Pope Faces Challenges in Asia, Latin America
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RAY SUAREZ: Now some perspective from two experts on Catholicism and religion in Asia, Latin America and Africa. Lamin Sanneh is professor of history and world Christianity at Yale University, and Jose Casanova is a sociology professor at new school university in New York City.
Professor Casanova, what’s the religious landscape like these days in Latin America?
JOSE CASANOVA: Well, the Latin American Catholicism is confronting two main challenges. The challenge of religious pluralism particularly the competition from rapidly growing evangelical Christianity, particularly Pentecostal churches, but also increasing secularization.
So the Catholic Church is now facing a crisis or at least a challenge from both sides. And of course, it has to have a response that addresses these two challenges. And I think that the response to this increasing pluralism has to be a strengthening of the pluralism that is so important within the American Catholic Church.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, how did it happen that Latin America, home to almost half the world’s Roman Catholics, became such a promising breeding ground for Protestant denominations?
JOSE CASANOVA: This, of course, is a rather complex question. There is a long history of main Protestant churches going back to the 19th century. The Pentecostal churches came to Brazil in the first decades of the 20th century, but really the challenge of Protestantism and the growth began in the 60s and has increased thereafter.
Particularly in countries like Brazil where roughly 20 percent of the population are now Protestants, Chile, probably over 20 percent are Protestant, and Central America like Guatemala and Honduras which probably are also over 20 percent.
Why in Latin America? It’s a complex question, but the fact is that the people of Latin America are not any more naturally Catholics, and they have an option. So, this also reflects itself in the increasing conversions to Protestantism among Latino immigrants for instance in the United States.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Sanneh, what you just heard your colleague discussing, a new pluralism in Latin America. That’s an old story in Africa, isn’t it?
LAMIN SANNEH: Oh, absolutely. Most Catholic Christians in Africa come from a very mixed religious background. In some ways they have taken that background with them into the church.
RAY SUAREZ: So how does this give us — what kind of religious landscape does this give us in Africa today? Many different religions vying for new converts and vying for influence?
LAMIN SANNEH: Well, in Africa, you could say that Catholicism is something that is happening from the ground up in contrast to Europe where Catholicism has happened from the top down. So in Europe, the emphasis is very much on doctrinal issues, on the teachings of the Church. Cardinal Ratzinger is known as the enforcer.
Without image of the church doesn’t work very well in Africa because of the spontaneous eruption of Catholicism from the ground up in areas of primary evangelism, and so Catholicism I think has a very dynamic and productive frontier with traditional religions, traditional world views, although it has a very difficult relationship with militant Islam, with radical Islam.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, what is the state of the situation in this encounter between Christianity and Islam in Africa?
LAMIN SANNEH: Rather fraught in some areas in north Nigeria. For example, in Sudan, very difficult; pockets of unrest in other parts of Africa. In other parts of Africa there’s a kind of contrasting picture where Catholics and Muslims live amicably together, sometimes actually in the same family, in the same village, in the same workplace.
And Senegal I think is a brilliant example of Catholic-Muslim solidarity to the extent that Senegal, which is predominantly Islamic country, over 90 percent Muslim, has Catholic holidays as national holidays including the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin.
RAY SUAREZ: We heard Professor Casanova describe a challenged church in Latin America. Is the Roman Catholic Church a healthy one in Africa?
LAMIN SANNEH: Yes. The problem with Catholicism in Africa is almost the opposite of the problem maybe in Latin America and in Europe. And that is to say that Catholicism in Africa is very recent. Most of it is since Vatican II.
And so these new Catholic communities are really having to be involved, not only in designs of faith communities and creating their own structures and being in communion with other parts of the Catholic world, but they’re also involved necessarily in the reinvention of their own societies that have gone through political upheavals, poverty, the AIDS epidemic, problems with women, for example, education. So it’s rather fundamental, some of the issues they’re dealing with.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Casanova, many of the countries in what’s been called the global South and the developing world are countries where people feel failed by the state. The state has not delivered on prosperity, not delivered on human rights in many places. Does the man on the street, the woman on the street perceive religion as being their ally or the ally of the state?
