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British Catholics' Quandary



By Kenan Malik

December 16, 2013

They call it the Francis effect: the impact of Pope Francis in galvanizing the Catholic faithful. Since he arrived at the Vatican, church attendance has surged across the world, while in his homeland of Argentina, the number of people defining themselves as believers has risen by a reported 12 percent.

Not just Catholics but those of other faiths, and of no faith, have fallen under Francis’ spell. “Even atheists should be praying for Pope Francis,” as the Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland put it recently.

Yet how much has really changed? Francis may be transforming the perception of the church and its mission, but not its core doctrines. He has called for a church more welcoming to gay people and women, but he will not challenge the idea that homosexual acts are sinful, refuses to embrace the possibility of same-sex marriage and insists that the ordination of women as priests is not “open to discussion.”

None of this should be surprising. Religious institutions necessarily spurn the modern and the fashionable, in favor of the traditional and the sacred. But it points up the dilemma in which religion finds itself in the modern world. If religious institutions do not change, they risk becoming obsolete. If they do change, they may imperil their authority. This quandary is faced not just by the Catholic Church but by all religious institutions today.

The Vatican recently sent out a questionnaire to gauge believers’ views on sex and family life. It is an initiative that has been partly pre-empted (in Britain, at least) by Linda Woodhead, a professor in the sociology of religion at Lancaster University, who has spent two years surveying the social attitudes of British believers, including Catholics. The results suggest that believers of all faiths are more liberal than expected. They also suggest a chasm between the views of believers and the official teachings of most faiths.

To put all this in context, about half of Britons now claim to have “no religion.” The Anglican Church represents a third, while Catholics constitute about 9 percent, or 5.6 million. A 2007 survey found, though, that attendance of Mass by Catholics outstripped churchgoing by Anglicans — making Catholics Britain’s most observant Christian denomination.

Professor Woodhead’s research found that 16 percent of Catholics want to ban abortions altogether, but two-thirds accept abortion of some kind. Astonishingly, one in 20 want a more liberal abortion law than currently exists in Britain. Almost two-thirds of British Catholics want British law to be changed to permit assisted suicide. Less than half think same-sex marriage “is wrong”; more than a third think it’s “right.” Only 9 percent even feel guilty about using contraception.

In Britain, Professor Woodhead noted that “‘faithful Catholics,’ according to official teaching, are now a rare and endangered species.” Much the same is true of most other religions, with the exception of Islam; the British Muslims she surveyed stood out as significantly more socially conservative.

Pope Francis’ modernizing approach might seem the ideal means of bridging the gap between the church and its followers. In fact, it may prove as problematic for the church as the rigid traditionalism of his predecessor, Benedict XVI.

Religious values are immensely flexible over time. Christian beliefs on many issues, from slavery to women, have changed enormously in the past two millenniums. Yet an institution like the Catholic Church can never be truly “modern.” The authority of the church rests on its claim to be able to interpret God’s word. Were the church to modify its teachings to meet the preferences of its flock, then its authority would inevitably weaken. But were it not to do so, the chasm between official teaching and actual practice would continue to grow.

This is the difficulty in which the Anglican Church has found itself in recent years, racked by controversies over “modernization,” particularly in its attitudes toward homosexuality and the ordination of women. It has come to be mocked both as an institution in which change is glacially slow and as one that has lost its bearings by ditching traditional values.

According to Professor Woodhead, few British believers now look to religion as the primary source of moral guidance. Most follow their own reason or intuition, or the advice of family and friends; fewer than one in 10 of believers seek guidance from God or a holy book. None look to religious leaders. The only faith that shows a substantially different pattern is, again, Islam.

It is easy to see why conservatives and traditional believers would find these figures troubling. Even for nonbelievers and social liberals, however, there may be cause for concern. The more open attitudes to social mores and the greater willingness to think for oneself are welcome. But the decay of religious authority points also to a more atomized society and a destruction of collective consensus about moral judgments.

Professor Woodhead’s surveys also reveal a generalized suspicion of strongly held beliefs of any kind. This erosion of convictions has, over the past three decades, gnawed away at the political sphere, leading to the decline of ideological politics and a growing distrust of traditional political parties. Mainstream parties have ditched their old constituencies, coming to see politics less as a matter of competing visions of the future than as a process of technocratic management. That has created fertile ground for the rise of myriad populist movements, often rooted in hostility to “the Other.”

The way party politics has jettisoned once cherished principles has been one reason for the greater salience of religious identities in recent years: The vacuum left by ideology has been filled by religious affiliation. The irony is that the new relativism may now also be undermining traditional religious institutions. And perhaps with the same consequences.

Kenan Malik is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster, and the author of “From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Aftermath.”