John Allen – always worth listening to – thinks that Christians in Europe overemphasize the global significance of secularization [Go to the final section of the article – ‘I was in Spain this week…’].
He agrees that Europe is becoming increasingly secular, but argues that this can hide a more important truth: that the primary challenge facing the Catholic Church outside the West is the diversity and vibrancy of the religious alternatives. It’s worth a long quotation:
Seen exclusively through a European prism, it could perhaps seem as if secularism is the chief, if not the only, pastoral and cultural challenge facing the faith. The truth, however, is that Europe is really the only zone of the world where secularism has an especially large sociological footprint. In the United States, there are influential pockets of secularism among our cultural elites — in the faculty lounges of our universities, for example, and on our newspaper editorial boards — but at the grassroots we remain an intensely religious society. Outside the West, one has to look long and hard to find real secularists.
In most of the rest of the world, the primary pastoral challenge facing Catholicism isn’t secularism but the competitive dynamics of a bustling religious marketplace. In Africa, Asia and Latin America, the main competitors to Catholicism are Christian Pentecostalism, or Islam, or revived forms of indigenous religion. As a result, to craft future strategies for Catholicism based largely on defending ourselves against secularization risks misreading the social situation. Most people in the world, most of the time, aren’t seriously tempted by secular agnosticism, but rather by one or another option on the contemporary spiritual smorgasbord — and that smorgasbord is, therefore, where at least some share of your energy and imagination ought to be directed, not just pondering secularism.
Let me offer one practical implication. To the extent we define secularism as our main problem, Catholicism inevitably ends up looking defensive, forever building walls around a tradition we believe to be under assault. When the term of comparison is no longer secularism, however, but rather some forms of Pentecostalism or Islam, or quasi-magical currents in indigenous belief, that change of context positions Catholicism differently, as an alternative to religious movements that at times veer toward fundamentalism, extremism, or thaumaturgy. The capacity of Catholicism to integrate reason and faith, to uphold tradition while at the same time engaging modernity, emerges with greater clarity.
In other words, given what’s actually on offer in today’s religious marketplace, Catholicism often seems a balanced, moderate, and sophisticated option. For the record, this is how most people on the planet right now actually see the Catholic church, in light of what else they see around them.
That realization ought to have consequences not only for our missionary and pastoral strategies, but also for our own attitudes about the church.
I agree with most of this. But I’d add a few comments: (1) Yes, secularization might be a predominantly Western ‘problem’, but as the influence of Western culture increases (and it seems to be doing so), then so will the global challenge of secularization.
(2) Despite my appreciation of the deep faith of many Americans, I think that secularism has spread well beyond the cultural elites of university faculties and newspaper editorial boards and at least into the suburbs.
(3) Allen concludes that the ‘defensive’ form of Catholicism that emerges in opposition to secularism is not an appropriate response to the challenge of fundamentalist religious movements. So globally, as an alternative to these competing forms of religion, the Church needs to show an engagement with modernity and an ability to integrate faith and reason. But in my view, both secularism and religious fundamentalism require a similar response: the call to reason, the invitation to faith, the presentation of the transforming beauty of the tradition, and of the continuing newness of revelation. So I’m not sure if this is the wedge issue that Allen thinks it is.