It was inevitable after the abdication of Benedict XVI that scurrilous rumors would swirl around the conclave of cardinals that will meet next week to choose his successor. It isn’t worth the pixels to reprise the story published last week in the Milanese daily La Repubblica, with its dark hints of secret inquiries, sexual blackmail and financial chicanery. All of this is disinformation and distraction. The only scandal that concerns the Roman Catholic Church as it enters its third millennium is what liberal theologians a century ago called the Scandal of Election: the belief that God might choose one particular group of people rather than extend his love and salvation to all of humanity.

Prior to his election in 2005, I observed that then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was unique among prospective Church leaders, in his conviction that the Church might cease to be a popular institution. As he wrote in 2006 (my translation):

We might have to part with the notion of a popular Church. It is possible that we are on the verge of a new era in the history of the Church, under circumstances very different from those we have faced in the past, when Christianity will resemble the mustard seed [Matthew 13:31-32], that is, will continue only in the form of small and seemingly insignificant groups, which yet will oppose evil with all their strength and bring Good into this world.

I singled out Ratzinger because his willingness to “part from the notion of a popular Church” seemed like the best choice in an epoch when, as he wrote, fewer people want to accept the yoke of Christ. As an anonymous essayist, it was easier for me to comment on Catholic matters in 2005 than it is as a Jewish writer today. If it seems untoward to meddle in the business of another religion, I can only say that the Catholic Church is not simply another religion but also the founding institution of the West, so that all who love the West have an interest in its affairs.

When only a small minority of people adheres to traditional faith, cleaving to out the core of truly faithful may be the only solution. The liberal mainline Protestant denominations have shrunk to a fraction of their former size while more committed evangelical denominations have flourished. Liberal Judaism has lost perhaps two-fifths of its membership in the last decades while Orthodox Judaism has grown. Although the Orthodox comprise perhaps 12% of self-identified Jews in America, nearly three-quarters of Jewish children in the New York metropolitan area come from Orthodox families, according to a recent survey.

For the Catholic Church, though, the problems raised by Ratzinger’s “mustard-seed” concept are of a different order. It is hard for the Church to think of itself other than as the central institution of human society. To suggest that the Catholic Church will work in organizational forms so small that it cannot as a practical matter offer salvation to everyone is in a certain sense a contradiction in terms, due to history as much as to theology.

Western civilization was the Catholic Church during its first thousand years, from the fall of Rome in 476 to Luther’s rupture in 1517. Not until the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648 did the Church accept the sovereignty of non-Catholic rulers, and not until the Second Vatican Council half a century ago did the Church abandon the concept of a state religion. It was meaningless to ask whether the Catholic Church was there to save everyone, because everyone was there only because the Catholic Church summoned the people of Europe into existence to begin with. The civilization in which the Church was embedded existed only because a single Church rose above the welter of Roman remnants and barbarian invaders who inhabited Europe in the wake of Rome’s fall. That is the nub of “Europe is the faith, the faith is Europe”, Hillaire Belloc’s bon mot.

As I wrote in a 2008 essay for First Things:

From the Gothic invasion of Italy in A.D. 401 to the defeat of the Magyars at Lech in 955 and the conversion of St Vladimir in 1015, the barbarians often entered Christian life not as individuals joining the new People of God but as tribes brought into Christendom through conquest or alliance. Christian universalism triumphed over the ethnocentric impulses of the converted tribes through a supranational political model, from Constantine to Charlemagne and finally until the time of Charles V (when Christian polity broke up in the Reformation and Wars of Religion).

Because Christians are a new people called out of the nations, Christian theocracy must be supranational in character. The various political states of Europe were fostered by the Church, which furnished them with language and culture; but those states were subordinated, in some sense, to a Latin-speaking supranational Church that was senior partner to a universal empire.

The Church’s sense of its universality also informed its dismissive attitude towards the Jews. It was scandalous, the Church thought, for a tiny group to insist on a special relationship to God after the Catholic Church came to offer salvation to all. God’s promises to Abraham, the Church insisted, had passed instead to the descendants of Abraham “of the spirit”, namely Christians. Not until 1982 did John Paul II speak of “the old covenant, never revoked” in recognition of God’s special relationship to the Jewish people. As the late Richard John Neuhaus observed, this was a papal teaching, not a doctrine of the Church magisterium; it appears nowhere in the Catechism, and could be revoked by a later pope.

As the Catholic project of universal empire collapsed in the mid-17th century, Thomas Hobbes, the theorist of the national state, dismissed the pope as “the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the tomb thereof”. Today’s Europe is composed of the ghosts of what used to be its national states, with the European Commission sitting on their graves. Secular Europe is a ghastly lampoon of the old Catholic universalism, with neither a religious nor a national identity to motivate its future existence.