JOSE CASANOVA: Well, the most important transformation certainly in Latin America has been the move from being state churches to public churches of civil society defending civil society against military regimes, helping the transitions to democracy. And then, of course, at first after the transition to democracy, civilization of political parties, regular elections, the Church lost part of its public role.
But as the states in Latin America also began to privatize, the Church remained in many places the only public voice to represent precisely the most vulnerable sectors of society. And many, many of these sectors still expect the Catholic Church to be their voice and to help them. And this of course is one of the great contributions of the previous pope, John Paul II, in his role in political developments in Latin America.
One would expect that the new pope will also realize in the Latin American Catholic Church as a whole that it is on one of their primary institutional roles, to play this role in each country but also in Latin American as a whole as a region and particularly the extreme importance as a public institution of CELAM, the Latin American Council of Bishops. In one interesting moment we’ll have to observe to see what direction it goes is the fact that next year, 2006, is the scheduled next meeting of the Latin American conference of bishops.
And whether that meeting will take place in Latin America, as most bishops I assume would like, or it will take place in Rome more under the control of the Vatican will be an interesting sign whether these — this pope is willing to offer greater collegiality as Mr. Allen expressed before and therefore once again to strengthen the importance of the Latin American Regional Conference of Bishops.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor Casanova was describing countries where the Church has been at home for five centuries. We shouldn’t forget Asia where a big chunk of humanity resides and Christianity has an old history, but it’s not a very large church, is it?
LAMIN SANNEH: No, it’s a fragment. If you look at the Catholic Church or Catholic-related churches in the Middle East among the Arabs, for example, and you go beyond into India, the Catholic Church — and China — the Catholic Church is a very minority church although a very, very old one. In the case of India, there are ancient churches scattered right through Asia.
And there the problems are really problems of pluralism, the extent to which Catholicism cannot only pioneer forms of plural encounter, but itself become the place where this plural encounter is accepted and given hospitable reception. China is one of those places where basically the structures have divided the Catholic community between the registered official Catholic Church and the unregistered, unofficial or underground church. And that creates problems.
RAY SUAREZ: Is becoming a Christian almost a countercultural act in Asia?
LAMIN SANNEH: Yes, in many cases. I mean, Christianity has the reputation of being an alien religion or being a foreign religion. And this has saddled Christian thinkers and Christian leaders with the responsibility of having to acquit themselves with nationalists, warrants that they are as authentic and as national as the others.
So, I think the threat of betrayal, of cultural betrayal, on a political subversion or at least suspicion of that still hangs over Christian churches and the Catholic Church in particular.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Casanova, there had been much hope expressed before this conclave began that the next pope will come from the developing world. Will the next one as you look into your crystal ball and your demographer’s charts?
JOSE CASANOVA: If not the next one, not in the too — I mean, not too far ahead. But the issue is not whether the pope comes from Europe from outside of Europe but whether the Catholic Church remains primarily a European institution or in this global world becomes truly a global church, de-center and de-Europeanize.
We should not forget that Christianity was African and Asian before it became European. The European Christianity as we know it is really not at all. It really crystallizes the civilization around the 10th, 11th Century. It will be a big mistake to lose the great opportunity of civilization for the Catholic Church to remain anchored in western civilization and not to open up to others in global civilizations.
And also, let’s not forget that the Philippines, in Asia, is one of the largest Catholic countries in the world. And there is the St. Thomas Church in India, which of course, claims to go back to the first century. So I think this is a great challenge and opportunity for the Catholic Church to become truly universal and Catholic. And of course, the last popes from John XXIII on truly started to speak to the city and to the globe. And we hope that this pope continues this orientation and does not look too much only at Europe as the core of Christianity.
RAY SUAREZ: Professors, thank you both. Good to talk to you.
LAMIN SANNEH: Thank you.
JOSE CASANOVA: Thank you.