John Allen on the Global Church


Allen proves himself again to be the man when it comes to Americans covering the Church. This week's word contains a snippet about the homosexuality issue, but most of it is a talk Allen gave to in Chicago about the global Church. It's quite good.

I'll say it again: the paper he writes for is not at all recommended reading, but Allen's reporting is always accurate, fair and insightful - and when it comes to journalism, that's the Triple Crown.

Some snippets follow, but if you have the time, the whole thing is worth reading:

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 opposed reactions. Catholicism finds itself increasingly faced with the challenge of making room for the instincts, concerns, and aspirations of an astonishing variety of cultural backgrounds. Church officials in a globalized world have to be concerned not merely with how something will play in Peoria, but also in Beijing, in Tehran, in Kinshasa, and in Kiev.

In all the reporting I ever read about Dominus Iesus (caveat: I wasn't this much of a newshound when it came out), I never saw coverage of any positive effects it was having on dialogue. This bit about the Russian Orthodox is nice to hear.

He then analyzes the Church's changing global demographics, demonstrating that the future of the Church in terms of growth is the so-called "global south." From here, he makes some predictions as to what the top issues in Rome will be in coming years/decades:

Inculturation" ...Striking the right balance between unity and diversity will be a defining challenge in the church of the future, especially as a faith incubated in Europe and the West continues to expand and come of age in cultures with very different attitudes, instincts and modes of expression. Generally speaking, theologians and prelates from the developing world will push for greater freedom to adapt Eurocentric models of worship and doctrinal expression of the Western church to their own circumstances. Further, as immigration and cultural mobility increasingly bring the South to the doorstep of the West, the patterns of thought, life and worship of the South will more and more be part of the warp and woof of the church everywhere...

Poverty/Globalization: ...For many African Christians, the defining issues for the church are not the usual topics in the West -- birth control, women in the church, theological dissent, and so on. African Catholics will of course have different views on these questions, but by and large the overwhelming majority of Southerners regard them secondary. The truly urgent matters, they tend to believe, are poverty, war, the arms trade, HIV/AIDS, and structural reform of the international economic system...

Religious Pluralism: There's a sense in which Asian Catholicism is to the Catholic church today what Latin America was in the 1970s and 1980s, that is, the frontline of the most important theological question of the day. In Latin America, the debate was over liberation theology, and more broadly, the proper relationship between Christianity and politics. Today, it's over what theological sense to make of religious diversity, meaning whether or not we can say that God wills religious diversity, and if God does will it, what does that do to Christianity's missionary imperative?...

Traditional Sexual Morality: ...As the South comes of age, the Catholic church will be proportionately less likely to tolerate liberal positions on these questions... Some suggest that as Africa develops economically, more relativized secular attitudes on sexual morality will take hold there as they have in much of the West. Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, told me some time ago that he finds this a patronizing Western conceit, as if to say, "Once the Africans get out of their huts and get some education, they'll think like us." He predicts that if anything, as Africa's self-confidence and development levels grow, it will become bolder about asserting its moral vision on the global stage.

Islam: ...Many Catholic bishops in the South, especially Africa, take a harder line, insisting that the church must stand up for itself in situations of conflict, especially in states where Islam is in the majority and seeks the application of Islamic law. This is likely to press the Catholic church towards a more cautious stance with respect to Islam, especially around issues of reciprocity... Phenomena such as the $65 million Mosque in Rome, the largest in Europe, while the one million Christians in Saudi Arabia cannot legally import Bibles, will be less likely to pass under silence within church circles...

His concluding remarks are worth citing:

The bottom line is that in a globalized church, America's sense of what's important, which issues need immediate engagement and which can wait, what the pope ought to be thinking about when he gets out of bed in the morning, will increasingly yield pride of place.

This reality will pose a challenge to the "catholicity" of some American Catholics. How willing are we to see ourselves as part of a worldwide family of faith, even if things don't go the way we believe they should? To what extent can we accept that Roman Catholicism is a maddeningly complex welter of different, and at times competing, cultures, theological schools, political agenda and private instincts, the interplay among which always involves compromise, disappointment, and frustration? Can we bring ourselves to accept that the church before our eyes will probably never be the church of our dreams, and perhaps that's for the best, since our own dreams are always more limited than those of the entire communion spread across space and through time?

My take: if American Catholics can come to grips and adjust in a healthy way to being a small part of a global community, we can be an example for the rest of the country.

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This page contains a single entry by Papa-Lu published on September 25, 2005 4:09 PM.

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