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Africa and Asia provide us with an inconvenient truth

Responses to Pew Foundation survey suggests huge differences in opinion on moral questions between Catholics from different continents

By on Tuesday, 6 May 2014

'Europe has abandoned traditional morality, by and large, while other places have kept it' (CNS)

'Europe has abandoned traditional morality, by and large, while other places have kept it' (CNS)

Sometimes we need to be reminded of the obvious. The excellent Sandro Magister does this in his latest piece, highlighting the results of a survey done by the Pew Foundation on moral questions across a wide spectrum of countries. The results of the survey can be seen here.

There is nothing in the survey that should surprise us, though there is much that is shocking. A staggering 47 per cent of French respondents thought that abortion was not a moral issue, for example. A statistic like that reveals what we know to be true: when morality decays it is replaced not by immorality (or at least not for long) but by amorality.

The overall impression given by the survey is that there is a huge difference between traditionally Catholic countries in Europe, and countries in Africa and Asia. Many of these African and Asian countries have considerable Catholic populations, and many of them, one notes, considerable Muslim ones. But this, as I say, is something we know already. What is interesting is that Sandro Magister applies it to the discussions that will dominate the upcoming Synod on the family. He seems to be saying that we ought not to be listening to the Germans and the French when it comes to morality, but rather to the Filipinos and the Ghanaians. His conclusion is stark:

If, as Pope Francis tirelessly preaches, the Church’s mission is not to close itself off in its old geographical and cultural perimeters but to open itself to the ‘peripheries’ of the world, it is evident that the Catholicism of Germany cannot be – as is happening to some extent – the universal parameter for changing the teaching and practice of the Church in matters of family, Communion for the divorced and remarried, and same-sex marriage.

Indeed, the implication is that the Synod should not concern itself with what could be considered ‘first world problems’.

There is something else to be learned here. It is not simply a matter of “If we change our attitude to same-sex marriage, we run the risk of losing our adherents in the Third World.” That statement might well be true, but it is simplistic and not in the least theological. It should more be a matter of developing the following line of thought: “Europe has abandoned traditional morality, by and large, while other places have kept it. Perhaps we should listen to the insights of the faithful, rather than the insights of the faithless. Perhaps Africa and Asia have something to teach us.” For in the end, questions of morality are questions about truth, not questions about consequences and convenience. Africa and Asia may be telling us, if we would but listen, an inconvenient truth.

Our Anglican brethren have been here before now, with various clashes at Lambeth Conferences between the seeming polar opposites represented by the Episcopal Church of the USA and the Anglican Church of Nigeria. More recently, Archbishop Welby has spoken of the way blessing same-sex unions in Britain may impact negatively on Anglicans in Southern Sudan.

It is understandable that a global church, such as the Anglican Communion, needs to keep everyone on board, and it is very clear that this is becoming more and more difficult. The upcoming Synod perhaps will have a similar idea at the back of its mind: after all, no one likes schism. But the real question is not “How can we keep everyone happy?” but rather, “What is the Spirit saying to the Churches?” (Revelation 2:29) In this process of discernment, we need to learn from the experience of our brethren in Africa and Asia.

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