Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Getting Out of Rome
America's Role in the Future of the Church

By David G. Young

Washington DC, April 15, 2008 --  

The Pope's American visit highlights the Church's difficulty leading the world's Catholics so long as the Church remains a backward-thinking European club.

Pope Benedict XVI's arrival in Washington today inaugurated a trip that is full of contradictions. The Pope is certain to be warmly welcomed by the region's large Catholic population -- the federal district was once part of America's Catholic colony of Maryland, and Catholics have flooded into the area in recent decades from Central America. But it is equally clear that Benedict has a bone to pick with America as a driving force behind the secular culture he reviles. For the Pope, to travel from Rome to Washington is to venture into the belly of the beast.

To be sure, there is much to criticize in America. The country's rampant consumerism, and disturbing pockets of poverty are enough to make even secular observers shake their heads. Americans are obsessed with work, home ownership, buying big televisions, and bigger cars. These obessions come at the expense of the family. America's children are warehoused in day care centers while mothers pursue their careers -- a pursuit followed either as a means to buying more stuff, or as an end in itself.

For a church that expects obedience, an American Catholic is a problem child. Refusal to follow Church teachings -- most infamously its prohibition against birth control, and its insistence on political opposition to abortion rights -- is common in America. Just over half of weekly Catholic churchgoers say that the Church is out of touch with American Catholics, a sentiment shared by nearly 70 percent of Catholics who attend services less often.1

To Benedict, this disobedience and dissent is unwelcome and unacceptable. A wiser man, however, would be grateful for it -- at least Americans care enough to disagree. This is not true for their counterparts on Benedict's side of the Atlantic, where the people have largely abandoned the Church.

While 41 percent of American Catholics attend church regularly2, less than 10 percent of people in nominally Catholic France attend church at least once a week.3 Many American Catholics seem to have made their own unilateral peace with the Church. They continue to attend services and donate to their parishes, while simply ignoring the Church's more backward teachings.

South of the border, Catholics have taken yet another tactic. Rather than give up on religion like many Western Europeans, Mexico's disaffected Catholics have chosen to join new religions. Once a nearly universally Catholic country, a drive through rural Mexico today will pass a regular steam of cinderblock evangelical churches.

These defections should be particularly troubling for the Vatican given that Latin America is home to the largest population of Catholics in the world -- the new Catholic heartland, if you will. But the Church elite remains holed up in Rome, stuck in the past idea of Europe as the center of Christendom. Of the College of Cardinals that elects the Pope, a stunning 48 percent come from Europe but only 20 percent from Latin America4, despite the fact that the Europe is home to less than a quarter of the world's nominal Catholics5 -- and very few of these Europeans ever go to church, anyway.

This Eurocentrism clearly isn't working well for the Church. While much hubbub was expressed over Pope Benedict's recent baptism of a Muslim Italian convert6, the bigger picture is quite different. Just this year, the number of Muslims in the world has eclipsed the number of Catholics for the first time in world history.7

If this backward thinking continues long enough alongside current trends, Catholicism will one day suffer the same fate as Judaism. Catholics will find themselves relegated to tiny minorities worldwide, except in a small Catholic homeland around Vatican City, struggling for survival.

If the Catholic leadership wants to reverse these trends, then embracing the dissident thoughts of American Catholics would be a productive place to start. America's excessive consumerism and lost family focus are nice problems to solve, but without future Catholics to follow Church teachings, focusing solely on these problems will go nowhere fast. The time for the Church to lose its European focus, and embrace its more modern-thinking leaders in the Western Hemisphere, is long overdue.


1. Washington Post, US Catholics Support Benedict in Poll, April 15, 2008

2. Pew Research Center, A Portrait of American Catholics on the Eve of Pope Benedict's Visit, March 27, 2008

3. World Values Survey, 2001

4. BBC, Analysis: Choosing the next pope, February 21, 2001

5. Christian Science Monitor, Global South as growing force in Catholic Church, April 5, 2005

6. Reuters, Pope Baptizes Famous Muslim Convert, March 22, 2008

7. Reuters, Muslims more numerous than Catholics: Vatican, March 30, 2008