Catholic Church At Crossroads: Demographics, Social Issues Pose Challenges Pope Benedict XVI leaves the church in the midst of change: American Catholics' social views tend to diverge from the Vatican's, and the church now sees much of its support in South America and Africa. One former member of the College of Cardinals says the next pope will have to be aware of the church's needs in South America.
NPR logo

Catholic Church At Crossroads: Demographics, Social Issues Pose Challenges

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Catholic Church At Crossroads: Demographics, Social Issues Pose Challenges

Catholic Church At Crossroads: Demographics, Social Issues Pose Challenges

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Coming up, why the language of Jesus may become extinct and exploring a dark period in Ireland's Catholic Church. First, though, to Vatican City.

POPE BENEDICT XVI: (Latin spoken)

LYDEN: In Rome this morning, throngs crowded St. Peter's Square for Pope Benedict's final public prayer ceremony.

BENEDICT XVI: I thank everyone for the many expressions of gratitude, affection, closeness and prayer.

LYDEN: One of the world's oldest religious institutions is undergoing a transformation. The spiritual leader of the Catholic Church is breaking with a tradition not seen since 1415. Pope Benedict steps down in just a few days. But what sort of religious landscape will his successor be stepping into? That's our cover story today: Catholicism at a crossroads.


LYDEN: Today, the majority of the world's billion-plus Catholics - about 40 percent live in Latin America. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The largest single bloc of Catholics, not a majority, is in Latin America and the Caribbean.] And though some of the greatest wars in Europe grew out of religious tensions, the increasingly secular continent is now home to just a quarter of the world's Catholics. The only region in the world where Catholicism is experiencing overall growth is in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Christian Database.

In a few minutes, we'll hear about its boom there and we'll hear from a cardinal who helped elect Benedict about the direction the church is now headed.

Today, one in 10 American Catholics born into the religion has lapsed. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The 2009 Pew Research Center poll "Faith in Flux" reports that 1 in 10 American adults has left the religion after being raised Catholic.] More than half of them say they're unhappy with the church's stance on social issues like abortion and homosexuality. And about three quarters say they just drifted away, according to the Pew Research Center.

However, Mary Elizabeth Williams, a writer at and a self-described liberal feminist, says that when it comes to her Catholic faith, she isn't going anywhere. She wrote about it in a recent article for Salon called "No Matter What, I'm Still Catholic." Williams recognizes that this has been a damaging decade for the Catholic Church, especially due to the priest sex-abuse scandals.

MARY ELIZABETH WILLIAMS: And the best example that I can give is the way that I feel about my country. I love being an American. I love my country. It doesn't mean I always love its leadership. It does mean that I believe in the philosophy behind democracy. And I believe in the tenets of the Catholic Church. I believe in what it's taught me about love and charity and forgiveness and tolerance.

You know, there's this idea that if you're a Catholic, you must - you're just toeing a line and you have to blindly follow. And I think, you know, the great example that I get from Christ is to make trouble and to ask questions. And that to me is the ultimate manifestation of Catholicism.

LYDEN: You also said that as a Catholic that Pope Benedict was not really your pope. With that in mind, do you think it even matters who's chosen to replace him?

WILLIAMS: I really do, and I would really love to see someone who was like John XXIII. I think we really need somebody who has the leadership and the vision to get in there and take us into this 21st century.

LYDEN: Well, he, of course, is famous for Vatican II in 1964 and modernizing the church.

WILLIAMS: Right. And why not have that again? It's been 50 years.

LYDEN: Just over your own lifetime, how has the tone changed? Are people less accepting of your being a Catholic than you think they were when you were still back in high school?

WILLIAMS: I think Catholicism and the perception of Catholicism have changed tremendously in my lifetime. I grew up right after Vatican II, so I grew up in an era of real ecumenicalism and guitar masses and freedom and this sense that Catholicism meant being involved in social justice, it meant caring about peace, it meant caring about the environment. And in my time, especially since, I think, Pope John Paul II and now Pope Benedict, it's gone in such a conservative direction.

And obviously, we've had so many revelations about the terrible crimes that have been committed and then concealed within the Catholic Church that, you know, when you tell people you're a Catholic now, you don't always get a very friendly response. And it's difficult being associated with an institution that has such negative connotations. I think that's why it's important for those of us who still really believe there's something there that's of great value and great beauty and great truth to stick around and fight for what is meaningful within the institution.

LYDEN: Just like Mary Elizabeth Williams, the majority of American Catholics' views on social issues diverges widely from official doctrine.

ROBERT JONES: One of the things that I think people are often surprised to learn is that in the American context, a majority of Catholics actually support allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry.

LYDEN: That's Robert Jones. He's the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit group that conducts polling. A slim majority of American Catholics, he says, also support legal abortion. And even though American-born Catholics are leaving the faith, he says immigration is filling the gap.

