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Peter C. PhanFebruary 03, 2003

In his book The Next Christendom (2002) and his recent article “The Next Christianity” (Atlantic Monthly, October 2002), Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University, argues that the current crisis in the Catholic Church, brought to a head by the clergy sexual abuse scandal since the mid-1980’s, financial malfeasance among the clergy and clerical contempt for the laity, has parallels with the eve of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Now as then, issues of sexuality and power threaten to bring seismic changes in the church. Grass-roots reform movements are calling for complete transparency in church administration, increased lay participation in decision-making and the abolition of mandatory clerical celibacy—proposals that echo Luther’s battle-cry—and even the ordination of woman to the priesthood. These reform measures, if and when accepted, will no doubt transform the Catholic Church the way the Protestant Reformation did medieval Christianity.


“A Southern Religious Revolution”

Jenkins further suggests that this reform movement, which he associates with what he calls the “liberal Northern Reformation,” fails to recognize a far more radical and sweeping “Southern religious revolution,” which will bring about changes worldwide not only in the practice of religion, but also in all other areas of human life including politics, economics, education and law. It is with respect to these potential ramifications of the Southern Christianity—and not only of the Roman Catholic Church—that analogies to the first Reformation are much more to the point. Jenkins contends that there is occurring in the Southern Hemisphere—Africa, Asia, Latin America—a new Council of Trent, a Counter-Reformation that is escaping the notice of liberal Northern Christians. I will come back to this fundamental claim. For the moment let us attend to Jenkins’s reasons for affirming the imminent hegemony of Southern Christianity.

Demographic Shift

The most important reason is demographic shift. While in the liberal North and West the number of Christians is rapidly shrinking, Christianity in the global South and East is experiencing a phenomenal growth. Jenkins notes that of the 18 million Catholic baptisms recorded in 1998, eight million took place in Central and South America, three million in Africa, and about three million in Asia. In the Philippines alone, the number of baptisms annually was higher than the totals for Italy, France, Spain and Poland combined. It is projected that by 2025, 50 percent of the Christian population will be in Africa and Latin America, and another 17 percent will be in Asia. In the Catholic Church, by the same year, three quarters of all Catholics will be in the same three continents. Though Jenkins rightly laments that most Americans are unaware of this demographic shift, he is not of course the first to draw attention to it. Missiologists, Catholic and Protestant alike, have been highlighting this fact ad nauseamin recent years.

What is new, controversial and, I believe, unfounded is Jenkins’s interpretation of the nature and theological direction of Southern Christianity. For him, this “Third Church” (to use a phrase from the Capuchin missiologist Walbert Buhlmann) is “more conservative than the Northern—especially the American—version.” He goes on to say: “The denominations that are triumphing across the global South—radical Protestant sects, either evangelical or Pentecostal, and Roman Catholicism of an orthodox kind—are stalwartly traditional or even reactionary by the standards of the economically advanced nations. The Catholic faith that is rapidly rising in Africa and Asia looks very much like a pre-Vatican II faith, being more traditional in its respect for the power of bishops and priests and in its preference for older devotions. African Catholicism in particular is far more comfortable with notions of authority and spiritual charisma than with newer ideas of consultation and democracy.”

A Possible Schism?

Here, in Jenkins’s view, lies an extreme danger for Christianity: If the churches of North America and Europe attempt to impose on Southern Christianity their liberal stances in doctrines and morals, they will be separated from the churches of the Southern Hemisphere “by a de facto schism, if not a formal breach.” Jenkins even envisions an ironical scenario: the Third Vatican Council that Northern liberals dream of as a means to complete the revolution launched by Pope John XXIII will probably turn out to be “a conservative, Southern-dominated affair.” It will impose moral and theological litmus tests intolerable to North Americans and Europeans. If, in other words, the North tried to implement a new Reformation, it would turn out to be a new Counter-Reformation.

Space does not permit a full evaluation of Jenkins’s characterization of the whole of Southern Christianity. Here I will focus only on Asian Christianity and, more narrowly, Asian Catholicism, partly because it is less known than Latin American and African Christianity and partly because a recent but highly significant event, the Special Assembly for Asia of the Synod of Bishops, offers a concentrated look at what has been going on in Asian Catholic Churches. The picture that emerges gives the lie to Jenkins’s fundamental thesis about Southern Christianity.

Asian Christianity: A “New Way of Being Church”

A recent book by Tom Fox, Pentecost in Asia: A New Way of Being Church (Orbis Books, 2002), gives an updated view of Asian Catholicism. The subtitle is particularly felicitous, since it shows that what is at stake in Asia is a different way of living out the Christian faith from that found in North America and Europe. But the difference does not consist in a return to the Counter-Reformation, as opposed to the reform agenda of liberal Vatican II enthusiasts, but a deepening of the insights of the Second Vatican Council. In a nutshell, this new way of carrying out the church’s mission and hence this new ecclesiology consists in a wholehearted commitment to dialogue. It is, in fact, a triple dialogue: with the peoples of Asia, especially the poor and the marginalized, with their religions and with their cultures.

