When I was young it was common to hear people refer to the Church of England as a broad church, going from the Ritualists (more Roman than the Romans, it was said), through the broad churchmen, down to the Evangelicals (more Methodist than the Methodists my grandmother used to say, after she joined the C of E). The same is true, in spades, for the Catholic Church. In the latest edition of the Catholic Herald Dr Stephen Bullivant has spoken (and written) about the Syro-Malabar Catholics and their new cathedral in Preston. There are, he tells us, some 40,000 Indian Syro-Malabar Catholics in the UK. I was at Walsingham last year when about 15,000 of them came on pilgrimage; it was an awe-inspiring sight – a reminder that the Catholic Church is a global federation of two dozen churches. It is a sign of our insularity that we so often forget this. The Eastern and Oriental Catholic Churches have about 18 million members, and a history of them would amount to a history of global Catholicism. Many of these churches owe their existence to the desire for unity with Rome. Where schism has occurred, the instinct to unity has brought some communities back into the fold. In many ways the creation of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham to allow former Anglicans to come back into communion with Rome, bringing with them their own liturgical patrimony, is another example of this tendency.
The Catholic Church is indeed more ‘Catholic’ than many of us appreciate, and when we conduct our arguments about what the ‘Church’ allows, we often fail to appreciate that its rules are often shaped by different cultural contexts. Much of the problem some in the West have with Pope Francis comes, I suspect, from his different cultural context as an Argentinian. He did not grow up with a faith in unalloyed capitalism, neither did he imbibe an admiration for the American system with his mother’s milk. He grew up with a distrust of ‘Yankee imperialism’, and his experience of ‘democracy’ is not that of those of us in countries with systems founded on an Anglo-Saxon model. Although we hear much of a globalised world, it is not so globalised that an Argentinian will have had the same societal experiences as someone from North America.
This pontificate is, perhaps, a sign of what is to come as the long Western domination of the Catholic Church begins to change in response to demographic trends. As vocations and church attendance declines in the West, they are growing elsewhere, and this is bound to have its effect. To old men set in their ways it might seem that the only way to respond is to point out that ‘Africans’ are ‘backward’ and to imagine they will ‘catch up’. But that is to fall for a version of the old cultural imperialism myth. Though one would hardly notice it from a media keen to play up Pope Francis as a liberal, his criticism of ‘gender ideology’ was cast in terms of ‘ideological colonisation’. Like other prominent Catholics from outside Western Europe and the USA, he does not buy into the currently fashionable views on things which you will not find British, European or American Cardinals questioning. It is easy to lose sight of this if we construe him solely in terms of our own ‘culture wars’.
The time was when the West took the faith to the rest of the world (after a period in which it was taken to it), but the time may be coming when the rest of the world will return the privilege by reminding us of what is constant in our own tradition.