The National Catholic Review
J. Peter Nixon

A few years ago, the Episcopal bishop of Newark, John Shelby Spong, penned a book entitled Why Christianity Must Change or Die. Spong argued that Christianity would inevitably decline unless it abandoned much of its traditional belief system.

A few decades hence we may regard Spong’s prediction with the same bemusement with which we regard the predictions of those who believed that the United States was fated to be eclipsed by Japan as the world’s reigning economic superpower. This is the contention of Philip Jenkins, a professor of religious studies at Penn State and author of The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.

The reason for Jenkins’s confidence in the future of Christianity is that over the last two centuries, the faith has truly become a global movement. Currently, there are about two billion Christians in the world, of whom 560 million, the largest single bloc, live in Europe. Latin America, though, is close behind with 480 million. Africa has 360 million, and 313 million Asians profess Christianity. North America claims about 260 million believers.

But by 2025, Jenkins projects, Europe will have fallen to third place. By that time there will be roughly 2.6 billion Christians, of whom 640 million will live in Latin America, 633 million in Africa, 555 million in Europe and 460 million in Asia. By 2050, only about one-fifth of the world’s Christians will be non-Hispanic whites.

What will be the impact of these changes on Christianity? The churches that have grown most rapidly in the South tend to be more traditional, morally conservative, evangelical and mystical than their northern counterparts. Pentecostal churches are adding almost 20 million members a year and may be emerging as the major competitor to Catholicism in the third world. Charismatic Catholics are a much stronger force in the global South than they are in Europe or North America.

The growth of global Christianity also has implications for interfaith relations and religious conflicts around the globe. Jenkins speculates that particularly in central Africa the absence of strong national governments will strengthen confessional loyalties and may lead to the kind of interreligious violence that we now see in Sudan and Nigeria. Central Africa may well be fated to endure its own version of Europe’s wars of religion as Islam and Christianity compete for cultural and political dominance.

Relations between Christians and Jews may also be headed for a rough patch. Jenkins notes that Christians in the global South lack the historical experience of the Holocaust, which so totally transformed the relationship between Christians and Jews in Europe and North America. During the height of the sexual abuse scandal this past summer, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga suggested that the media in the United States were biased against the Catholic Church because of the church’s support for a Palestinian state. It is hard to imagine John Paul II making such a statement. But as Christianity spreads across the globe, the proportion of Christians with any direct personal connection with Jews and Judaism is shrinking.

While not focused exclusively on the Catholic Church, Jenkins’s book raises a number of interesting questions for Catholics to ponder. Since Vatican II, for example, the focus of the church’s ecumenical efforts has been on the mainline Protestant churches and the Orthodox Church. Pope John Paul II has had a particular commitment to reunion with the Orthodox, whose numbers Jenkins believes will continue to decline owing to the demographic collapse of Eastern Europe. Will a future pope from Latin America or Africa be as committed to ecumenical dialogue with branches of Christianity that may be in decline?

A second interesting question is the role of ordained ministry in the Catholic Church. The clergy shortage in the third world is quite serious. In Brazil, Protestant pastors significantly outnumber Catholic priests, and some parishes have as many as 50,000 members. Ultimately, it may be the threat of competition from Pentecostalism and Islam, rather than lobbying by liberals in the West, that leads the church to modify or abandon priestly celibacy.

Liturgy is another area in which Catholics from the South may make their mark felt. As the recent papal visits to Central America made clear, the celebration of the Mass around the world increasingly reflects local cultural traditions. Many newer Catholic communities in Africa and Asia have no living memory of the pre-Vatican II liturgy. Catholic traditionalists in the West who are hoping for a return to some or all of the liturgical practices of the preconciliar era are likely to be disappointed.

The latter might console themselves with the thought that the growth of Catholicism in the South makes it unlikely that there will be significant modification to the church’s teaching on sexual morality in the near future. Bishops locked in a demographic battle with Pentecostalism and Islam are unlikely to be supportive of modifying the church’s teaching on contraception. It is also fair to say that Catholic leaders in the South do not approach the issue of homosexuality with the same kind of pastoral nuance that is often found in the West.

Jenkins’s work is not without its limitations. He does not devote a great deal of attention to doctrinal issues and seems eager to defend some of the newer movements against the charge of syncretism. He argues that the strength of Christianity has always been its ability to assimilate local customs and traditions while retaining the core of the faith.

But in the missionary history of Christianity, what one might term the syncretic impulse at the local level was generally counterbalanced by some accountability to the institutional church as a whole. Some of the fastest growing churches in the global South are independents, with congregations unattached to a larger denominational structure. Many of these churches seem to have only tenuous links to mainstream Christian beliefs and practices. Jenkins tells the story of the Musama Disco Christo Church in West Africa, for example, which follows much of the Mosaic Law. The group has erected a sacred pillar, built an Ark of the Covenant and has a Holy of Holies that may be entered only once a year by a high priest. The church also practices animal sacrifice.

One issue that Jenkins fails to address in depth is the future of Christianity in Europe and North America. A reader might easily conclude that Christianity is strongest among people who have experienced poverty and persecution. The Gospel is, indeed, good news for the poor. Does this mean that Christianity has no future in the peaceful and prosperous West? Although he does not go that far, Jenkins suggests that it does become harder for the faith to prosper in such settingsas hard as passing through the eye of a needle.

J. Peter Nixon is a student in the Pastoral Ministry School of the Diocese of Oakland, Calif.