I spoke last Wednesday at Trinity College Dublin’s Historical Society at a debate on whether the Catholic Church can be salvaged, along with Jerry Buttimer TD, Father Tony Flannery and Sinead O’Connor. Here is my contribution:
As always, thank you for inviting me. I can think of no better way to spend Darwin Day than to be discussing the future of the Catholic Church in a Protestant University.
I am going to argue that, in the long run, the Catholic Church cannot be salvaged.
My argument has nothing to do with the outrageous criminal offences they have committed against children throughout the world, or the outrageous coverup of those crimes by the Catholic Hierarchy. I think that has hastened their demise, but it would have happened anyway.
And it has nothing to do with who happens to be Pope. Pope Benedict wasn’t as bad as the media portrayed him, and Pope Francis isn’t as good as the media portrays him simply. Pope Benedict is not an evil monster simply because he has a James Bond villain smile, and Pope Francis is not a superhero simply because he can tie his own laces and walk across the street by himself.
Neither Pope, despite their different media images, has done a tap to change the theology of the Church in any important area.
Pope Benedict may believe genuinely that he has done a lot to stop child abuse within the Catholic Church, but he hasn’t taken the obvious moral step of realising that dealing with rapists is a job for the police.
Pope Francis may believe that he is being more compassionate to gay people by talking more gently about them, but he is not changing the theology of the Church that being gay is intrinsically morally disordered.
But regardless of who the Pope is, and regardless of their outrageous crimes, the reason that the Catholic Church doesn’t have a future in the long term is due to world demographics and internal Catholic Church demographics.
World and Catholic Church demographics
The world demographics are based on the World Values Survey.
This is an ongoing global research project by a team of interdisciplinary social scientists, who have been researching world values in a scientific way for the past twenty five years. They have discovered that two sets of values dominate the picture.
When individual people are focusing on survival values, then societies have traditional religious values.
But when investment in health, education, communications technology and democracy enable individuals to shift from survival values to self-expression values, that causes society to shift away from traditional religious values and towards secular rational values.
And that is happening throughout the world, at different speeds in different places, with the exception of Africa. Personal values have been shifting towards self-expression, and society values have been shifting towards secular-rational.
Now let’s compare that with the internal demographics of the Catholic Church.
In 1900 there were nearly 270 million Catholics, and three quarters of them lived in the Global North, mostly in Europe and North America.
By 2000 there were 1.1 billion Catholics in the world, and two thirds of them lived in the Global South, mostly in South East Asia, and Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa.
That is where the Catholic Church is demographically at the moment. And by the year 2050 it is estimated that three quarters of all Catholics will live in the Global South.
By the way, Global South in this context is not just a geographical term. It is shorthand for a particular type of society, and this can include some societies in the geographical north.
So that’s where the Catholic Church is. And it creates a huge dilemma for the Catholic Church centrally. Because it has to respond simultaneously to two entirely different sets of values.
Catholics in the Global North
In the Global North, for even most Catholics, the theology of the Catholic Church is seen as increasingly implausible to downright silly.
A poll in ireland recently, around the time of the Eucharistic Congress, showed that 75% of Irish Roman catholics don’t believe in transubstantiation – which is a key distinction between Catholicism and Protestantism.
50% of Irish catholics don’t believe in Hell. 15% of Irish catholics don’t believe Jesus was the son of God. And my personal favourite – 8% of Irish Catholics don’t believe in God, which I would have thought was a fairly low hurdle for being a Roman Catholic.
With regard to the moral claims of Catholic theology, most Catholics in the Global North don’t take the moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church seriously. They are a-la-carte Catholics, who use their own conscience, as normal people do.
And they base their conscience on compassion and empathy and cooperation and reciprocity and fairness and justice, not on what somebody wrote in a book two thousand years ago while believing that the creator of the universe was dictating the book to them.
But at the same time, a minority of Northern Catholics still evangelize traditional Catholic ideology. We have seen this in recent weeks in Ireland with John Waters and the Iona Institute, but it is far wider than that.
What is happening is that, as Catholicism becomes less sustainable because of its internal contradictions in the Global North, Catholics have two ways of approaching it.
Either they can become more secular, by accommodating the advances of science in terms of claims of reality and secular democracy in terms of claims of morality, or they can reject those developments and become more fundamentalist, and that is what some people are doing – a minority, but they are still there.
Catholics in the Global South
If you contrast that to the Global South, the Global South is much simpler to analyze, because it hasn’t had the economic development, and the subsequent move towards secular rationalism, that we have had in the Global North.
Here’s how John Allen, CNN’s Senior Vatican Analyst, describes the differences:
Catholics in the Global South are
- Far more likely to believe in the bible as the literal world of God.
- Far more likely to believe in supernatural interventions, such as miracles, possessions, and exorcisms.
- Far more likely to be very conservative on sexual morality issues, such as contraception, divorce, gay rights and abortion.
- Far more likely to be progressive on social justice issues, such as capitalism, race, war and the environment.
And that is where Roman catholicism is at the moment, It is not us sitting here in this room. That is where between two thirds and three quarters of Roman Catholics live today. That is the ideology of Roman Catholicism.
And frightening though it may seem to us, and bizarre though it may seem to us, the Iona Institute reflects Roman Catholic teaching, and Roman Catholic thinking around the world, far more than the liberal Catholics who oppose them in Ireland.
You can see these fault lines playing out the Anglican Church at the moment. Northern Anglicans are more supportive of gay marriage and gay bishops. Southern Anglicans are more likely to oppose those reforms.
The Catholic Church has the same fault lines, but they are suppressed because the Catholic Church is not democratic. But ultimately, the Catholic Church has to address this dilemma. And here is how I see its four main options.
Four Options for the Catholic Church
Option one is that they can theologically decentralize, and allow people to believe different things in the North and the South. But they can’t do that, because that goes against the core of Catholicism. So they won’t do that.
Option two is that they can try to continue their current policy of continuing to centralize their theology, but saying different things in different places. That’s what they have done all along. They have been the Fianna Fail of religion.
And they have operated that successfully from the start. In the Bible, Paul describes it as being all things to all men, and that is what they have tried to do.
One of the first examples in the BIble is when Paul was trying to convert people, and they understandably, being grown sensible adults, didn’t want to be circumcised. And Paul told them that they had to be, then he made a deal with the Jesus Disciples that new converts did not have to be circumcised but Jewish Christians did.
Which reminds me of my favorite joke about Catholicism, in which Paul tells the converts about this deal. He says “I have good news and bad news. The good news is you get to keep your foreskins. The bad news is you are not allowed to touch them.”
But they are not going to get away with that any more. Because we are in a world where that kind of double-talk won’t work, with instant communications and global communications.
So they have essentially two options left.
They can try to salvage the Global North, and lose the South. But they won’t get away with that, because the Southern majority won’t let them.
Or they can try to build in the Global South, and lose the Global North, which is what I suspect that they will do, after trying but failing to be all things to all men.
But their difficulty, if they do that, is that as well as losing their influence in the Global North, they will only keep their influence in the Global South for as long as the Global South remains underdeveloped.
And once the Global South becomes developed, then they will lose their influence there as well. And unlike Islamic States, who impose their religion by force, the Catholic Church would not get away with that, so they will be back to being just a normal religion.
And if the Global South does not develop, then they are just another religion, in just another part of the world. And they will just have to learn to live with that like the rest of the religions.
On the basis of all of those arguments, I oppose the motion.