The Catholic Church is increasingly diverse – and so are its controversies
We talk a lot about “synodalityin the Catholic Church today. Synodality refers to a process in which bishops and priests consult with lay Catholics on Church issues.
In 2021, Pope Francis called for the “Synod on synodalitya global discussion on issues that impact the church, culminating in a meeting of bishops in Rome. A final report is scheduled for October 2023.
The German synodal way has been controversial. On September 8, 2022, a minority of German bishops blocked a motion for redefine Catholic teaching on homosexuality, bisexuality, gender identity and masturbation. In response, some proponents of these liberalizations have warned that they “take her to Rome.”
Church leaders around the world and the Vatican followed the German meetings closely. There was a lively debate on appeals from german catholics for priests ordain women and bless same-sex unions. These proposals have been adopted by some bishops of the German Church, but critical by the Vatican as well as by an international group of 74 bishops.
As a specialist in world Catholicism, I believe that this controversy reflects much broader tensions within Catholicism. In 1910, two-thirds of the world’s Catholics lived in Europe. Today, only one in four does. Church membership has grown fastest in Africa and Asia. Like more power moves to the global souththe church sometimes struggles to map out a way forward for all regions, each with their own distinct perspectives.
The Catholic Church is often assumed to look and feel the same everywhere. But Catholicism is culturally very diverse.
The most public disagreement concerns African Catholics and those in the United States and Europe. For example, Ghanaian Catholic bishops have criticized LGBTQ rights advocates for imposing “their so-called values and beliefs.” Other African bishops said they felt betrayed by liberal sentiments in European Catholicism, such as the push to allow Holy Communion for divorced members of the church.
A crucial question is how welcome polygamous families in the church. Some The African bishops have suggested that the most important rites of the Church, called sacraments, should be available to at least some polygamous Catholics.
Tribalism also remains a challenge. For example, a Nigerian priest posted a video on social media claiming the superiority of the Igbo tribe. Rejecting such attitudes, other African priests have stressed that African Catholics should be guided by the philosophy of “ubuntuwhich affirms the collective belonging to humanity.
Problems in Asia, home to 12% Catholicsare diverse.
In Japan, for example, where Catholics represent less than 1% of the population, the main dilemma is how Catholics can maintain their community identity. In the Catholic majority Philippinesrecent synod meetings on synodality have focused on how poverty and corruption impact the Catholic community and the nation as a whole.
In India, where 20 million Catholics live, the Catholic Dalit community is particularly important. Dalit means “oppressed” or “crushed” and refers to the marginalized groups once called “untouchables” of India. Only recently a Dalit, Anthony Poola from Hyderabadwas made a cardinal, even though the Dalits have long been a majority Indian Catholics. caste discrimination in the church is a reality that Dalit Catholics have united protest.
Catholic churches in China face unresolved disputes over who has the final say in the appointment of bishops – the Vatican, or the Chinese government. In addition, there are continuing issues regarding the status of the underground catholic churcheswho worship outside the jurisdiction of the sanctioned state Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
The fortress is no more?
Latin America is home to almost 40% of the world catholics. But the ascend of Protestantism concerned many priests and lay people. Many new Protestants in Latin America believe that evangelical and Pentecostal communities are more sensitive to their needs, encouraging introspection for Catholics.
Another crucial issue in Latin America is whether to ordain married men in regions where priests are rare, such as the Amazon. The Catholic Church in Latin America is still struggling with its colonial past and call to apologize for this violent story. This heritage makes it particularly important to hear the voices of Indigenous peoples.
A global conversation
It would be a mistake to see this “walking together” from an exclusively Western perspective. The debate in Germany reflects how divided ideologically Catholicism has become in the western world alone. And it’s not as if churches elsewhere are just areas of potential trouble or disagreement; their faith and rich theological traditions are an important resource for Catholics around the world.
Yet, given the cultural diversity of Catholicism, there are many potential flashpoints as the Synod on Synodality moves forward: poverty, adapting to local culture, sexuality and gender, governance of church and the ongoing sexual abuse crisis – to name a few.
This left some commentators wondering if anything meaningful can be discussed or achieved. In my view, whether the Synod conversations turn into controversies will ultimately depend on how Catholics view themselves as part of a church that is truly global.
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