If there is any characteristic that seems to join otherwise disparate Arab leaders facing their spring, it is desperation. No one exhibits that more than Bashar al-Assad. The West trained ophthalmologist was reluctant to take on leadership of the family business. At the start he came off as a reasonable reformist. In almost Jekyll-Hyde fashion the Assad we see today has morphed from mild mannered doctor into ruthless monster. When your world is threatened you do desperate things.
Albeit in a profoundly different way, the same desperate reaction seems to be taking hold in Rome these days as the pope and his princes take on what they undoubtedly see as revolutionary threats to their own realm. Benedict began as his predecessor’s enforcer and perhaps only during his own reign have we been given a more accurate window into how truly conservative the charismatic John Paul II really was. Remember that Benedict was elevated just one day after the start of April 2005 conclave. It would seem that succession had been set before John Paul’s death. Benedict is likely to follow suit. He has now appointed more voting and like-minded cardinals than his successor, and his reign has not ended.
The Roman church has never claimed to be a democracy. From the early days it has had top down leadership from an infallible and authoritarian pope. So its tolerance for dissent or any deviation from established doctrine has been very limited, often non-existent. That has especially been the case when the Church sees itself under threat, something that has happened at times throughout its history.
That is likely why Rome, in an assertion of absolute power, has come down so hard on the American Leadership Conference of Women Religious, placing its member nuns under the control of three male bishops. It seems clear that it is willing to jettison a critical component of Church personnel — 80% of American nuns — to make the point. In their just completed national assembly held in St. Louis, the LCWR agreed to seek open dialogue with Rome. But there was no sign that the nuns were willing to back down. So where these talks will go remains an open question, an ongoing problem for the Church.
Now, adding to that comes the report of Rome’s apparent intention to strip the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru of its name, and more importantly its right to call itself Catholic. Beyond the question of Papal authority, the conflict in Lima reflects the same kind of right/left struggle that has taken over our politics here and around the world. It is a battle for supremacy between conservatives who are increasingly ultra-conservative and progressives: moderate or liberal.
The Peruvian struggle is of particular interest since it involves two twentieth century created movements within the church, both of Hispanic origin. On the conservative side is Opus Dei founded by the Spanish cleric Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer in 1928. This once fringe right movement has found a receptive audience in the current Vatican. Among those Americans who attend mass at Opus Dei oriented churches are Justice Antonin Scalia and former Senator Rick Santorum. On the other side is Liberation Theology a populist approach with 1950s-60s roots in Latin America. One of its leading exponents is Gustavo Gutiérrez, the Peruvian priest who coined the word, and a leading faculty member of the university.
Are these alone — a group of independent thinking nuns and a similarly inclined university — enough to make Rome desperate? Probably not, and the pope would surly challenge any such notion of desperation on his part, and vehemently so. But add to these two the just released poll by the research consortium WIN-Gallup International about the dramatic decline of religiosity in the world. It focuses on changes that has taken place in just the last seven years, most notably in Catholic Ireland. Today, only 47% of the Irish consider themselves religious, that’s a drop of 22 points from the 60% reported in 2005. If some nuns and academics don’t drive Rome to distraction, then these numbers certainly must. Perhaps the Church isn’t entirely losing its grip on the faithful, but it is clearly losing ground at what should be seen as an alarming rate.
The WIN-Gallup poll should be a wake-up-call for all religious groups. Religiosity worldwide has fallen 9 points in the last seven years. People who call themselves religious today represent 59% of the population, down from 68%. An even larger drop has been experienced in the United States (13 points) from 73% in ’05 to 60% today. We may still call ourselves the most religious country, but it’s fast becoming a hollow claim.
Stay tuned for some news on an expanded exploration of people living beyond religion in book form coming in the near future.
Image from Wikipedia