The changing face of Christianity

April 19, 2005|By George J. Bryjak

THE WORLD'S largest religion is on the verge of a major transformation as the center and influence of international Christianity moves from the Northern to Southern Hemisphere.

In The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Philip Jenkins argues that this monumental shift is rooted in population dynamics as slow-growth, wealthy Christian nations will be overwhelmed (in terms of both numbers and influence) by fast-growth, increasingly Christian developing countries.

By 2025, 50 percent of global Christendom will reside in Africa and Latin America and another 17 percent will be in Asia. This latter figure could be significantly higher if the predictions of David Aikman prove correct. In Jesus in Beijing, the former Time magazine Beijing bureau chief argues that in the next 30 years, China's Christian population could swell from 12 million to upward of 400 million. Mr. Aikman is of the opinion that Chinese leaders view Christianity (especially Protestantism) as highly conducive to economic growth.

But it's not the number of followers per se in developing nations that will transform Christendom. Rather, it is the religious orientation of these believers that is pivotal to 21st century Christianity. While churches in the affluent Northern Hemisphere have become increasingly liberal (with the exception of Christian fundamentalism) over the past 50 years, Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere is decidedly conservative on issues of contraception, abortion, homosexuality, gender roles (most notably the ordination of women in Roman Catholicism) and religious authority.

Unlike Christianity in the north, which is often limited to an hour-long Sunday morning service, Christendom in the south is a more "total-life" mind, body and spirit existence. Leaders of an increasingly vocal southern Christianity will call for social and economic justice at the international level.

Such talk is likely to fall on deaf ears as the prospect of an egalitarian distribution of global wealth tends to make northern liberal and conservative Christians uncomfortable. The reluctance of many northern Christians to "love thy neighbor" via significant economic aid to the south may be the greatest divide between the hemispheric churches.

If Mr. Jenkins is correct, the population explosion in the south has already had a profound impact on Roman Catholicism. In the papal election of 1978, Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla won the support of his Third World brethren who would not accept "yet another Western European" as pope.

In turn, the new pontiff elevated nearly 50 theologically like-minded southern bishops to the rank of cardinal. Of the 115 members of the conclave that will choose the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church, 39 are from Third World countries and seven live in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc.

While these men may not be able to elect one of their own to the papacy, they will certainly have a significant voice in determining who becomes the next pope. The needs of Third World Catholics are certain to be a high priority for the new pontiff.

In the near future, cardinals from the developing world will constitute a majority of voting members in the papal selection process. The same geographic mindset that kept Italians in the Vatican for almost all of the previous 2,000 years may commence a long succession of popes from the Southern Hemisphere.

Mr. Jenkins believes that "the critical centers of the Christian world" have moved to Africa, Latin America and Asia, and that the balance "will never shift back." While his assessment is likely correct, what shape a southern-dominated Christianity takes remains to be seen. History informs us that modernizing societies become increasingly secular as a concern for "this-world" activities supersedes a more spiritual "other-world" orientation.

Pope John Paul II was painfully aware of this sociological truism when he admonished his countrymen on a visit to Poland. The pope was of the opinion that the first Soviet bloc country to shed communism, in 1989, was showing signs of crass materialism. In the latter half of his papacy, he was deeply concerned that the fall of global atheistic communism would be replaced by an equally godless self-indulgent consumerism.

Will the conservative Christianity of developing nations eventually give way to the cult of the individual, arguably the most influential religion in the north, or are we on the threshold of a new Christendom?

George J. Bryjak is a professor of sociology at the University of San Diego.

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