Catholicism is all but dead in Europe. On a Sunday in 2009, I waited outside Rome’s Pantheon for the noon opening, along with several thousand other tourists. The great Roman structure doubles as the Basilica of Saint Mary and Martyrs and is reserved for mass on Sunday morning. At noon, the doors opened and two or three dozen worshippers trickled out, so that two or three thousand curiosity-seekers could pile in. The Church is long since dead as a popular institution in Europe. The Poles still attend mass, but they also have an average of 1.3 children per female, the lowest in Europe except for the Hungarians, who have (excluding the Roma) fewer than 0.9.

The Church also is losing ground to secularism as well as evangelical Protestantism in Latin America. There are signs that the Hispanic world is repeating the “quiet revolution” in Quebec, where mass attendance fell from 88% in 1960 to 20% in 1985, and fertility declined from six children per female to 1.5.

In America, Hispanic women typically had three children a generation ago, but their fertility has fallen to only 2.4 in 2010 according to Census Bureau estimates. Just when the Catholic Church in America anticipated an Hispanic majority, the Hispanics may be emulating the experience of Irish and Italians before them and falling away from strong Church commitment.

The Church is growing in Africa, to be sure, but African Catholicism remains heavily syncretic, and in need of “a new maturity of faith,” as George Weigel put it in a February 13 commentary. The Catholic footprint in Asia outside the former Spanish colony of the Philippines is small. Although Christians comprise a 10th of China’s population by official count, only a 10th of Chinese Christians are Catholic, and the Chinese Church is struggling to maintain itself against a state-controlled Catholic organization beholden to the Chinese Communist Party.

Where does this leave Ratzinger’s “small Church” design? The eminent Catholic journalist Joseph Bottum sees in the aftermath of his abdication a failed papacy. “Always something of an isolated figure,” he wrote February 24 in The Weekly Standard, “he was a man with few close advisers. ‘He never talked to anyone,’ a Vatican official told me, ‘not really’. He seemed to have no friends who were also high officials in the church – no counselors who could understand the stresses of his position. Worse, his natural distaste for the glad-handing part of the job was a constant burden.” His abdication, Bottum adds, brings with it a great risk: “If popes can resign, then popes can be forced to resign, notwithstanding the fact that the church believes they are chosen with guidance from the Holy Spirit.”

It is not surprising to me that Benedict XVI had no friends in the Vatican. Leaders with radical ideas cannot afford them. It is one thing to propose to retrench the Church as a general principle, and quite another to threaten the prerogatives of particular centers of power. Nonetheless, the problem to which Ratzinger drew attention through most of his long career remains on the agenda and will not go away. There are several possible outcomes.

One is to elect an African or, more probably, a Latin American cardinal as pope, acknowledging the preponderance of Catholics from the Global South. This has an obvious advantage as well as a hidden danger. Alan Dershowitz drew attention to the most egregious expression of his danger on February 19, warning about Cardinal Andres Rodriquez Maradiaga of Honduras, whom Dershowitz accurately characterized as a “notorious anti-Semite”. Cardinal Maradiaga accused Jewish-controlled media of inflating the sex-abuse scandal in the Church in this remarkable display of paranoia:

It certainly makes me think that in a moment in which all the attention of the mass media was focused on the Middle East, all the many injustices done against the Palestinian people, the print media and the TV in the United States became obsessed with sexual scandals that happened 40 years ago, 30 years ago. Why? I think it’s also for these motives: What is the church that has received Arafat the most times and has most often confirmed the necessity of the creation of a Palestinian state? What is the church that does not accept that Jerusalem should be the indivisible capital of the State of Israel, but that it should be the capital of the three great monotheistic religions?

This is paranoid, because Jews in general view Benedict XVI as a friend. After the pope’s visit to Israel, Assaf Sagiv wrote in the Autumn 2009 issue of the Israeli journal Azure:

Benedict XVI – the former Joseph Ratzinger – is actually one of the best friends the Jewish people has ever had in Vatican City. On the eve of the pope’s visit, Aviad Kleinberg, a scholar of Christian history and a columnist for the Israeli daily YediotAharonot, attempted to remind his readers of this. Ratzinger, he explained, “was the confidant of Pope John Paul II, and his immense theological authority was a critical aspect of the previous pope’s moves… John Paul and Ratzinger buried once and for all not only the accusation of the Jews’ murdering the Messiah, but the entire theological theory that the Christians replaced the Jews and are now the Chosen People and that the New Testament annuls the Old Testament. The Old Testament is still valid, declared the two, and the Jewish people is still God’s chosen and beloved people.”

The fact that Benedict XVI visited Israel, like his predecessor John Paul II, constitutes recognition of the legitimacy of the Jewish State. In that sense Cardinal Maradiaga’s characterization is warped. But the hostility he expressed toward the State of Israel and Jews in general nonetheless pervades the Catholic Church in the Global South, because it pervades popular opinion in the Global South.

