Last week, Andrew M. Greeley, the well-known liberal priest and sociologist of all things Catholic gave a celebrity interview to his fans. Though his main interlocutor was Robert Orsi, the chairman of the religion department at Harvard, Father Greeley also took some questions from the audience, most of whose members were gathered here for the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion. One person asked about the potential for the lay group Voice of the Faithful to transform the church, another about whether nuns should return to wearing habits. Then a middle-aged woman in the back of the room asked Father Greeley about the changing face of the Catholic Church. The greatest growth in the world-wide Catholic population, she noted, has been coming for some years from new believers in South America and Africa, and the trend shows no signs of abating. What effect would this have on the church?
"We will depend on them for vitality," Father Greeley predicted. "But they will continue to depend on us for the ideas."
To judge by a murmuring restlessness in the crowd, more than a few audience members were surprised such a remark. It seemed -- how to put it? -- patronizing. Do people in the Global South have no ideas of their own? Is theirs a faith of pure emotion? Catherine Barsotti, a professor at Centro Hispano de Estudios Teológicos outside of Los Angeles who attended the talk, told me afterward that Father Greeley is, generally, "a voice of sanity in the Catholic Church, [someone who is] trying to get the church to hear people it doesn't like to hear." Which is why, she added, "I can't believe he meant what he said."
When pressed, though, Father Greeley didn't take back his remark. Instead he went further, waxing eloquent about how people in South America have a "whole different approach to religion." He marveled at the way that Catholics in Brazil ask people from "all different faiths" to pray for a sick child. He recommended going to Mexico "if you want to find out what the church was like before Trent." (He was referring to the 16th-century council that codified so much Roman Catholic doctrine.) He claimed that Mexicans "have patron saints for pick-pockets and prostitutes." Catholicism in Mexico is "a religion of joy and celebration. We have much to learn from them." Yes, it sounds like a compliment, but the condescension -- those people and their quaint ways -- is unmistakable.
Timothy Shah, a senior fellow in religion and world affairs at the Pew Forum, believes that Father Greeley's attitude is "fairly widespread" among academics and theologians in Europe and North America. (We are the smart ones; they are mere folk co-religionists.) He cites the recent controversy within the Episcopal Church over the issue of homosexuality. When African primates declared at the church's 1998 conference that homosexual practice is "incompatible with Scripture," the American bishop John Shelby Spong, of Newark, N.J., suggested that African Christianity is backward: "They've yet to face the intellectual revolution of Copernicus and Einstein that we've had to face in the developing world."
Mr. Shah does acknowledge that much of the wealth and many of the educational institutions within the major churches are located in Europe and North America. But, he argues, it's "just simple ignorance to assume that faith resides in the [Global South] but not reason." As John Paul II wrote in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio: "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth." It's hard to imagine the two wings attaching themselves to different continents.
In response to Father Greeley's comments and those of other scholars who agree with him, Mr. Shah cites the proliferation of institutions in Asia, South America and Africa that combine intellectual firepower with a serious faith commitment: Pentecostal universities in sub-Saharan countries, evangelical and Catholic schools in the Philippines and South Korea and South Africa. Then there are the many seminaries and universities in North America and Europe that have been set up by Christians from the Global South like the Oxford Center for Mission Studies founded by an Indian theologian, the Rev. Dr. Vinay Samuel. The center's governing board includes Kwame Bediako, a Ghanaian Presbyterian minister and the author of several impressive books on African Christianity.
But persuading North Americans and Europeans to have more respect for newcomers may be a losing battle, according to Philip Jenkins, the author of "The Next Christendom." Mr. Jenkins laughs knowingly when I ask him about this problem. "Every time there has been a shift in Christianity, older churches have always adopted this very patronizing attitude." He points to a dialogue that occurred in Constantinople in 970 between a leading cleric of the Orthodox Church and Liutprand, the Italian bishop of Cremona. The Orthodox cleric called Liutprand's beliefs "too young," suggesting that (in Mr. Jenkins's words) "the new churches simply do not have the intellectual capacity to understand the sophisticated theological debates then roiling the advanced world." Liutprand replied that the older churches are more decadent and prone to heresy. Indeed, Mr. Jenkins observes that often "new churches are the defenders of orthodoxy."
Father Greeley isn't exactly known as a defender of orthodoxy, of course. But he is ostensibly a believer in the multiculturalist ethic -- hearing "people the church doesn't want to hear." Well, up to a point.
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