I happen to groove on population statistics, but I realize that for most people they rival watching paint dry, or the heartbreak of psoriasis, as a good time. Faced with a new report from the Pew Forum on the global Christian population, therefore, let's start with a few deliberately bold assertions to get the blood moving.
All Things Catholic
John L. Allen Jr., NCR senior correspondent, writes weekly on the goings-on in Vatican and in the church around the world.
Marco Politi, to be sure, has a point of view. A veteran Italian journalist and commentator, mostly for the leftist La Repubblica, Politi's sympathies clearly run to the Catholic church's progressive wing. It thus may be tempting to see his critical new book on Benedict XVI, titled Joseph Ratzinger: Crisis of a Papacy, as the predictable grumbling of someone who just doesn't like what this pope stands for.
I've said this so often I probably ought to have it printed on T-shirts: The most important Catholic story of our time is the demographic shift from the global north to the south, with two-thirds of the Catholics in the world today living in the southern hemisphere, a share that will rise to three-quarters by the middle of the century.
Next month will mark the 10-year anniversary of the explosion of the sexual abuse crisis, triggered by a January 2002 article in the Boston Globe on Fr. John Geoghan, accused of abusing more than 130 children over a 30-year career. (Geoghan was killed in prison in August 2003.)
Benedict XVI said he came to Benin, a country of eight million in West Africa, to deliver a message of hope. Throughout the Nov. 18-20 trip, he repeatedly invoked the image of Africa as a "spiritual lung" for humanity, praising its deeply religious worldview and stressing that the joy, resilience and traditional moral values of Africa are precious gifts to the world.
It may seem counterintuitive that an 84-year-old German intellectual should be the Western leader most enthusiastic about Africa, yet it actually makes all the sense in the world. Spiritually speaking, Africa is a superpower -- both the world's largest manufacturer and consumer of religion. For a pope who has spent a lifetime lamenting the "death of God" in Europe, Africa can't help but seem an oasis of vibrant faith.
Africans seemed to return the sentiment.
During their fall meeting this week in Baltimore, the U.S. bishops heard a report from their new Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, led by Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn. It's a measure of how seriously the bishops take the subject that the committee includes heavyweights such as Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington as well as Archbishops Charles Chaput of Philadelphia and Wilton Gregory of Atlanta.
It sounds like the setup to a classic religion joke: A rabbi, an archbishop and a reporter walk into a bar.
Instead, it was my Tuesday night, as I moderated a public conversation in New York between Archbishop Timothy Dolan and Rabbi Naomi Levy, staged at the city's famed 92nd Street Y.
In two weeks Pope Benedict XVI will make his second visit to Africa, spending Nov. 18-20 in the West African nation of Benin. No one from the Vatican has asked me for advice on the trip, but I’m going to offer some here anyway.
In a nutshell, it’s this: Try to handle the condoms question more artfully. It would be nice if the pope’s second outing to Africa isn’t utterly capsized by the latest round of “condom-gate.”
To be concrete, I’ll volunteer three thoughts on a communications strategy.
- Don’t pretend the pope can go to Africa and duck questions about condoms and AIDS, especially because he’s muddied the waters himself with some recent comments. But also don’t pretend that he can just toss off a few casual remarks without inviting a media frenzy.
- Make sure whatever Benedict says is presented in a way, and at a time, that doesn’t overshadow other storylines about Africa that deserve to register in the West.
Rome saw a striking coincidence this week, which could be either simple luck or a sign of things to come. There were two big-ticket Vatican news flashes, Monday's note on reform of the international economy and Thursday's summit of religious leaders in Assisi. In both cases, the same Vatican official was a prime mover: Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
Two-thirds of the world's Catholic population today is in the southern hemisphere, a share that should reach three-quarters by mid-century. To discern where the church is headed, it's critical to keep an eye on what's bubbling down south, and two recent stories thus deserve to be on the global Catholic radar screen.