We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Acknowledging the Shift

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis I
The election of an Argentinean  cardinal as pope simply acknowledges the reality of the fundamental shift taking place in global Christianity.  Over the span of 20 centuries, the demographic "heart" of the faith was first located in the eastern Mediterranean, but within a few centuries that center shifted to Europe, where it long remained.  Beginning in the 20th century, however, we have been witnessing a dramatic shift southward from Europe into Africa, Latin America, and Asia.  This shift actually began centuries ago when the Catholic Church and then Protestant churches engaged in  aggressive missionary campaigns around the world.  In a 2001 article entitled, "From Christendom to World Christianity: Missions and the Demographic Transformation of the Church," Prof. Andrew Walls concludes, "...there has been a century-long process of cross-cultural diffusion of Christianity with the Western missionary as a connecting terminal; and the most curious feature of the process is that during the period in which the Christian faith crossed cultural frontiers into African and Asian communities it lost its hold on much of the West."

The latest evidence of how even the United States, which remains significantly more religious that western Europe, is involved in this shift comes from data collected by sociologists from the University of California, Berkeley, and Duke University, which according to a news posting in the Huffington Post (here) shows that in the U.S., "the number of people who do not consider themselves part of an organized religion has jumped dramatically in recent years."  This is not even news anymore, but the election of Pope Francis I does provide further evidence concerning just how far the demographic shift southward has gone.  For Americans, his election also requires a reorienting of our usual social-political categories of liberal and conservative.  From what's been published thus far, it appears that Francis I is very liberal on social justice issues having to do with capitalism and the poor and painfully conservative on the question of homosexuality.  Catholicism frequently has a deep concern for social justice, and we can only wonder how long it will be until the Catholic Church finally learns to extend that heart to all of God's children.