Monday, 31 March 2008

Relegation Zone

He might have been the chairman of a supermarket chain announcing that, despite continued growth in all the key areas, they had just been overtaken by their main competitor. Or a Premiership manager trying to explain how they had been knocked off the top spot without losing any vital matches. A grim, thankless task, but it had to be done. Monsignor Vittorio Formenti revealed the embarrassing statistic contained in his new Vatican factbook, recently launched.

"For the first time in history, we are no longer at the top: Muslims have overtaken us," he lamented to L'Osservatore Romano, the statelet's official newspaper. Against a mere 1.13 billion Roman Catholics, there are at least 1.3 billion Muslims. Almost (but not quite) one in five of the world's population now turns towards Mecca to pray, while at 17.4% the percentage of human beings looking to Rome is now lower than the British standard rate of VAT.

It's a rather questionable statement. There have actually been many times in history when there were more Muslims than Roman Catholics. There have even been times when there were more Buddhists than Roman Catholics. Were it not for the imperial legacy of Spain in Latin America and the Philippines, and later the French in Africa, Catholicism would still largely be confined to Europe, yet long before Columbus Islam had spread throughout large parts of Asia. These things come and go.

Of course, as Mgr Formenti was quick to point out, if you factor in around 700 million Protestants and an estimated 350 million Orthodox Christians of various sorts there are still almost twice as many followers of Jesus in the world as there are who look to the example of Mohammed. At least theoretically: the oft-quoted claim, more risible than ever, that Dr Rowan Williams "leads" more than 70 million Anglicans, depends on including everyone in Britain who has ever got within splashing distance of a font, and the same no doubt applies to havens of Catholic secularism like France. Still, it must have been good for the Romanists to be able to boast that on their own they could field a bigger army than the varied cohorts of Sunnis, Shias, Ismailis, Ahmadis and the rest all put together. Rather as the Royal Navy used to boast that it had more ships than all Europe's other navies combined.

Perhaps that's why Ratzinger has been so keen on encouraging reunion talks with the Orthodox (Protestants, of course, are beneath contempt, not counting as proper churches at all). Or why he made such a fuss of Magdi Allam, who converted from Islam in a lavish baptism ceremony at easter.

Does size matter? Is the growing popularity of Islam evidence of the superior selling-power of the product, or simply a matter of demographics? After all, religious affiliation is overwhelmingly an accident of birth. Reliable figures on conversions are hard to establish, but the great days of converting the heathen, whether to Rome, Canterbury or Mecca, are clearly in the past. Evangelical Christianity is gaining ground at Rome's expense in places such as Brazil, but that's rather like switching from Coke to Pepsi: the product is, except to its enthusiasts, more or less indistinguishable. Islam's spread in Europe is almost entirely due to immigration and higher birth-rates, both factors that have yet to peak, but which will before the century is out. An Islamified Europe seems implausible. Much less plausible, at least, than a Europeanised Islam that will, after a few years, become almost as emptied of meaning as Europeanised Christianity.

It must be particularly galling for the Vatican to find themselves overtaken demographically by Muslims. For while high birth-rates are a fact of life in much of the Islamic world, and in many Muslim communities in the west, there can be no religion that has done more to preach the gospel of fertility than Catholicism. Catholic women in the third world are even enjoined to have AIDS-compliant, condom-free sex so as to breed more communicants: a dead mother is, after all, still a mother, and she will have her reward in heaven. The only trouble is the likelihood of a death-rate at least as high as the birthrate, which may go some way towards explaining the church's static growth figures.

Whatever the explanation, Mgr Formenti's message is clearly "could do better". If the Church were a football club, the obvious solution would be to fire the manager. If it were multinational, the private equity funds would be circling. As it is, I guess they'll just have to pray.

1 comment:

Adrian said...

Christianity is actually spreading very considerably by conversion in China and even more in Korea, which will soon be a majority Christian country. Whereas Islam relies much more on birth-rates. Converts to Islam are often doing so to get married.