This way of being church was initiated by the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences when it was founded in 1970, and the triple dialogue has become a sort of mantra of Asian bishops and theologians. At the Asian Synod (1998), which John Paul II convoked to celebrate the third millennium of Christianity and as presented in a recent book, The Asian Synod: Texts and Commentaries (Orbis Books, 2002), the Asian bishops shocked Roman Curial officials by their frankness in advocating this humble, open and respectful approach to the Asian peoples, their religions and their cultures. They asserted, again and again, that to survive and prosper in Asia, Christians must fulfill their divinely appointed task to become truly local churches, with proper autonomy, by entering into this triple dialogue. One of the participants at the synod, Francis Hadisumarta, the bishop of Manokwari-Sorong, Indonesia, bluntly told the assembly that local bishops are not “branch secretaries waiting for instructions from headquarters.” It was reported that if looks could kill, the Indonesian bishop would have been incinerated on the spot by the stare of Vatican officials.

Far from seeking to found a new “Christendom,” as Jenkins intimates, the Asian bishops demanded the formation of authentically local churches. Moreover, the idea of establishing a Christendom in Asia is ludicrous, since Christians constitute no more than 3 percent of the entire Asian population—after 500 years of evangelization. Far from promoting “respect for the power of bishops and priests,” the Asian bishops vigorously urged an expansion of the role of the laity, especially women, in the decision-making process in the church. And instead of regarding the totem poles as “idols possessed by evil spirits,” as Jenkins reports Moses Tay, the Anglican archbishop of Southeast Asia, to have done during his visit to Canada (Tay is said to have on that occasion “personified the global Christian confrontation”!), the Asian bishops show a deep respect for and appreciation of the ritual practices of other religions. In particular, the Vietnamese bishops urged that veneration of ancestors, which had been condemned by Rome over the last three centuries, be incorporated into the Christian liturgy. And of course, no Asian Catholic bishop would ever imagine that he could ordain conservative American Catholics so that they can go back to their country and spread the Counter-Reformation agenda, as Jenkins reports Moses Tay and the Rwandan archbishop Emmanuel Kolini to have done.

A Different Christianity, But No Counter-Reformation

Instead of the American and European churches being liberal and the Asian ones conservative, as Jenkins would have it, it is the latter, especially the bishops and theologians of India, who have been suspected by the Vatican of being too liberal. The declaration Dominus Iesus, published bythe Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in August 2000, is rumored to have targeted Asian theologians allegedly too enamored with interreligious dialogue. Indeed, a cursory perusal of the statements of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences and the documents of its many offices contained in the three volumes of For All the Peoples of Asia (Claretian Publications, 1992-2002) will show that Asian Catholicism is theologically far ahead of its American and European counterparts.

Where did Jenkins go wrong in his interpretation of Southern Christianity? His fundamental mistake consists in equating the decline of the nation-state, the spread of spiritual healing and exorcism, the practice of traditional devotions, the preservation of orthodoxy in faith and morals and the acceptance of the hierarchical structure of the church with a return to the Counter-Reformation. Of course, these phenomena are prevalent in Southern Christianity, but any resemblances between them and those of the 16th century are only superficial, since they occur in a totally different ecclesial framework from that of the Counter-Reformation. In Asia, the Christian context is one of an open, respectful and humble dialogue discerning the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Asian peoples, cultures and religions. Yes, there will certainly be a different Christianity, a “Southern religious revolution” in this century, but not in the direction Jenkins envisions.

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16 years 8 months ago
I read with great interest, but from an African background, the article by the Rev. Peter Phan, “The Next Christianity” (2/3). It was obvious that the writer corrected perceptions of emerging Asian Catholicism that he felt, and with reasons, were misrepresented by Philip Jenkins. In this way he contributed to assuring a measure of balance in the way the West inadequately talks and writes of the so-called third church. Indications are that there can be massive ignorance of the actual situation on the ground in these areas and, therefore, unhelpful overgeneralizations of the scenario outside the Western cultural zone.

In the same spirit of assuring equal treatment of the experiences of ecclesiastical areas, this brief footnote should be seen as a summons to look again and attentively at the situation of the church in Africa.

It could be misleading to dismiss the situation of the church in Africa as “being more comfortable with notions of authority and spiritual charisma than with newer ideas of consultation and democracy.” Granted a Nigerian military dictator once said that democracy is understood differently in Africa and in the West, yet this strange elucidation does not wipe away the palaver culture that predated colonial Africa, by force of which communal decisions were participatory. Africans then felt that a decision to which they did not contribute their ideas was not binding on them.

Indeed it is the resurgence of this primal value at the end of colonial rule that has been partially responsible for the political instability that has marked that burgeoning continent. Each ethnic group wants to opt out from a country created by foreign powers without the vote of the people themselves. This dynamic of being consulted or not is already at work in the resistances to bishops being appointed who do not come from the ethnic groups where the dioceses are located. But as a non-self-financing church, the faithful endure such appointments. But for how long?

What is presently incubating in Africa is the recovery of that self-confidence that existed before a more powerful and aggressive culture enslaved and colonized the continent. Indications are that in both church and state, this confidence to take their destiny into their own hands is increasing and flourishing. In the fullness of time, Africa intends once again to take up the theological and administrative leadership in the church that existed in the time of Clement and Origen, of Augustine and Cyprian. The vibrations of this goal are palpable to people who follow closely the emerging consciousness of being the church in Africa.

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