Dear Concerned Citizen,
In his recent book The Next Christendom, historian Philip Jenkins offers a provocative thesis. Christianity, he argues, is becoming a Third World religion. What this means is that both Catholicism and Protestantism, once anchored in Europe, with followers mainly in Europe and America, are now growing rapidly in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The new face of Christianity is no longer white and blond but yellow and black and brown.
Philips has the figures to prove it. Of the 2 billion Christians in the world today, 560 million are in Europe and 260 million are in America. In comparison, there are 480 million Christians in Latin America and 313 million in Asia and 360 million in Africa. Non-Western Christians are already in the majority, their lead is substantially bigger when you consider not just nominal but active or “practicing” Christians, and demographic trends make it likely that the gap will become even greater in the future.
The new face of Christianity is significant, Jenkins points out, because Asian and African and Latin Christians are overwhelmingly conservative. They are theologically conservative and socially conservative. The Catholics among them are not enthusiastic about women priests or allowing priests to marry. The Protestants among them are virtually “fundamentalist” in their reading of the Bible: they take it seriously and, in general, literally. Both groups are strongly opposed to homosexual ordination, homosexual marriage, and the easy availability of divorce and abortion.
Recently there was a wave of anxiety in the American Catholic Church over reports that the Vatican is considering an outright ban on homosexual clergy. The Catholic Church has always opposed homosexual conduct, of course, but it has typically distinguished between homosexual acts (the sin) and homosexuals (the orientation). So homosexuals who take vows of celibacy are eligible for ordination.
Now, however, Rome is reconsidering. Part of the reason, no doubt, is the so-called pedophilia scandals, which for the most part are not about pedophilia at all. Pedophilia—the attraction of adult males to young children—is extremely rare in the general population, and one can expect it is rare among Catholic priests as well. Most of the church scandals have involved adult male priests seducing young Catholic men, typically seminarians in their late teens or early twenties. Not unreasonably, the Vatican is examining whether the continued practice of ordaining homosexuals is likely to perpetuate this problem. American parishes—especially the “pink parishes” where gay priests make up an influential subculture—are reportedly nervous.
Whatever the Vatican decides on this matter, it’s clear that the last few decades have witnessed a conservative tide in American Catholicism. This conservative era began with Pope John Paul II and now it seems likely to continue with Pope Benedict. But what are the reasons for this new age of Catholic conservatism? One answer, of course, is that the last pope and the current pope are theologically conservative, but that only begs the question: why are theological conservatives like this being elected to the papacy?
According to Jenkins, the leaders of the major Christian denominations are quickly figuring out that their major constituencies are not in the West but in places like Manila, Seoul, Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, and Mexico City. In Jenkins’ view the new conservatism of the Vatican is partly a response to the realization that the new face of the Catholic faithful is conservative. Liberal Catholics may be a majority within the West, but Western Catholics are a diminishing minority within Catholicism. “Of course the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church are so very conservative,” Jenkins writes. “They can count.”
Jenkins shows that these changes are also being felt in Protestant groups. A few years ago, at the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops, liberal figures from America and Europe introduced a resolution promoting homosexuality as compatible with Christian teaching. Not only was the resolution overwhelmingly voted down, mainly by the votes of Asian and African bishops, but the Third World Anglicans proceeded with their own resolution condemning homosexual conduct as antithetical to Christianity. So angry was liberal bishop John Spong of New Jersey that he accused the Asian and African clergy of advocating “a very superstitious kind of Christianity” not far removed from ancient paganism and animism! Thus does the veil of liberal multiculturalism and tolerance fall to the ground when liberal pieties are questioned by politically incorrect Third World people.
The liberal project to tame Third World Christianity is bound to fail because most Asian, African, and Latin American Christians simply do not agree with liberals on the key religious and moral issues. Liberals will continue to be disappointed by them. By contrast, the moral conservatism of Third World Catholics and Protestants is very good news to theological and social conservatives in the West. And the long-term implications are huge.
Conservative Catholics and Protestants in America are learning to put aside their quarrels of three hundred years ago in order to ally on important social and moral issues like abortion and gay marriage and the role of faith in public life. The next step, a crucial one, is for this new alliance of Western Christians to make common cause with their conservative counterparts in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Such a coalition would not only change the face of Christianity, it would change the face of the modern world.