Monday, 4 March 2013

The challenges facing the Church/1: Follow the money

 Many, at the moment,are focusing on the individual men who could be the next Pope.

I actually thought, in this interregnum period, that it might be useful to reflect on some of the challenges the Church faces, and that the Cardinals will surely be looking at as they select a new Pope.

We all know some of them: the abuse crisis; the collapse of belief in the West; and persecution of Catholics around the world.

But let's step back a bit, and look at some of the broader forces that will influence just how these challenges might play out.

I hate to be crass but...

Today, an overview of the shifting economic balances facing the Church, since those shifts will ultimately affect the Church for better or worse, for where the money comes from surely matters from several points of view!

Where the money comes from will inevitably influence Church priorities.  More to the point, shifts in economic and political power impact very directly on both the everyday lives of Catholics, and on the Church's mission of bringing the social reign of Christ, requiring the acknowledgment of him by all States, to fruition.

In order to understand the size of the challenge facing the Church, therefore, it is important to understand first that the balance of economic power in the world is shifting, and shifting fast.

In the sixteenth century, for example, the Church invested a huge missionary effort in the New World and Asia.  Why?  Genuine spiritual welfare motives aside, that was where the money was.  And things look as if they are headed back this way, as this chart from Andrew Feng of the Fung Global Institute nicely suggests:

Wealth and military might

Forget demographics for a moment, and let's focus on the shift in economic power.  As the chart above suggests, there has already been a major shift of economic - and thus inevitably military power - over the past few decades, and that is likely to accelerate in the near future.

It is simple: Europe is becoming relatively unimportant in the world; while Asia is rapidly becoming more important.

A few stats and a nice graph put together by Mark Perry of Carpe Diem blog illustrate the point.

In 1969, the fifteen nations of the European Union's world share of GDP was 36%; in 2011 it was 26%.

And in the same period, Asia's grew from less than 15% to 27%.

Where does the USA and Africa sit in this equation?  Both remained virtually unchanged, with the US having around 26%.

China and instability?

Will those trends continue?

Australians have been particularly focused on the implications of the rise of China, because our booming economy has become so dependent on it.  But India is the other fast growing economy in this region, followed by a group of countries like Indonesia.

And both China, India and to a lesser extent Indonesia present massive problems to the Church in terms of persecution.

Australia for one is busily developing policies to try and grab its economic stake in the 'Asian Century', without much attention, as far as I can see, to the potential impact on the moral and social structures that govern the interplay between nations.

Yet the problem for the world - and the Church - is that the likely trajectory of these countries in the future, both politically, socially and economically, is, in reality, extremely hard to predict.

On the one hand many forecast that China and other countries in the region will continue to see large increases in per capita income over the next few decades, driving ever stronger militaries to protect their economic interests.  At the same time, many hold out the hope that increases in standards of living that will in turn lead to pressure for liberalization and democratization.

But there is no guarantee of that, and every reason to doubt that outcome.

History matters

First, so far as pure economics goes, the lack of a growing workforce could completely undermine China's economy.  Its horrific one child policy is a demographic time-bomb for that country that could lead either to a huge implosion, or worse, military adventurism aimed at conscripting a workforce from elsewhere.

Closely related to that, historically, no country that overtly rejects God has ever lasted long.  We've already seen the collapse of the communist states of Eastern Europe, and personally I'd bet on something similar happening in China.  We've already seen the signs of a fight back from within against the one child policy, and the ongoing struggle between Vatican approved bishops and the 'Patriotic Society' also reflects the inherent internal tensions in that country.

That doesn't mean we'll see a Western style democracy with all its attendant 'civil rights' emerge out of the ashes however.  Just as we are seeing in the political settlements emerging out of regime changes in the Middle East, Russia and Eastern Europe, history and culture matters.

Asian countries simply do not share that Graeco-Roman cultural tradition that has shaped Europe and its (now former) colonies, and, all things being equal, they are far more likely to revert back to an old style autocracy, albeit with a return to the traditional or infiltrating new religions of those countries than anything else.

And that probably isn't good news for Catholics living in those countries.

Catholic Culture

There is, of course, an opportunity here for the Church to play a role in promoting a new international social, political and economic era.  Indeed, Pope Benedict made the case for such a role in his Encyclical Caritas in Veritate.

But it is less than obvious that the Church is actually in a position to do much in reality.

We all know the poor state of the Church in countries like Australia and the US, where all too many churches stand empty or are being sold off for want of priests and people.

And despite superficial appearances, I'm not sure things are all that much better in the East.

In the sixteenth century, those Christian missionaries brought not only a religion, but also a culture with them.

They taught their converts Latin and Gregorian chant; Western philosophy and more.  And what emerged out of that was a version of Catholicism that reflected both that Western synthesis, but also something that was native to those cultures.

Pope Benedict XVI spent his papacy vigorously defending the importance of that Western legacy.

Unfortunately, he was fighting an uphill battle against the forces that have, over the last several decades seen the Church busily strip herself of that great patrimony, and particularly anything of European origin in non-Western countries.

Rather than viewing Christianity's European trajectory as providential, relativism has taken root.  Under the banner of 'inculturation', we have seen the promotion of syncretism, and the undermining of the universality of the Church.

The decline of the culture in the East

Catholics often look with some optimism to the East, because priestly vocations are flourishing, nuns wear habits, and the laity often appear deeply committed, not least in the face of the persecution they face in many places.

Yet I would venture to suggest that all is not quite as rosy as it seems.

Priestly formation is often poor, and vocations insufficiently tested.

The liturgy is often problematic.  Traditional Latin Mass, for example, is virtually unknown in most Asian and African countries, and the traditional rites such as the Syro-Malabar are shadows of their former selves.

Instead, what thrives in many places is conservative only in the sense of adopting a rather clerically-centred style.  'Catholic' morality in those countries is more often aligned with the traditional norms of morality for that society - which may or may not align with Catholic ones.  And this is tied together with a 'worship style' often appears more evangelical in style than distinctly Catholic.

Worse, modernism and error have well and truly infiltrated most Asian countries.  Consider, for example, the Jesuit University in the Philippines that has been hotbed of seditious support for the 'Reproductive Rights Bill' there, despite its condemnation by the bishops.

The net result of all this, I suspect, is that in many cases, the potential for the Church to play a role in effecting a new and different political and economic settlement either in the potential big 'growth' countries, or the world more generally, is far from self-evident.

Yet this is surely one of the key strategy challenges that faces the Church.


John said...

I think your comment that attributes a purely economic motive for the efforts of the Church in the New World and Asia does not reflect the historical reality.

The writings of the School of Salamanca, and the work of people such as Bartolomé de las Casas, and Francisco de Vitoria reveal a genuine concern for the spiritual welfare of the indigenous populations. With regard to Asia we only have to think of the missioinary work of St Francis Xavier and his lament that not enough of the European clergy would come to evangelize.

Economic considerations do indeed have a role, even in the Church, but they are not the only factors.

Kate Edwards said...

I'm certainly not trying to suggest purely mercenary motives for evangelization, I agree with your points.

But I think history does indicate the two are interrelated, not least because the Church often sought to protect Indigenous populations through its evangelization of those who wanted to exploit them from a purely commercial perspective.

The point is that the Church has to pay attention to where the money flows, because economics impacts on its members and mission.