Louder Calls For The World's Catholics To Be Heard

Catholicism is reaching further into the developing world. Will the Church shift its focus to new concerns in those regions — like poverty, education and rural development? Michel Martin talks with Sister Simone Campbell, Father Patrick Ryan and Yale Divinity Professor Lanim Sanneh about whether the Church's priorities are changing.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, the Barber Shop guys take on the big stories in the week's news. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. And as you probably know, the Cardinals of the Roman Catholic church are preparing to choose a new pope, so we thought this would be a good time to talk about what the church wants and needs from a new leader as the faith is growing in some parts of the world, but struggling in others.

While the number of Catholics is rising in Africa, Asia and Latin America, many of the faithful believe that a new pope should come from one of these emerging regions. Still, other Catholics see the change in leadership as an opportunity to reexamine the church's attitudes and priorities on issues like sexuality and women's rights, as well as poverty.

To talk more about this, we are joined now by a distinguished panel of Catholic faith leaders and thinkers. Sister Simone Campbell is the executive director of NETWORK. That's a national Catholic social justice lobby that's gained a lot of attention in recent years for its challenge to national leaders to give more priority to the concerns of the poor.

Father Patrick Ryan is a professor of religion and society at Fordham University. He's particularly noted for his work in promoting interfaith understanding and dialogue. And also with us is Lamin Sanneh. He is professor of World Christianity at Yale Divinity School. He is a very prolific author, but among his noted works is "Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West."

Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.

SIMONE CAMPBELL: Great to be with you.

THE REV. PATRICK RYAN: Thank you for inviting me.

LAMIN SANNEH: Thank you for having me. Yes.

MARTIN: Father Ryan, I'm going to start with you. Catholics are obviously not the only people who are reeling from a lot of changes, you know, in the world and in the way we think about issues in recent years. But could you start us off by telling us about some of the changes that are perhaps shifting the church's priorities in selecting a new pope?

RYAN: I think probably the greatest change is the demographic shift in the church. The Catholic Church has grown tremendously in the last 50 or so years in the global south, as it's sometimes called. Latin America, Africa and certain parts of Asia where the Catholic Church and all the Christian churches are thriving. And what was thought in Africa at the end of the colonial period might be the end of the Christianization of Africa and the exact opposite has happened. So that's a major and dramatic difference, I think, in the development of Christianity, even within my lifetime.

MARTIN: And what does that mean, Father Ryan? Just finish that thought there. What do you think that means? Is that because of the fact that so many of these Catholics are young? Is it because - do they have different doctrinal concerns or different social concerns than Catholics in the west?

RYAN: Well, it is certainly true that the Catholic churches I know in West Africa, especially, but in other parts of Africa, as well, the congregations are much younger than what you would see, let's say, in a European or American church. Sometimes, I think, in certain European churches, I think it's like going to a nursing home and when you go to an African parish like some of the parishes - I'm a Jesuit and some of the parishes that the Jesuits run in Legos and Benin City and Awka and Monrovia - very young congregations and very vigorous congregations. So there's a great difference there. I think that the church is still in contact with young people in a very dramatic way.

MARTIN: Professor Sanneh, do you want to pick up the thread there? What are your thoughts about that?

SANNEH: Oh, yeah. I mean, I think there is no doubt that the force is driving Catholicism today, probably more social than cultural, and they are theological and religious. The vast majority of Catholics in Asia and Africa - maybe elsewhere, too - are not really driven by, you know, issues of - well, let's define the heretic or the enemy. They're more defined by issues of finding community, a sense of purpose in life and, as Pat Ryan said, they are mostly young and they come from, if you like, a post-Vatican II background.

And the bishops, in general, are not really concerned about issues of drawing boundaries and drawing a high wall between Catholics and non-Catholics.

MARTIN: Do you think that their world view will influence the choice of a new pope? And, if you can speak for these millions of Catholics, professor, humbly to the degree that you can, what do you think their priority would be in selecting a new pope?

SANNEH: Well, in a sense, Catholicism is greater than the sum of its parts so that the parts of Catholicism that are thriving, for example, in the southern hemisphere are quite different from old line Catholicism in Europe, for example. And I think the pope, whoever the pope is going to be, will work increasingly in a collegial environment that, in fact, as historians have demonstrated, been far more the case than the stereotype of the pope as a kind of dictator from Rome.

