The Catholic Church

By Allen, John L., Jr. | Foreign Policy, November-December 2008 | Go to article overview
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The Catholic Church


Allen, John L., Jr., Foreign Policy


From the outside, the Vatican appears resistant to change and tone-deaf to scandal. But, in truth, the world's oldest religious institution bears little resemblance to the mysterious church imagined by conspiracy theorists. Today, Catholicism is attracting millions of new and diverse followers who are embracing the church's traditions of debate and independence as gospel.

"The Catholic Church Is Shrinking"

No. Whether it is the global shortage of priests, the empty pews in former Catholic strongholds, or the slew of sex abuse scandals, it might seem as though the modern Catholic Church is in decline. In fact, the church is in the midst of the greatest period of growth in its 2,000-year history. The world's Catholic population grew from 266 million in 1900 to 1.1 billion in 2000, an increase of 314 percent. By comparison, the world population last century grew by 263 percent. The church didn't just hitch a ride on the baby boom; it successfully attracted new converts.

Yes, Catholicism is getting smaller in Europe, and it would be losing ground in the United States, too, were it not for immigration, especially among Hispanics. A recent Pew Forum study found that fully 10 percent of Americans are ex-Catholics. These declines, however, have been more than offset by growth in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, the number of Catholics grew a staggering 6,700 percent in the past century, from 1.9 million to 130 million. The Democratic Republic of the Congo today has the same number of Catholics as Austria and Germany put together. India has more Catholics than Canada and Ireland combined.

What's happening is not that Catholicism is shrinking, but rather, its demographic center of gravity is shifting. What was once a largely homogenous religion, concentrated in Europe and North America, is now a truly universal faith. In 1900, just 25 percent of Catholics lived in the developing world; today that figure is 66 percent and climbing. In a few decades, the new centers of theological thought will no longer be Paris and Milan, but Nairobi and Manila.

Today, fertility rates are falling across much of the developing world, so it's unlikely Catholicism can maintain the 20th century's spectacular gains during the next 100 years. In parts of Latin America, Africa, and Asia, Catholicism is being outpaced by its competitors, especially fast-growing evangelical and Pentecostal churches. Still, the single biggest challenge facing the Catholic Church is not coping with decline, but rather, managing the transition to a multicultural faith.

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"Catholicism Is Right Wing"

Only in part. It depends on your definition of "right wing," and, for that matter, of the church. It's true that the institutional structures of Catholicism are instinctively conservative. In the 19th century, Pope Gregory XVI actually blocked construction of railroads and gas lighting in the Papal States for fear of where such "unnatural" innovations might lead. It's also true that on controversial issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and embryonic stem cell research, official Catholic positions stand solidly with the cultural right.

Yet the church has always been more than its hierarchy, and grass-roots sentiment is anything but uniform. The United States offers a case in point. American Catholics were historically Democrats, and despite aggressive efforts by conservatives since the Reagan era to court them, there's still a sizeable liberal Catholic constituency. As proof, most opinion polls taken in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election showed Catholics evenly divided between Barack Obama and John McCain.

Even the official positions of the church would hardly draw a clean bill of health from secular conservatives. The late Pope John Paul II was the leading moral critic of both U.S.-led Gulf wars. Pope Benedict XVI has denounced the "false promise" of American-style free market capitalism and has emerged as an eloquent environmentalist.

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