The pope's global reach
By Phillip Blond International Herald Tribune
Thursday, April 17, 2008
When Pope Benedict XVI addresses the United Nations today, he will be the only truly global figure in the assembly. His church has a presence in every nation, yet it transcends them all and owes loyalty to none. His flock numbers more than a billion and grows by 28,000 every day.
Fifty years ago, nobody would have thought the papacy would wield influence like this today. Several factors have combined to make it so: the rise of radical Islam; the bankruptcy of secular Western values, and the return of religion as a global political force.
In this age of economic globalization and planetary climate change, nation-states are retreating to the 19th century politics of national self interest and competing spheres of influence. With nations unable to make common cause, the global stage is increasingly being left to three transnational actors: capitalism, Islam and Catholicism.
The influence of the Catholic Church as the world's largest Christian denomination is only increased by what its critics most dislike: its unity, universality and sense of mission.
Protestant Christianity is too private, fragmented and diverse to operate on a global stage. Orthodox Christianity has never transcended national interests. Islam has no governing center and so is liable to manipulation by its radical extremes, while both Hinduism and Judaism remain restricted by race and inheritance.
Perhaps only Buddhism has achieved a similar unity and universality, but it is indifferent to politics and social transformation - it becomes active only when its own religious practice is threatened.
With the failure of secular idealisms, a religion that can transform the social, political and spiritual life of the whole world becomes a global player. The organizational ability, worldwide structure and focus of Catholicism allows it to stand proxy for all Christians.
Moreover it is a constituency that, contrary to popular belief, is growing. In 1800, when there were fewer than a billion people on Earth, only 22.7 percent of the world's population was Christian; today, with a world population of over 6.6 billion, 33.3 percent are Christian.
What is more, growth rates for Christianity are static or falling only in Islamic nations and Western Europe. In the Americas, rates of church participation are high and relatively stable; churches lose members to each other, not to atheism.
The real story of the past century is the enormous rise of Christianity in Africa, Oceania and Asia. According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, church attendance in Africa rose from under 9 million in 1900 to more than 423 million today. The figures for Asia are equally startling, if there were about 20 million Asian Christians in 1900, today there are 355 million active members of a Christian church.
With the exception of eastern Europe where churches underwent a post-communist renaissance, the current increase in Christianity is almost wholly in the southern hemisphere. In 1900, the north accounted for 82.3 percent of all Christians. By 2025, 68 percent will be in the southern hemisphere.
These figures are not all good news for the Catholic Church. The increase in the southern hemisphere is largely in Pentecostal and charismatic Protestant denominations, and not in traditional churches.
China is a case in point. In 1949, when the Communist Party came to power, there where less than a million Protestants in China; today their number is close to 100 million, and by 2050, that number is expected to reach 218 million. At this level China would be the second most populous Christian nation on earth, but it would be 90 percent Protestant.
It is noteworthy that the conversion of Chinese - and of Africans - to Christianity really took off when colonial powers left and foreign missionaries were expelled. That enabled indigenous structures to develop, and Christianity spread rapidly.
The challenge for the Catholic Church, therefore, is to allow home-grown structures to develop while keeping them under the auspices of the universal church. The task is made all the harder by the dearth of candidates for the priesthood. Rethinking on celibacy is sorely needed.
Thus Pope Benedict's task is a familiar one - to blend the universal aspirations of Catholicism with local conditions and context. This requires courage, vision and transformation.
Benedict has also opened the first serious dialogue in centuries with Islam, the fastest growing world faith. With 1.3 billion adherents, Islam has overtaken Catholicism. The Vatican has contested the exclusion and persecution of Christians in Muslim countries.
The pope's controversial address at Regensburg was an important theological critique of Islamic nominalism, which denies God's immanent presence in the world. It stimulated academic Islam to begin to challenge fundamentalist interpretations.
Benedict is now expected to issue an encyclical on the social teaching of the church. This presents a unique opportunity: If the pope challenges both capitalism and state authoritarianism at the same time, he can open genuine social and political alternatives to the prevailing order.
Christianity last ruled when it was at its most ambitious - when the Church overthrew the Western warlords in the 10th century and qualified the logic of war with a universal European peace.
The opportunity today is different and potentially greater: the pope could be the bearer of a universal idealism that the people of the world no longer hear from their national leaders.
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