We have to remember that the Catholic missionary enterprise was finally reformed, not by directives so much from Rome as by requests from Africa to really reform the missionary enterprise and remove it from control of Spain and Portugal.

MARTIN: Sister Campbell, what about you? How important is diversity and the church having a pope that is perhaps not of a Western European background? Do you think that matters?

CAMPBELL: Well, I think it matters. I think what is most needed, though, is someone who understands this global world, the pluralism that exists among us and the fact is that there is no European colonial model that fits the church anymore. And what we need is leadership that opens up to that diversity, to the big news that the gospel is being inculturated(ph) in a lot of different cultures.

And I agree that the fight is not - or the struggle is not about the doctrine of faith. The issue is culture. How is this wonderful faith embodied in our various cultures? And it's that cultural struggle that we see both in the United States as well as the global south and so someone who is not afraid of the globalized world, embraces the 21st century with joy, I think would be a real step forward.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having a roundtable conversation about what the evolving Catholic Church looks like and what this evolving church is looking for in a new pope.

Father Ryan, is there an example of someone that would be a role model for this new pope in, you know, embracing the evolving world that you're all talking about?

RYAN: Well, I think, in the papacy of John Paul, II, especially in his extraordinary vigor in traveling internationally, there was a model there, I think, that the whole church can learn from. He himself said after a visit to Ghana when I was there that - when he came back to Rome, he said the most impressive thing was he talked to the Asante Hani, the paramount chief of the Asante people in Ghana, and he said the Asante Hani said to him, my ancestor welcomed the fathers to Kumasi and then the pope asked Archbishop Sarpong, when was that? And the archbishop said, in 1884, the first missionaries were welcomed by the ancestor of the then Asante Hani, the paramount chief.

So it was a sense there that there was a new reality. It's not the reality of Baroque Catholicism in Spain and Italy. It's not the reality of the somewhat pared down Catholic Christianity of a place like France or England. It was much more a sense of vigor and also of continuity with a past that - especially where there has been great inculturation of the faith that incorporates much that is beautiful and valuable in local traditions.

MARTIN: Professor Sanneh, could you pick up that thread there? What would this look like? What would a new leader who speaks to the needs of an evolving church look like? I mean, we noted, you know, with some - you know, I mean, there was some joking about it that Pope Benedict decided to get on Twitter, you know, right before he retired. But is that kind of - does that kind of thing matter? And, if it doesn't, what does?

SANNEH: Well, I think a movement has already been on the way, perhaps under pontificate of John Paul, II. When I think thinking began to move from the idea of essential Catholicism, sort of defining the boundaries of the church in the narrowest possible terms to make sure that you don't include anything suspicious to what we might call dynamic Catholicism, Catholicism that is dynamic, energetic, young.

And John Paul II's travels really made Catholicism a religion of the road, not of the cloister, not of the sanctuary, not of the sort of inner sanctum of people in authority. But his World Youth Day, I think, was an indication of how the church was looking forward to the new demographic changes.

MARTIN: Can I push you, although - Sister Simone, can I push you a little bit more on this question? I think we are dancing around a little bit of some profound philosophical differences that do exist between many people in Western Europe and the United States...

CAMPBELL: Yes.

MARTIN: ...and in other parts of the world over matters of doctrine and over matters of philosophy around - like social issues, like the role of women, the use of contraception, things of that sort.

CAMPBELL: It's way easier to talk about Africa because it's distant. We're not there and we can speak of it in the third person. The fact is, I think, that the struggle in the United States with regards to the issues that you raise, Michel, is really about the - how do we inculturate our faith in a democratic culture? How do we inculturate this idea or this teaching, this basic teaching that everyone's conscience needs to be formed, and that women also have fully formed consciences and can make moral choices?

I think that is one of the biggest struggles that we're involved in at this point and, in the selection of pope, what we have is this moment to shine a spotlight on the different approach of the monarchy who believes it's just for the king out of a European model and our inculturation of faith that says everyone's at the table. Everyone is welcome at the table because we know God's image and likeness is in every person. God does not make mistakes.

