Popular Protestants are the next Pope's problem

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The Roman Catholic church in this country may be suffering from rapidly falling membership and a shortage of priests and money. But it is at least fairly united in public. Elsewhere in the developed world, the sort of passionate hatred that Paul Johnson pours upon Anglicans is reserved by Catholics for their brothers and sisters in the one true church.

In the US and Germany, the two richest Catholic churches in the world are torn between liberals and conservatives, who are organised in apparently irreconcilable camps, divided by their attitudes to women, to papal authority and to the role of the church in the modern world. For the past 20 years, bishops have been selected only from men who have shown unremitting fidelity to the most controversial aspects of Vatican teaching, especially the ban on artificial contraception. This has only increased the distance between their views and those of most of the faithful.

On Sunday an international movement for the reform of the Catholic Church, known as "We are the Church", launched itself in a London church. It sprang from a referendum among Catholics in Austria last year, when 500,000 people, a third of the country's church-going population, signed a petition calling for five reforms. They wanted married clergy, women priests, contraception within marriage, a more humane treatment of homosexuals and recognition of the remarriages of divorced Catholics.

The same five demands were then presented by a campaign in Germany, where they gained 1,500,000 signatures, despite the bishops campaigning actively against them. The church in Austria had been split, and some bishops allowed the collection of signatures after church services. In this country there will be no collection of signatures. But there is considerable support for some parts of this agenda.

Conservatives have fought back around the world. In America, the Bishop of Nebraska excommunicated all the members of 11 liberal organisations this spring. Pope John Paul II has led the way, with an attempt to put the ordination of women out of the question for ever last year. He has constantly reiterated his opposition to contraception, and to the idea of greater democracy in the church.

However, the greatest challenge faced by the Catholic Church comes not in the West but in the Third World, where the bulk of the world's Catholics live. The insistence on priestly celibacy is producing a tremendous shortage of priests, where it is not ignored, as it is large parts of Africa. At the same time, the rise of Pentecostal Christianity in Latin America is gutting the church there. Protestants, once a despised and insignificant minority, now form as many as 25 per cent of the Christians in some Latin American countries. That may well come to seem a more urgent problem for the next Pope than any amount of discontented Western middle-class intellectuals.