On the surface, as the global thumbs-up from excited Christians goes to show, the surprise election of former Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a.k.a. Pope Francis, signals some bold new directions for the Catholic Church.
Geographically, the choice moves the center of gravity away from Europe and into the New World. As a matter of public relations, it re-directs attention away from the Ameri-centric and Euro-centric sex scandals (mercifully, many would say). And the very name “Francis” suggests a papal demeanor arguably more simpatico to many of the faithful than the fierce intellectualism of the preceding two popes — a Catholicism of the barrio and not just the baldacchino.
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In reality, though, and despite the hopes in some precincts for a radically overhauled Church, these departures amount to mere atmospherics. That’s because the chief conundrum facing the new Pope is the same as it was for the exceedingly aware emeritus Pope before him. It is a problem as vexatious for Rome whether in the Global South or in the affluent West, and more than any other earthly force it will decide the fate of all the churches: namely, the secularization of large parts of the formerly Christian world.
Evidence abounds that creeping godlessness is not just some European thing. According to Baylor University’s Philip Jenkins, one of the foremost authorities on these numbers, across Latin America “signs of secularization appear that would have been unthinkable not long ago.” Nine percent of Brazilians now report themselves “nones,” for instance, as in “none of the religious above,” and as with the “nones” in America, the number is higher among the young. Forty percent of Uruguayans now profess no religious affiliation. Nor is the new Pope’s home country exempt from the trend – quite the contrary. Political dictatorship may be over, but the “dictatorship of relativism” deplored by emeritus Pope Benedict is alive and kicking in an increasingly secular Argentina.
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Then there is state-of-the-art god-forsaking Western Europe. Across the Continent, elderly altar servers shuffle in empty, childless churches; monasteries and chapels are remade into spas, apartments, or mosques; protests, including violent protests, now regularly greet any Pope who leaves Rome. Yes, there are remarkable renewal movements here and there, for the sheer ferocity of aggressive secularism has inadvertently energized a Christian counter-culture. But the secular forest still grows faster than the religious trees. One recent British survey found that about 20 percent of respondents could not say what event was commemorated by Easter.
As for the United States, it remains true that Americans are more religiously inclined than Europeans. Even so, here too the trend is clear. To judge by statistics on items like attendance and affiliation and out-of-wedlock births, say, America’s religious tomorrow is just Denmark’s yesterday.
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So what’s a Pope to do? He can start by understanding one critical truth that has not been well understood so far: the puzzle of secularization is not only his to solve. Secular sociology has written the intellectual script about how godlessness happens but has gotten it wrong.
Secularization is not, for example, the inevitable result of affluence, as many have said; statistically, men and women who are better-off in the United States today, for example, are more likely to believe and practice faith than are those further down the economic ladder. The same was true of Victorian England, as the British historian Hugh McLeod has painstakingly shown. Mammon alone does not necessarily drive out God.
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Is secularization then the inevitable result of increased rationality and enlightenment, as the new atheists and other theorists claim? Here again, the empirical fact that the well-educated Mormon, say, is more likely to be someone of faith would appear to confound that theory. Is secularization then the result of the world wars, as still others have supposed? If so, it is hard to see how countries with different experiences of those wars – neutral Switzerland, vanquished Germany, victorious Great Britain — should all lose their religions in tandem, let alone why countries untouched by the wars should follow suit.
And on it goes. Modern sociology can tell us many things, but about the elemental question of why people stop going to church — or for that matter, why they start — the going theories have all come up short. Contrary to what secular soothsayers have believed, evidence suggests that secularization is not inevitable, and neither is it a linear process according to which decline is an arrow pointing ever downward. Rather, and crucially, religion waxes and wanes in the world — strong one moment, weaker the next — for reasons that still demand to be understood.
From the point of view of the new occupant of the Papal Apartments in a time of flickering faith, this is countercultural and potentially excellent news.