MARTIN: Professor Sanneh, would you like to speak to that?

SANNEH: Yeah. I'd say that the table of Catholicism is very, very broad and very wide and I just came back from Rome and it was clear to me, at mealtimes, my next door neighbor was a Sudanese Cardinal who is marooned in the north, whereas most of his congregation have moved to the south of Sudan.

And I think Catholicism being a world church really does reflect that enormous diversity of outlook, of culture, of language, but I would say that the future of Catholicism is probably far greater than we are inclined to think, given the rather compressed, sometimes fractious nature of inter-Catholic disputes. And I think there is a lot of willingness among the Catholic faithful to make room for others.

CAMPBELL: Can I...

MARTIN: Sister Campbell, briefly, because I want to - I do want to get Father Ryan in this.

CAMPBELL: Quickly is that, as his comments were being made, I realized - yes - in Africa, there's a vibrancy, but you also need to know that Women Religious in Africa have been persecuted by some of the hierarchy, have been outcast, have been sexually assaulted in a variety of horrible ways. And so that some of the endemic problems in the United States also exist in Africa and women are often pushed to the margins and that is not a good way forward for any civilization, any society when you leave out half of your population.

So, while we can idealize the youth's vigor, I also want to lift up that Catholic sisters have experienced horrible atrocities within the church in that setting.

MARTIN: Father Ryan, can I get you to engage that question about this? One of the issues - perhaps it is true that there's more of a vibrancy and diversity around, say, worship, for example. Like, I remember, you know, as a young, you know, woman, how you had to - let's just say on, you know, Palm Sunday, you had to hold your palms in one hand - in the right hand only or all this other - you know, there are all these rules around worship. But, philosophically...

RYAN: Those were the days.

MARTIN: Those were the days. Right. But how does the new pope bridge the fact that, you know, within many countries, there are movements around gay rights, LGBT rights? There are movements around the empowerment of women that are just not appreciated and agreed with in other places. I mean, those fractures exist within the American Catholic church, as well as among Catholics. And what does the new pope have to do to bridge or even manage this?

RYAN: Well, there are so many different expectations. I mean, the expectations of a pope among Catholics of India, the expectation of the pope among the Catholics, for instance, of South Korea. South Korea especially is becoming a predominantly Christian country, so there are different expectations in different parts of the world.

Certainly, there are - women have problems in many parts of the world and there has been abuse of women in Women Religious sometimes in Africa and sometimes in other parts of the world.

I think what we have to keep in mind is that most of the members of the church are laity and Jesus says that the poor will inherit the earth. I think they're also going to inherit the church and I think we have to realize that there are - the concerns of most people in the global south are about where their next meal is coming from and how they're going to be able to educate their children.

I am constantly, because of the glories of the internet and telephones, getting requests from people just to help with some very basic things like that, so that's one of the things that I think any new pope - it doesn't matter where the pope comes from, but he should be aware of the realities of the developing world and especially the global south.

MARTIN: Professor Sanneh, a final thought from you briefly, if I may?

SANNEH: Well, I think something we haven't talked about, but that's going to be a very, very important issue is inter-religious conflict, interfaith conflict, the rise of radical ideologies and how, in most parts of the world outside the west, Catholics have really suffered tremendously. And I think the persecution of religious faithful around the world, many bishops getting up in the morning not knowing which of their parishioners are going to be alive in many cases - I think this is going to confront the new pope for a new style in interfaith statesmanship that I believe Rome should lead.

MARTIN: Sister Simone, a final thought from you, very briefly?

CAMPBELL: That I believe that the pope needs to have his heart broken by the people of the world and then that will give us hope.

MARTIN: Sister Simone Campbell is the executive director of NETWORK. That's a national Catholic social justice lobby. She was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Lamin Sanneh is a professor of world Christianity and history at Yale University. He joined us from Yale's studios in Newhaven, Connecticut. And Father Patrick Ryan is a professor of religion and society at Fordham University. We caught up with him in Bedfordshire in the United Kingdom.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

CAMPBELL: Thank you, Michel.

RYAN: Thank you.

SANNEH: Thank you.

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