JONES: Twenty-two percent of all Americans are Catholic, but what's happening is that there's been a loss of people who are born Catholic. We see about 9 percent of them saying they're no longer Catholic today. And those have basically gone about half to other religions and about half to being nothing. Catholics are the religious group who have lost the most adherents, but they've been buoyed, on the other hand, by immigration because a great number of immigrants to the country are Hispanic and are Catholic. So the net of that dynamic is effectively zero, but it hides, I think, a lot of volatility underneath the surface.

LYDEN: When it comes to the next pope, Jones says, American Catholics want to see more modernity.

JONES: About four in 10 say that their church should preserve its traditional beliefs and practice. But a majority - 53 percent - say that the church should either adjust its traditional beliefs and practices in light of new circumstances or adopt modern beliefs and practices.

LYDEN: North America is home to just 7 percent of the world's Catholics now. So when the College of Cardinals meets to elect the next pope, they'll grapple with a church that increasingly resonates in the Southern Hemisphere.

JONES: Back in 1910, nearly two-thirds of all Catholics resided in Europe, right? Now, today, that number has dropped to only 24 percent. The largest single bloc of Catholics is in Latin America and the Caribbean. So we have a very different center of gravity just geographically speaking and ethnically speaking than we've ever had.

LYDEN: Nevertheless, Jones points out that of the 100-plus cardinals who will elect the new pope, more than half of them are European. And all in all, they're an elderly group. The average age is 72. They can't be older than 80 by Vatican decree.

That's why Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, age 82, won't be in Rome. He was part of the College of Cardinals that elected Pope Benedict. We caught up with the former archbishop of Washington and asked him if he thinks the next pope should reflect the new demographics of Catholicism.

CARDINAL THEODORE MCCARRICK: We cannot be unaware of the changing face of the church. We cannot be unaware of its existence in such larger numbers in the Southern Hemisphere. And so because of that, I think it would be important that the electors, when they go in, have an idea that somehow, either in the person they elect or in his openness, that a lot of the leadership will have to be cognizant of the great needs of the church in the Southern Hemisphere.

LYDEN: Do you also think that the next pope needs to reflect a changing religious landscape in terms of modernity and how the world is changing - social justice, for example?

MCCARRICK: Well, certainly to the extent that, as best as John XXIII would say, we constantly have to do this aggiornamento. We constantly have to bring us up to date. Not changing our doctrine because that has - that comes to us from the Lord. But changing perhaps the way we describe what we're all about, changing in a certain sense the emphasis that we must put on some things rather than others, the necessity of remembering not only the great doctrines but also the great gifts of Catholic social teaching, that demands that we look at the rights of people who do not have rights right now. And that we really, once again, devote ourselves to taking care of the poor all around the world.

LYDEN: You were part of the conclave that elected Pope Benedict. And now that he is stepping down, specifically what do you think his legacy will be?

MCCARRICK: I think that Benedict was probably even a better theologian than John Paul II. John Paul II was a philosopher and a poet. And sometimes, you had to read his encyclicals a couple of times before you got to the core of what he's teaching, whereas Benedict is a great teacher. We Americans don't do much listening to what the pope says. If we started to do it, we would find that this is a treasure of great thoughts and of great teaching.

LYDEN: That's Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

In Africa, more people are listening to the pope than perhaps ever before. In 1910, there were about a million Catholics in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1 percent of the global Catholic population. Today, there are more than 170 million Catholics. That's 16 percent of the global share. Those numbers are from a 2010 Pew Research Center analysis. And the rate is only rising.

ANIEDI OKURE: That is huge. That's a fast growth.

LYDEN: That's Aniedi Okure, a Nigerian and executive director of the Africa Faith and Justice Network, a Catholic advocacy group.

OKURE: What has happened is that people in Africa generally, traditionally, religion and life dovetail into each other. So religion punctuates most of the things people do. And so they have transferred that into Catholicism. So it becomes a central part of their life, something that informs what they do - morning, afternoon, evening.

JACQUES BAHATI: My name is Jacques Bahati. I came to Catholicism by birth.

LYDEN: Jacques Bahati is a policy analyst with the group, and he hails from the Democratic Republic of Congo and a long line of Catholics. His grandfather became an evangelist after being converted by Belgian missionaries who came over in droves in the early 20th century. Bahati says Catholicism has taken firm root in his home country because Rome let parishes adapt the traditional Mass to their own cultural preferences.

BAHATI: We like to drum, we like to sing, we like the people to be engaged in many ways during Mass.

LYDEN: One name bandied about as a possible successor to Pope Benedict comes from Ghana, that of Cardinal Peter Turkson. Bahati says it would be empowering for Africans to see one of their own elevated to the papacy. But even if Turkson isn't chosen, Pope Benedict's retirement from a life post is a lesson for the continent.

BAHATI: Today, how many leaders in Africa are able to transition peacefully the power? There are very few. So there is a message for those leaders. There is no need to cling to power.

LYDEN: Next month at the Vatican Sistine Chapel, the College of Cardinals will take part in an ancient and mysterious process to elect a new pope who must embrace this new religious landscape. But white smoke will still appear to tell the world who he is.


LYDEN: This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.