Pope Francis is a Pope of the global South, with good PR in the global North

The Irish Times today published some short opinions by non-Catholics about Pope Francis.

There are views from Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, Methodist, Jewish, Muslim and atheist backgrounds, as well as the former chief executive of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church.

This is my contribution, slightly edited in the published version.

Pope Francis is a Pope of the global South with good PR in the global North. He is conservative on sexual morality issues, though diplomatic about it. He is progressive on social issues, such as the plight of the poor. And he is theologically regressive, talking frequently about the devil and endorsing an organisation of exorcists.

But the future of Catholicism will be shaped more by world demographics than by the personality of Pope Francis. Religion thrives most where people are focusing on survival values. Two in every three Catholics now live in the global South, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and South-East Asia.

So Pope Francis has to appeal to Catholics with very different values. In the North, Catholic claims about reality are increasingly seen as unbelievable, and Catholic claims about morality are increasingly ignored. In the South, Catholics are more likely to believe in miracles and exorcisms, to be conservative on sexual issues, and progressive on social justice issues.

Pope Francis therefore has four options. He can allow the Church to decentralise its theology, and risk losing the core of Catholicism.  He can try to spread different theological messages to different regions, which is not sustainable given global communication. He can focus on salvaging the Church in the North, and risk alienating the South. Or he can focus on building the Church in the South, and risk losing the North.

In the long run, if the World Values Survey is accurate, the South will gradually develop as the North has.  And unlike Islamic States, who can impose their religion by force, the Catholic Church would not get away with that. This is all a much wider picture than the sex crimes that the Church has covered up in recent decades.


If you are interested in the demographics and future of the Catholic Church, one very useful source is ‘The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church’ by John L Allen Jnr. published in 2009.

If you are interested in world value demographics generally with religious and secular-rational implications, there is a wealth of information at the World Values Survey website.

Pope Francis is a Pope of the global South, with good PR in the global North

9 thoughts on “Pope Francis is a Pope of the global South, with good PR in the global North

  1. The RCC’s sustenance in the South depends on Northern funds. They don’t reveal how much money they funnel over, but estimates from experienced critical researchers say that it’s hundreds of millions of Euros a year from wealthy countries like Germany, per country.

  2. Excellent dossier and analysis.

    For the Church to thrive now in enlightened society, and to survive in the world long-term, it would need to transform dramatically. Palatable, perhaps, but a shadow of its former self.

    Francis rejects that destiny, & instead returns to the core mandate: “The Church is not a shop, she is not a humanitarian agency, the Church is not an NGO. The Church is sent to bring Christ and his Gospel to all.” You have to respect him for that clarity & focus, at least.

    The ‘Southern’ strategy will for a while stave off demise, albeit at the expense of writing off 1/3 of the present membership. But, stuck as it is with an unbelievable gospel, and unacceptable moral teachings, the Church is moribund. If not Francis, then a pope in the near future will, like Roy Batty in Blade Runner, have accept that it is finally “time to die.”

  3. There has also been a raprochement with the orthodox church. Apparently many eastern european catholics are growing closer to the orthodox faith. There are many more actual practicing orthodox proportionally in eastern europe than catholics in the west, probably for the same reasons the “global south” is more fervently catholic than the north.
    I disagree with Matt, though. You might be right about the church’s demise, but in western europe only, where the vast majority of catholics are so in name only, and the cultural zeitgeist is at best agnostic. That is not the situation in South America, Africa, etc. “Enlightened society” is much too pompous, incidentally. IMO The factors of non-religiousity have more to do with having basic material needs met, not having to focus entirely on survival as Nugent points out, than any sort of enlightened populace.

  4. The World Values Survey reinforces the role of survival values in bolstering religion.

    The triggers that allow individuals to move from survival values to self-expression values include investment in health, education, communications technology, as well as perceived control of your destiny which is linked to moves towards democracy.

    As more individuals move from survival values towards self-expression values, then societies move from traditional religious values towards secular-rational values.

    For example, survival values and traditional religious values are both typically high in African countries, and self-expression values and secular-rational values are both typically high in formerly Protestant European countries.

  5. Taking the case of the BRIC countries, India has a long history of “secularism”, in the sense of tolerance for many parrallel cults and religions (also of horrible religious persecution, notably under the various muslim conquests of the territory, but after those initial clashes still relatively tolerant for it’s time).
    Has there really been a tendency, as the country develops, towards a-religiosity? Atheism doesn’t have the same uphill struggle it had/has in societies dominated by a abrahamic cults. Buddhists and several hindu cults have no problem at all with atheists, or the existence of competing religions.
    I think it’s a bit early to predict how nations with fundamentally different cultural and ideological approaches to religion will collectively react to increased quality of life, when compared to our own experience.
    For muslim countries however I think the increased quality of life = increase of a-religiosity, or at least of much more moderate and “progressive” friendly faith, to be a very accurate model. One only has to look history to see the muslim world was on the verge of it in many places during the Cold War, before they got caught up in the logic and machinations of that time.

  6. LP: I was alluding to the values of the Enlightenment.

    With the exception of the US, there’s a close correlation between economic development and areligiosity. The various “happiness” indices also show a positive correlation. Access to education surely is a factor.

    The explanation most commonly put forth is: for people struggling to get by, and with little power to improve their situation, belief, especially in an eternal paradise, offers a modicum of succor.

  7. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the traditional resistance to ecumenical rapprochement waning as churches feel themselves slipping into irrelevance. The anglican church here in Canada is practically bankrupt after paying compensation for the abuses in the schools it once ran. Churches are being sold and it is increasingly hard to find new clergy. I think the roman catholic church has a long way to go before it gets into such a dire way, but when it does it will probably find it easier to change its doctrines a little to allow consolidation with other churches so as to stave off the inevitable. The first step in that direction would be a relatively easy one – union with the Orthodox church.

  8. @Lancelot Gobbo
    ……………union with the Orthodox church

    I’m guessing you are referring to the Greek/Russian orthodox and not the Copts or Abyssinian and other earlier schismatic churches.

    That may be one of the more difficult ones to pull off successfully, more likely to absorb the Anglican high church members.

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