgent, and inescapable, theological challenge. Virtually all the major cases and documents that have come through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the last decade and a half, from Tissa Balasuriya to Jacques Dupuis to Dominus Iesus to Roger Haight, have pivoted on these fundamental questions. In the years to come, we can expect the question of Christian teaching about other religions to increasingly occupy the center of the research agenda in Catholic theology.

Traditional Sexual Morality: Catholics in the developing world tend to hold traditional views on matters of the family and sexual morality -- homosexuality, gender, and so on. As the South comes of age, the Catholic church will be proportionately less likely to tolerate liberal positions on these questions. For a point of comparison, consider the debate within the Anglican Communion after the consecration of an openly gay bishop in the United States. Anglicans worldwide number 76 million, but that includes 26 million in the Church of England, only 1.2 million of whom are regular communicants. Meanwhile, there are 17.5 million Anglicans in Nigeria and 8 million in Uganda, and in both places the vast majority is active. More than half the global membership of the Anglican Communion is today non-Western. Episcopalians in the States are only 2.4 million. The African bishops have declared that they are not in "full communion" with the Episcopalians, and some predict a formal schism.

Consider this comment, made just two weeks at a Sant'Egidio conference in Lyon, France, by Bishop Sunday Mbang, chairperson of the World Methodist Council: "I and many African Christians are always at a loss to comprehend the whole issue of human sexuality. What really informed the idea of same-sex marriage among Christians? What is the authority for this rather depraved new way of life? Then there is the issue of this same people, who have voluntarily excluded themselves from procreation, a gift given to all men and women by God, adopting other people's children. What moral right have they to do so? Why should people who do not desire to have children go after other people's children?"

Some suggest that as Africa develops economically, more relativized secular attitudes on sexual morality will take hold there as they have in much of the West. Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, told me some time ago that he finds this a patronizing Western conceit, as if to say, "Once the Africans get out of their huts and get some education, they'll think like us." He predicts that if anything, as Africa's self-confidence and development levels grow, it will become bolder about asserting its moral vision on the global stage.

Islam: Western Catholics, with a few well known exceptions, tend to emphasize dialogue and welcome with respect to Islam. Many Catholic bishops in the South, especially Africa, take a harder line, insisting that the church must stand up for itself in situations of conflict, especially in states where Islam is in the majority and seeks the application of Islamic law. This is likely to press the Catholic church towards a more cautious stance with respect to Islam, especially around issues of reciprocity -- that is, the obligation of Islamic states and regions to reciprocate the religious freedom and the protection of law offered to Islamic minorities in the West. Phenomena such as the $65 million Mosque in Rome, the largest in Europe, while the one million Christians in Saudi Arabia cannot legally import Bibles, will be less likely to pass under silence within church circles. We saw movement in that direction during Pope Benedict XVI's meeting with Muslims in Cologne, Germany, during World Youth Day, where he stated bluntly that a country that does not respect religious freedom is not worthy of the name "civilization," effectively suggesting that Muslim nations under shariah are not fully civilized. The rise of the South will increasingly push this sort of reflection about the relationship with Islam to the top of the church's agenda.

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These realities already are at work shaping the contours of Roman Catholicism. In many ways, they promise exciting times, as fresh voices are heard in Catholic debate and new energy pushes the church forward in theological exploration, in social engagement, and in spiritual expression. It's analogous in some ways to the early Christians encountering the Greco-Roman world, or the Christianity of the late Roman Empire adjusting itself to the rise of the Barbarian tribes, or the impact on Christian consciousness of the discovery of the so-called "New World" in the 15th and 16th centuries. We are living through another of those geological transitions in church history where the plates are realigned, giving rise to new ecclesial topography.

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At the same time, there's one dimension to this transition which needs to be faced honestly. Westerners, and perhaps Americans most of all, will have to face the simple fact that in this globalized church, their issues and concerns will, more and more, not set the agenda.

One kind of American Catholic, for example, might propose a different set of priorities for the church of the future, especially in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis: greater accountability for bishops, empowerment of laity, democratic and transparent procedures of administration, and a review of some questions of sexual morality. This should not be read to suggest that only Americans are concerned with these matters, or that all Americans are, but rather that Americans are proportionately more likely to rate these as top priorities than Catholics in some other parts of the world.

Without drawing conclusions on the merits, the plain truth is that most of these points are unlikely to be driving issues for the global church of the 21st century. In my experience, they do not come up much when you ask Africa, Asian and Latin America leaders about the key challenges facing the church. This does not mean Catholics from the South always oppose these things; in fact, Asian bishops, to take one example, are known for their relatively democratic and transparent style, and often think Rome could do with a little more of it. In general, however, they don't spend a great deal of time thinking in these terms.

Understanding how the rest of the Catholic world sees things is critical to effective communication. To give a concrete example, I recall vividly in April 2002, when John Paul II summoned the American cardinals to Rome, how astonished American reporters who followed them were to discover that from the point of view of many in the Vatican, the big religion story that spring was not the American sex abuse crisis, but the Israeli/Palestinian standoff at the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem. (It was a discovery all by itself that the sex abuse story was not on the front pages of Italian papers). There was a sort of crash-course that went on over those 48 hours; Vatican officials finally grasped the pressure-cooker media environment the American bishops had been dealing with, and at least some reporters got a window into what the American bishops were up against.

The bottom line is that in a globalized church, America's sense of what's important, which issues need immediate engagement and which can wait, what the pope ought to be thinking about when he gets out of bed in the morning, will increasingly yield pride of place.

This reality will pose a challenge to the "catholicity" of some American Catholics. How willing are we to see ourselves as part of a worldwide family of faith, even if things don't go the way we believe they should? To what extent can we accept that Roman Catholicism is a maddeningly complex welter of different, and at times competing, cultures, theological schools, political agenda and private instincts, the interplay among which always involves compromise, disappointment, and frustration? Can we bring ourselves to accept that the church before our eyes will probably never be the church of our dreams, and perhaps that's for the best, since our own dreams are always more limited than those of the entire communion spread across space and through time?

These are complicated, difficult questions, and thank God I'm not paid to have answers to them. I look forward to discussing them with you.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr.

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