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wSunday, April 10, 2005




A LETTER FROM MYSELF: This piece appeared in Canada's National Post on April 4 (in the special JP2 section) without any bio line. I created it in the Summer of 2002 while I was working out of Reason magazine's California offices. I was a Baptist when I wrote it, obviously, and my thinking on these matters has undergone some migration, but I still agree with most of the analysis contained herein.

His Holiness
Next pope likely from Third World: Pontiff will have to overcome new north-south tension

by Jeremy Lott

The death of Karol Wojtyla was long expected but it was still an almost unimaginably sad event. He is mourned by the world's billion plus Catholics and by multitudes of non-Catholic Christians, including this nominal Baptist.

John Paul II's departure has jump-started the historical apparatus of a weary but still great institution, which is about to chart a new course. As we await the outcome of the conference of Cardinals, when the bonfire of the ballot cards will signal the uncontestable election of a new pope, I have been asked to chime in with a few words for the new bishop of Rome, whoever he may be.

It's hard to resist the who's-it-going-to-be-guessing game. First of all, he probably won't be European or North American or white, but not for any of the usual politically correct reasons. As Philip Jenkins argues in his groundbreaking book, The Next Christendom, the areas where the Christian faith is advancing rather than receding are Africa, Latin America and much of Asia. This has produced a split in religious temperament between the "global north" -- what many call "the West" -- and the "global south" -- nations that were once written off as "the Third World."

In communions that make claims to universality, leaders of the global south -- with its frank supernaturalism and moral traditionalism -- are more and more in the driving seat. Witness the Anglican schism where liberal bishops have been enraged by the declarations on homosexuality (firmly against). Witness also the hullabaloo over the African and Asian bishops who decided Britain and North America needed to be "re-evangelized" by sending in missionaries. One angry U.S. bishop replied that missionaries are not to be used as "intercontinental ballistic missiles."

There is no religious body more universal than the Catholic Church, so the Vatican has begun to feel the effects of this shift, even if it may not have fully realized what is occurring. Indeed, even as John Paul II made great strides to mend the old schism of East and West, the Orthodox had begun to atrophy due to age, secularism and few births. By the middle of this century, they may constitute as little as 4 percent of the world's population.

Meanwhile, a new tension is growing, running north to south. As active faith shrinks in Europe and North America along with the native populations, many of those who remain chafe under what they regard as the undue burden of the magisterium -- the teaching authority -- of the Church (e.g., the endless griping in the United States over overseeing Catholic colleges, Catholic doctrine on sex, etc.). Those in the rapidly expanding south, however, are more likely to want firm guidelines for how to deal with the surrounding religions while still keeping to the authentic faith. They often live in political climates where the possibility of martyrdom is real and fresh to their memories.

Such wildly different experiences and viewpoints will make the next few decades into trying ones for those who value the unity of the Church. To get a glimpse, imagine sitting down delegates from the Southern Baptist Convention and the World Council of Churches in the same room and telling them all not only to get along but to come to some basic agreements. Now amplify that by a factor of three or four, and shake well. For better or worse, this is the state of the Church that the next pope will inherit.

Advance warning is often invaluable, but it's unclear how the pontiff should address this problem. Most approaches could, and would, lead to tragic consequences. For instance, the next bishop of Rome could take a nearly hands-off approach, allowing the bishops in the various countries and dioceses to govern as they see fit and do as they please. And then we'd have another repeat of the U.S. sex scandals. Or, alternatively, he could seek a middle way. In which case, he would be simultaneously damned and ignored by both parties, for monstrous stridency and limp-livered leniency. That's a scenario that even Joseph Heller couldn't have improved upon.

The problem is that the pope, as pope, is charged with leading a Church that is composed of many stubborn people who will moan and gripe at his every move and utterance. In business, such organizational hurdles are overcome with all sorts of Dilbert-like manoeuvres -- with "mission statements" and a focus on "core competencies" and the like -- and, most importantly, by firing people. While this last option may indeed be a good way to deal with some errant priests and bishops, the next pope doesn't have the luxury of "firing" all the Catholics with whom he disagrees, and mass excommunications would be likely to produce more trouble than they're worth.

The reader may at this point be asking, is there anything that this next pope -- this likely southern pope -- can do to bring some semblance of order and direction to his chaotic institution? As it happens, there is. He can shift the focus outward. The Church is at its best when it focuses on the mission it has held in trust since the time of Christ: to save souls. When it loses sight of this trust -- and one could note copious historical examples -- it gets bogged down in its own theological and ecclesiological controversies, usually to no good end.

Upon election, the next pope should reiterate John Paul II's call to a "new evangelization," but with added fervour. He should make it his mission to scatter the seeds of faith as far and as wide as he can toss them, and leave it up to God to preserve His faith -- and His Church -- in spite of it all.

posted by Jeremy at 7:27 AM