Looking at the newspapers you’d think Catholicism is having a hard time with philandering priests and cover-ups of their doings being found out on a weekly basis. In Australia, the royal commission has uncovered a lot of systematically covered-up child abuse in the Catholic Church. Dutch and German newspapers kept track for a while in 2012 of the regional frequencies of new cases of sexual misconduct allegations. You might think Catholicism is getting its long-awaited come-uppance. Nothing is further from the truth however: Catholicism is in rude health and those aspects that seem its weakness (secrecy, cover-up, anti-gay message) are actually among its strongest assets.
According to the Catholic Church itself (which measures things partially on the basis of baptisms), its followers numbered 1.3 billion adherents by 2014 making Catholicism the largest religion on the planet and the largest branch on the tree of Christianity that holds about 2.2 billion adherents. Its strongholds in Latin America and Southern Africa are looking rock-solid, and conversion rates in the new centers of Asia (China, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc.) are looking very healthy indeed. Catholicism is by far the biggest and probably fastest growing of the Christian faiths.
What is interesting about Catholicism is that it seems to have lost its footing in its traditional stronghold, Southern and Western Europe. The area where (most of) the popes before the current one came from, where many old cathedrals are, where many of the alternative branches of Christianity originated, is now more secular than ever. Europe now has to import monks from Latin America and Africa to fill up its most prestigious and old monasteries (such as the one in Poblet, Spain). Things are so bad for Catholicism in Europe that in April 2009, the Archbishop of Vienna proclaimed that “The time of Christianity in Europe is coming to an end”. The same is true in Australia.
It is of course precisely this retreat of the power of the Catholic church that allows all the skeletons to emerge from the cupboard, not the other way around. Those skeletons remained nicely buried the previous centuries and it is striking how few scandals come to the surface in places like Brazil and Nigeria compared to the almost massive ‘coming out’ that we have seen in Australia and Europe.
It is in the same light that one should see the choices of the Roman Catholic church regarding the marriage of priests, the use of condoms, the rights of gays, etc.: policy choices in those realms are simply no longer aimed at pleasing or controlling the faithful in Australia and the rest of the West, but are now aimed at keeping and expanding the appeal of the church in Africa and Asia. And it is working! Whatever Germans, French, Italian, American, and Australian Catholics think about the appropriate meaning of Christianity, the barriers to a church wedding, and the celibacy rules for priests is simply not of great importance anymore because the international market for new souls is elsewhere.
Most commentators on the Australian situation following the Royal Commission into child abuse and the kerfuffle about gay marriage miss the most important drivers of these debates: Australia is secularising and that is why the scandals no longer get covered up (not the other way around); bishops and others in the church hierarchy are keeping to the story that fits its appeal around the world, not locally; and anti-gay and pro-cover-up policies are popular in the growth centres.
In stead of hence bemoaning clericalism as a thing of the past and the reason for the demise of the church, one should see clericalism (‘holding the line for internal career reasons’) as part of the great strength of the Roman Catholic Church. The pope might bemoan clericalism, but that same clericalism is what gives him his authority: it is because the insiders hold his line that the pope has power.
It is, speaking as a pure outsider to these religious games, very interesting to see how successful the Catholic\Christian message is amongst the Chinese in Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and even in China itself. In Singapore, the proportion of Christians went up from 10% in 1990 to around 20% now, and a little under half of them are Roman Catholic.
Australian Universities witness a lot of action in this regard: you can see young Chinese female converters lining up to peddle the Catholic message amongst the recent student migrants in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane. Statistics for conversions in China are hard to get in that estimates of the current stock range from about 15 million self-identified Christians in the latest Census to 40 million in the CIA-factbook to 140 million in unsubstantiated estimates by particular Christian organisations (see Wikipedia). Yet, even the mid-stream estimate of 3% is quite a bit up from 50 years ago so it does appear that the Chinese are ripe for the taking in terms of religiosity. It certainly looks that way amongst Chinese students in Australia. The main competitor to Christianity, Islam, is not making any headway in the Han-Chinese population.
I personally expect China to become more Christian, as the control of the state becomes less and the uncertainty of capitalist life makes the urban middle classes receptive to the Christian promise of a loving god and an eternal life. Whether the Chinese go for Catholicism or one of the alternatives amongst the Christian pantheon is harder to know. Catholicism seems a bit old-school with the whole incense burning and elaborate robes, but then, people do enjoy a bit of pageantry and mumbo-jumbo. So we’ll see.