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April 26, 2005:

Election of Ratzinger Signals Another Step Toward a Distinctive, North American Christianity
by Jon M. Sweeney

The election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the next pope has brought a simmering issue into clearer focus: North American Christianity increasingly stands alone.

Once viewed only as a place across a wide ocean where religious dissidents fled persecution, North America is now seen around the world as a land of religious independents, set apart from the tradition, opinion, and growing influence of the two-thirds world.

“Two-thirds world” is how Pennsylvania State religion scholar Philip Jenkins refers to Africa, Asia, and Latin America and their increasing impact on Christian identity. As Jenkins writes in his book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, by 2025 Africa and Latin America will likely be the regions of the world with the most Christians, rather than Europe or North America, and by 2050 only 20 percent of the world’s Christians will be non-Hispanic whites.

Many pundits predicted that the next pope would be a cardinal from Latin America or Africa, reflecting the gradual moving of the “center” of the Church from the first world to the two-thirds world. With rare exception, Christian leaders in the two-thirds world view changes to traditional teaching and practice with suspicion, or regard such changes as unfaithfulness. There was no greater champion of this stance than the German cardinal, Cardinal Ratzinger.

In contrast—and the contrast is clearly noticed outside of North America—during the 26 years of Pope John Paul II’s reign, the American and Canadian Catholic churches effectively created a distinctive brand of Catholicism—one that respects the pope without actually heeding many of his teachings.

That trend appears ready to continue under the new pope. It may, in fact, even strengthen the divide between North America and the rest of the Catholic world.

According to a CNN poll conducted earlier this month just before the death of John Paul II, most American Catholics hold opinions on stem cell research, married men and women in the priesthood, and birth control that are out of line with the teachings from the Vatican, and clearly out of line with the new Pope Benedict XVI, who actually wrote most of John Paul II’s opinions on these matters. Seventy-eight percent of respondents said that the next pope should allow for the use of birth control; 63 percent said that priests should be allowed to marry and 55 percent that women should be allowed to become priests; and more than half responded that Catholic teaching should allow for a more open attitude toward the value of stem cell research.

In an interview with Phyllis Tickle, former contributing editor in religion for Publishers Weekly, explorefaith.org editorial board member and the compiler of The Divine Hours, she explained, “Where once religion observers could speak of ‘Euro-American’ Christianity, we no longer can do so with any real precision or utility. Even more telling is the fact that to be accurate in our terms, we have to speak of ‘North American’ Christianity instead of ‘U.S.’ Christianity, the trends and changes presently in process with the U.S. being more or less as identical to those in Canada as they are distinct from those in Europe.”

This distinction and trend is seen even more clearly in the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the U.S. Episcopal Church is a part. Today is the second day of meetings of North American bishops of the U.S. Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, in Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit, Michigan. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, was invited to attend the gathering, but declined. According to an interview with the leader of the Anglican bishops in Canada, Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, published last month in the Anglican Journal, “The message it [Williams’ declined invitation] sends to us is that at the moment he does not want to be associated with the Canadians.” The meetings will conclude on May 1.

Sure to be on the list of topics is how the Anglican/Episcopal bishops will continue to respond to accusations that the North American church is on its own in the worldwide communion of Anglicans in its support for an openly gay bishop among its members.

Again, Phyllis Tickle: “Minus a Reformation, an Enlightenment, and Rationalism, two-thirds world Christianity can hardly be expected to cohere with the theology and praxis of the first world, especially as two-thirds world Christianity gains dominance over first world in sheer numbers as well as spiritual enthusiasm and sacrificial allegiance. That separation is fairly easily explained.

“Almost as easily understood, however, is the separation in views and praxis between European Christianity and that of North America. Absent the experience of a vast new land mass and its settling, Europe can never develop nor comprehend the sacred individualism of the North American with its penchant for the idiosyncratic and its almost pathological insistence on equal air space for every opinion.”

This trend of North American individualism is also felt in the Jewish community on this continent, where the ratio of Orthodox to liberal believers follows the inverse trend of what is seen in the rest of the world. In Israel, for instance, if almost ninety percent of religiously observant Jews are Orthodox, and no more than ten percent represent the Reform, Reconstructionist, or Conservative movements (the three “liberal” denominations within modern Judaism), the reverse is true in North America.

The vast majority of Jews in the United States and Canada represent liberal movements, and a very small percentage is Orthodox. Even so, it is the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox who we most often see pictured in the media as representing Judaism.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, Emanu-El Scholar at Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco and the author of Jewish Spirituality: A Brief Introduction for Christians, reflected last week on this situation: “The divide between North American Judaism and Israeli Judaism—which together account for probably more than three quarters of all Jews in the world—is more than political or even social. It is theological.”

Kushner continued, “Those who reside outside Israel are said to live in ‘The Diaspora,’ or in ‘Exile.’ But Jews in America have fashioned their own unique and unmistakable religious subculture. And it is very different from Israeli Judaism. By comparison it is assimilationist, non-traditional, and introspective.”

From their beginnings, North Americans have often followed conscience over tradition. We have often taken prophetic stands for what we believed to be right. In the future, we may be standing alone.

Jon Sweeney is an author and editor living in Vermont. His new book is

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