Congress session: A Global Church in a Globalized World: The Rise of the South in Roman Catholicism (John Allen Jr.)

This session, the second session with John Allen Jr., was the last session I had about the worldwide Church and the Vatican.  I was a little worried going in that Allen’s second session was going to have a lot of overlap with the first.  Again I was pleasantly surprised with the exception of a few statistics that were repeated from the first session.  Thankfully those statistics were well worth hearing twice.

This session instead of being about the Pope was about the changing demographics of the Church.  There is no better way to explain than to repeat the numbers John Allen Jr. gave us:

In 1900, there were a little under 500 million Catholics.  Of those, right around 400 million lived in the “global north” that includes Europe, western Asia (like Russia and the Holy Land), the United States and Canada.  That’s fully 80% of the Catholic population at the time.

From statistics taken in 2000, the worldwide Church as grown dramatically to 1.1 billion.  However, literally ALL of this growth as been in the “global south” that includes Latin America, Africa, and southern/eastern Asia (mostly the Philippines and India).  While the “global south” has been experiencing massive growth, the “global north” has been slowly shrinking to around 350 million.  This has resulted in a percentage drop to barely 30% of the worldwide Church.

We, particularly us Americans, like to think of the world in our terms and from our perspective.  We wonder why the Church doesn’t react more quickly to our problems.  It would do us a lot of good to think of the Church in these global terms.  There are twice as many Catholics in Mexico as their are in the US.  The US Catholic population of 67 million makes up 6% of the worldwide Church.  We are quite literally a puny minority in the Church.  As Allen put it: “Hopefully these number will help us to understand why the Pope doesn’t wake up with the problems of the US Church on his mind every morning.”

But despite these trends, the reality is that the clergy of the Church is still very much biased towards the northern Church.  While the US Catholic population is only 6% of the worldwide Church, fully 12% of bishops and 14% of priests are serving in the US.  If we think the priest shortage is bad in the US, we really have no idea.  The problem is FAR worse in other countries.  Additionally the US has twice (15) the number of cardinals than it deserves on a per-capita basis.

It is Allen’s belief (and I have no choice but to agree with him) that while the leadership may still be demographically biased to the north, it is only a matter of time before the leadership’s demographics will shift to reflect the Church as a whole.  This shift will significantly change the emphasis of the Church.

As an example of this was when the document concerning homosexuals in the priesthood came out last fall.  To much of the African clergy it felt like the Vatican was releasing a document saying “the sun is going to rise today” at 11:30 AM.  This analogy fits in two different fashions.  First of all, the global south is more conservative than the northern Church.  This is particularly true with matters of sexuality (and interreligious dialogue) so the statement seemed fairly obvious to them.  But more importantly, the issue of homosexuals just doesn’t show up on their radar.  They’ve got far bigger problems to deal with, ranging from genocide to AIDS (it’s interesting to note that the African bishops strongly support the Vatican’s ‘no condom’ policy) to Muslim repression of Christianity.  They’re dealing with matters of life and death, quite literally.  Just how ‘gay’ you can be before you’re not eligible for the priesthood seems like a trivial matter to them.

So what I took away from this session is that we as American Catholics are in strong need of a lesson in humility.  We are a very small block of the Church and need to remember that the world does not revolve around us.  We need to remember that what is important to us may not be important to the vast majority of the Catholic world.  We need to understand that what Vatican changes may have a positive impact on our local Church may have a negative impact on the Church as a whole.  We need to be generous enough to remember that our problems as American Catholics are insignificantly trivial when comparted to the problems that cause so much suffering in the larger portions of the Catholic world.

Or to steal/paraphrase from our only Catholic president:

“Ask not what the Church can do for you, but what you can do for your Church!”

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