pope francis

This is the full version of the essay published in the International New York Times last month under the headline ‘British Catholics’ quandary’.

They call it the Francis effect: the impact of Pope Francis in galvanizing the Catholic faithful. Since he arrived at the Vatican, church attendance has surged across the world, while, in his homeland of Argentina, the number of people defining themselves as believers has risen by a reported 12 percent. Not just Catholics but those of other faiths, and of no faith, have fallen under Francis’s spell. ‘Even atheists should be praying for Pope Francis’, as the Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland put it recently.

Yet, how much has really changed?  Francis may be transforming the perception of the Church and its sense of mission, but not its core doctrines. He has called for a church more welcoming to gay people and women, but he will not challenge the idea that homosexual acts are sinful, refuses to embrace the possibility of same-sex marriage and insists that the ordination of women as priests is not ‘open to discussion’.

None of this should be surprising. Religious institutions necessarily spurn the modern and the fashionable, in favor of the traditional and the sacred. But it points up the dilemma in which religion finds itself in the modern world. If religious institutions do not change, they risk becoming obsolete. If they do change, they may imperil their authority. This quandary is faced not just by the Catholic Church but by all religious institutions today.

The Vatican recently sent out a questionnaire to gauge believers’ views on sex and family life. It is an initiative that has been partly pre-empted (in Britain, at least) by Linda Woodhead, professor in the sociology of religion at Lancaster University, who has spent two years surveying the social attitudes of British believers, including Catholics, on a wide range of social and ethical issues. The results have been fascinating, suggesting that believers of all faiths are more liberal than expected. They also suggest a chasm between the views of believers and the official teachings of most faiths.

To put all this in context, around a quarter of Britons now claim to have ‘no religion’,  another third are Anglican, while Catholics constitute about 9 percent, or 5.6 million. A 2007 survey found, though, that attendance of Mass by Catholics outstripped churchgoing by Anglicans — making Catholics Britain’s most observant Christian denomination.

Professor Woodhead’s research found that 16 percent of Catholics want to ban abortions altogether, but two-thirds accept abortion of some kind. Astonishingly, one in 20 want a more liberal abortion law than currently exists in Britain. Almost two-thirds of British Catholics want British law to be changed to permit assisted suicide. Less than half think same-sex marriage ‘is wrong’; more than a third think it’s ‘right’. Only 9 percent even feel guilty about using contraception. In Britain, Professor Woodhead noted, ‘”faithful” Catholics’ according to official teaching are now a rare and endangered species’. Much the same is true of most other religions, with the exception of Islam; the British Muslims she surveyed stood out as significantly more socially conservative.

Pope Francis’s modernizing approach might seem the ideal means of bridging the gap between the church and its followers. In fact, it may prove as problematic for the church as the rigid traditionalism of his predecessor, Benedict XVI.

mary praying

Religious values are immensely flexible over time. Christian beliefs on many issues, from slavery to women, have changed enormously in the past two millennia. Yet an institution like the Catholic Church can never be truly ‘modern’. Christianity, like all monotheistic religions, views humans as limited in their ability to create their own values, and their desires and beliefs as unreliable guides to notions of good and bad. Values derive primarily from God, and the authority of the Church rests on its claim to be able to interpret the Bible and God’s word. Were the Church to modify its teaching to meet the needs or wishes of its flock, were it loosen, say, its opposition to abortion, or to same sex marriage, then the authority of the institution would inevitably weaken. But were it not to do so, the chasm between official teaching and actual practice would continue to grow.

This is the dilemma in which many religious institutions find themselves the contemporary world. Change, lose authority and hence become irrelevant. Or, don’t change, become irrelevant and hence lose authority.

It is a quandary which the Anglican Church has faced in recent years, racked by controversies over ‘modernization’, particularly in its attitudes toward homosexuality and the ordination of women. It has come to be mocked both as an institution in which change is glacially slow and as one that has lost its bearings by ditching traditional values.

Linda Woodhead’s surveys throw some light on this predicament. Around half the British population believe in God. Yet, a large proportion of such believers would not describe themselves, or their values and beliefs, as ‘spiritual or religious’. Even of those that do, few look to religion as the primary source of moral guidance. Half the Catholics in Britain say that they are guided by their own reason, intuition or feelings; around 20 per cent look to family or friends. Fewer than one in ten seek guidance from the Church or the Bible. None looks to religious leaders. The only faith that shows a significantly different pattern, again, is Islam.

At the same time, there remains a small minority of traditional believers who possess an absolute belief in God, who make moral decisions primarily on the basis of religious sources, and who are deeply conservative on issues of social morality. The greatest concentration of such traditionalists is among Muslims and evangelical Christians.

It is easy to see why conservatives and traditional believers would find these figures troubling. Even for nonbelievers and social liberals, however, there may be cause for concern. Certainly, the more liberal attitudes to social mores, the greater willingness to think for oneself, and to use reason as a means of moral decision-making, are to be welcomed. But the decay of religious authority points also to a more atomized society and a destruction of collective consensus about moral judgments.

Professor Woodhead’s surveys also reveal a generalized suspicion of strongly held beliefs of any kind. This erosion of convictions has, over the past three decades, gnawed away at the political sphere, leading to the decline of ideological politics and a growing distrust of traditional political parties. Mainstream parties have ditched their old constituencies, coming to see politics less as a matter of competing visions of the future than as a process of technocratic management. That has created fertile ground for the rise of myriad populist movements, often rooted in hostility to ‘the Other’.

The way that political parties have jettisoned once-cherished principles has been one reason for the greater salience of religious identities in recent years. The vacuum left by ideology has been filled by religious affiliation. The irony is that the new relativism may now also be undermining traditional religious institutions. And perhaps with the same consequences.


Photo of Pope Francis carrying a cross by Gregoria Borgia/AP ; painting of ‘Virgin in Prayer’ by Giovanni Battista Salvi


  1. Scott Reilly

    Very good.

    I think the only reason that religious faith hasn’t become obselete already is because it is being buttressed by the religious moderates. The fire-and-brimstone sectarian literalists may be horrible to listen to, but at least they are honest. At least they characterise their faith honestly. Being Irish, most Cathoolics I know who actually go to mass seem to have convicned themselves of this fairytale that everybody is going to heaven: Jews, Muslims, Hindus, other Christians denominations, Atheists, and that the Church actually loves homesexuals and views women as being equal to men. It all sounds very nice and romantic, but it’s utterly deluded and more than a bit irritating to listen to. And it’s the fact that they are allowed, in a sense, to do it and get away with it that means that religion will never go away. The more liberal churches’ allowing women to become ordained and blessing same-sex relationships is obviously a positive step, but in the long-term it just fosters the delusion of a moderate God and ensures that religion is here to stay.

  2. Nan Dev

    Dear Kenan,
    I watched you on BBC news defending Maajid Nawaz and I wanted to thank you. You speak with grace dignity clarity and most of all courage. Maajid has the right to simply not be offended by something. Thank you for having the courage to say it. It is people like you who save human rights. Never stop doing the work you do. You are a blessing to the world.

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