Global South Will Shape the Future Catholic Church

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, October 7, 2005 | Go to article overview
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Global South Will Shape the Future Catholic Church


Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter


If, as Mark Twain once said, "a conclusion is generally where someone got tired of thinking," then we Catholics need 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."

The same document, filtered through two different cultural perspectives, produced diametrically opposite reactions. Church officials in a globalized world have to be concerned today not merely with how something will play in Peoria, but also in Beijing, in Tehran, in Kinshasa and in Kiev.

Let me offer a few rather random facts and figures about global Catholicism and try to tease out a few implications.

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.

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 eight cardinals (four electors); Mexico, with five cardinals (four electors); and the Philippines, with two cardinals (one elector). In the last conclave, American votes counted for more than Mexico, Brazil and the Philippines combined, 11 to nine. 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, the United States has been at the top of the heap for too long.

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.

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.

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