June 3, 2005

Catholic Church Prepares For Cold War With Evangelists

By Paolo Pontoniere

On the day before the conclave to choose a new pope began, future pontiff Joseph Ratzinger led a liturgy that reassured the church’s believers that the Holy See was not giving up on them and was prepared to fight for the salvation of their souls. He surely meant to allude to the fight against moral relativism, but he also had his sights set on evangelicalism.

Indeed, during the first mass held by Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, he strongly implied that the Catholic church is the rightful House of Christ, and said that his first commitment was toward “the full and visible unity of Christ’s followers.”

Today, to regain ground in the first world and continue to expand in the Third World, the Roman Catholic Church, more than fighting secularism, must counteract the expansion of evangelical groups. It is a silent clash that could be compared to the protracted, mostly slow-burning feud between capitalism and communism during the Cold War.

According to some researchers, evangelical Christianity is expanding three times faster than the world population and is the only existing religious group showing a significant growth through conversion. By contrast, the Roman Catholic Church is expanding at a slower pace than the population, which will mean an overall decrease in the number of Catholics worldwide.

In addition, the dissolution of the Berlin Wall not only reinvigorated the Orthodox church, but also saw huge numbers of believers from the former Socialist bloc — where the church had been persecuted — move into evangelical groups.

There are currently more evangelicals in Asia than in North America. Singapore’s churches are among the most active in the world, sending one missionary abroad per every 1,000 members. Seven of the world’s 10 largest evangelical churches can be found in Seoul alone, a city in which 110 years ago there was none.

In Latin America, a mostly Catholic region for the past 500 years, the number of evangelicals has grown from under 250,000 in 1900 to over 60 million in 2000. Critics of the Vatican say the vacuum left by Pope John Paul II’s disavowal of the “basic Christian communities” movement has been filled by the evangelicals.

In 1960, the number of evangelicals living in the developing countries were one-half of those in the West; in the year 2000 they were four times more and in 2010 they will be seven times as numerous.

In America, where even Protestant groups have lost 5.4 million members over the last decade, evangelicals have enjoyed a growth rate of 40 percent. They have become the largest religious force in the United States, with 26 percent of all believers — and they wield undeniable political clout.

“The current pope is a renovator. But there cannot be renovation without tradition,” says Father Joseph Fazio, founder of St. Ignatius Press and Chancellor of Ave Maria University in Florida. “I don’t have any doubt that he’ll realize the full spirit of Vatican II, of unifying all of Christ’s believers under the benevolent care of the Holy See.

“He has already laid the doctrinal ground for the renaissance of the church — he did it when he was at the helm of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. Under Benedict XVI the world will know that the Roman Catholic Church has Christ’s message at its core and follows his teachings closely,” adds Fr. Fazio.

The battle for the soul of believers in developed countries, particularly the United States, is also critical — most of the funds used by alternative evangelical churches to send missionaries and proselytize in the poorer countries come from there.

The appointment of San Francisco Archbishop William Levada to the previous position held by Pope Benedict XVI himself can be better appreciated in this light.

Levada’s appointment sends the message that the church entrusts its doctrines to a prelate who had led a diocese in America’s most secular humanist and morally relativistic city. Levada has dealt firsthand with the legacies of free love, feminism, the gay movement and the evangelical juggernaut.

“Benedict XVI has chosen Levada specifically because he knows how to face these challenges,” says Father Labib Kobti, pastor at St. Thomas More in San Francisco and U.S. Representative for the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

“When Levada expressed his surprise at his appointment, the Pope responded that he was in fact the right man for the task because he came from a world where evangelical groups were a challenge, where the message of Christ was being distorted, and that he had provided a compassionate but firm rebuttal to the many assaults that the church of San Francisco had faced during his years as head of the diocese.”

Under Levada’s almost decade-long tenure, San Francisco’s Catholic church regained a religious presence that had been faltered under the more politically adaptable administration of Archbishop John Quinn.

Father Kobti, however, dismisses suggestions that the Vatican is more than alarmed at the growing influence of evangelicalism. “In the past the church has been given for dead more than once,” he says. “Take for example the rise of the Baptists and of the Lutherans.”

Paolo Pontoniere is a correspondent for Focus, Italy’s leading monthly.

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