This blog post is the first in a two-part series by Arun Jones, Dan and Lillian Hankey Associate Professor of World Evangelism at Candler School of Theology. In these two pieces, Dr. Jones examines how other Christian traditions function as global churches for the sake of making comparisons with The United Methodist Church.
It seems to me that there are two Christian traditions that are successfully pulling off the feat of being truly global in today’s world. These are Roman Catholicism and Pentecostalism. I think they are successful for very different reasons – their mutual antagonism in many places speaks to that difference! Let me reflect on how the Catholics can be global.
My experience of Roman Catholicism is as much a lived experience as an academic one. While my courses in church history and in Roman Catholic missiology have provided me with my academic knowledge, living with Roman Catholics (including close family members) in India, the Philippines and the U.S.A. is really the source of these reflections on global Catholicism. As I moved from one country to another in my young adulthood, I was struck at how different Catholicism is in each context: how the self-understanding of what it means to be Catholic changed from country to country. Despite my disagreements with certain Catholic doctrine, I have wondered in amazement, “How is this possible?”
Roman Catholics are bound together by a common liturgy (for the most part – however, there are at least 3 different Roman Catholic rites in India alone) and a common set of doctrines and laws. However, Catholicism allows for flexibility in the following ways.
It allows for multiple readings of common practices and texts. By “reading” I mean something close to “interpretation.” The impact of words, of teachings, of gestures is different in different cultural, national and linguistic contexts. And Roman Catholicism, on the whole, is fine with that. I think most of us Protestants (and the press) get so caught up with the few internal fights that Catholics have about proper interpretation of doctrine and practice that we forget the many, many ways in which our sisters and brothers are happily “reading” their faith differently.
Secondly, Roman Catholicism allows for multiple practices. There are devotions, saints, liturgies, pilgrimages, and other practices in different contexts that the Catholics in those contexts understand to be absolutely vital to their faith, and which are completely irrelevant to Catholics outside the context. I was struck by this the first time I read about the devotion to the black Nazarene in Manila, the Philippines, and how I had heard of nothing like it in India. Yet that devotion is vital to the faith of millions of Filipino Catholics.
Thirdly, Catholicism allows for multiple Catholic identities. A few years ago I was having a pleasant conversation with some Catholic priests in New Delhi, and I asked them about the discussion on priestly celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church in India. This particular group of priests looked at me like I was out of my mind – for them, at least, there was no discussion! I then realized how the Indian religious context, which has a very strong tradition of holy men and holy women who are celibate ascetics, could very well make celibacy a prize and not a burden for priests and nuns. Similarly the various branches of the Orthodox tradition in India take great pride in the fact that their bishops must be celibate. In the Philippines, on the other hand, I found lay people who felt sorry for priests because they could not marry, and even excused priests who were known to have a “family” somewhere. For Filipino priests and nuns, Catholic identity lies elsewhere. And the same goes for laity – to be an American Catholic is quite a unique experience in worldwide Catholicism in some ways. I have come to the conclusion that in the U.S.A., Roman Catholicism is paradoxically the largest denomination and yet thrives on an identity that sees itself as a minority Christian tradition.
My point here is not to minimize the problems of the Roman Catholic Church – we all have problems, and will have them until Christ returns in glory – but to point out how the Roman Catholic Church in some ways handles the issue of unity in diversity. We Protestants are probably too logocentric, insisting on “correct” readings first of Scripture and subsequently of doctrine and subsequently of practice, to deal with diversity the way our Catholic sisters and brothers do (and the diversity I have pointed out is mostly a lay initiative). So we United Methodists are floating ideas of having different “Disciplines” for different parts of the world, instead of giving flexibility in “reading” the same Discipline. But as the difficulties of the worldwide nature of Protestantism are making clear, I don’t think we have come up with a good alternative to the Roman Catholic way of being catholic. And maybe reflecting on the Roman Catholic experience can help us to start thinking differently about what worldwide United Methodism can and actually should mean.