This has deeper roots than the routine identification of formerly colonial peoples with the putative “anti-colonial struggle” of Palestinians against Israel. The lives of most of the peoples of the Global South are precarious. They fear, not entirely without reason, that the globalized world dominated by the emerging powers of Asia has left them behind. Most of sub-Saharan Africa lives at subsistence. Despite pockets of success, Latin America has not done much better for most of its people. Brazil might be wealthy, but a secretary or janitor in Sao Paolo still earns barely US$300 a month.

The existential fears of what we used to call the Third World breed hostility toward Israel. This hostility is to intense and so pervasive that a prospective candidate for the papacy like Maradiaga gets away with utterances that in other circumstances should qualify him for psychiatric leave. Although Maradiaga’s characterization of the Catholic stance towards Israel under Benedict is false, it reflects an important element of Catholic opinion.

This came to a head in October 2010 at the Synod of Middle Eastern Bishops, when the head of the Melkite Church, an ethnically Arab church in communion with Rome, asserted that “Christ nullified God’s promises to the Jews”. Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros, who headed the commission that drafted the Synod’s final statement, declared, “The theme of the promised land cannot be used as a basis to justify the return of the Jews to Israel and the expatriation of the Palestinians… For Christians one can no longer talk of the land promised to the Jewish people”, because the “promise” was “abolished by the presence of Christ… there is no longer a favored people, a chosen people; all men and women of every country have become the chosen people.”

That is the scandal of election, and, possibly, the scandal of the election of the next pope. The notion that all peoples shall be saved is nonsense from the standpoint of Christian theology. As Harvard’s Jon Levenson observes in his recent book Inheriting Abraham, “For Paul, the Gentile Christian has abandoned the Adamic identity for the Abrahamic. He has left the universal identity associated with the sin-infected human essence and been recreated as one who attains righteousness in the sight of God on the basis of his faith, just as Abraham did in the Pauline reading.”

The universalism of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages had nothing to do with the conceit that no tribe shall be left behind, but with the reality that it had created in Europe by creating a new European people to be its flock. But the fears of endangered peoples trump theology in the Global South.

The peoples of the Global South in general are existentially threatened, but the Middle Eastern Christians are doomed. Iraq’s ancient Assyrian Christian community is fleeing. Syria’s 2.5 million Christians are caught in the cross-hairs of a civil war; Egypt’s 6 million Copts are at risk under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. Daniel Pipes estimates that the number of Middle Eastern Christians will decline from 12 million today to only 6 million in 2020. The despair of the Middle Eastern Christians is tragic, but its expression is sadly stupid. Their predicament has nothing to do with the success of the State of Israel, and everything to do with the failure of the Arab societies in which they have the misfortune to reside.

The anti-Jewish rant that came out of the 2010 Middle Eastern Synod is the opposite of what John Paul II and Benedict XVI taught. The two last popes’ sympathy towards Israel, though, never persuaded the Catholics of Africa and Latin America, much less those of the Middle East. As I wrote at the time on the website of the Catholic monthly First Things, “It is hardly news that Middle Eastern Christians (except for the growing community of Hebrew-speaking Christians) hate Israel. They blame the Israeli-Arab conflict for the deterioration of their position. Arab Christians, moreover, played a prominent role in Arab nationalist movements; they are Arabs first, that is, and Christians second.”

It is traumatic for the Catholic Church to contemplate the effective termination of Christian communities in the Middle East, its historic cradle, but social and political disintegration makes this inevitable. We are living through a new Great Extinction of peoples, in which half the world’s 7,000 languages will vanish during the next century – perhaps a much higher proportion, depending on which academic estimate we believe. The convulsions of globalization will make life untenable for many of the world’s peoples – as we already observe in Syria and Egypt.

If the Church embeds the existential anguish of the Global South into the next papacy, perverse consequences will ensue. One of these is the palpable risk that a future pope might undo the great reconciliation that John Paul II and Benedict XVI brought about with the Jewish people. For both popes, but especially for Benedict, drawing near to the Jewish people had deep consequences for Catholic faith. In a remarkable 2009 essay in the Catholic review Communio, the Bonn University theologian Karl-Heinz Menke recounts Benedict XVI’s project to “not only declare, but also live out the rootedness of Catholicism in Judaism”. Benedict is the first pope since St Peter, Professor Menke argued, to read the Gospels as Hebrew documents. In the first volume of his book Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict devoted a long chapter to Rabbi Jacob Neusner’s reading of the Gospel of Matthew – an unprecedented gesture towards a Jewish scholar.

Benedict believed that the Church need to refresh its Jewish roots. That is true for existential rather than academic reasons, in my view. As I wrote in First Things in 2008:

Four hundred million Africans have become Christians. Unfortunately, most of them still strongly identify with their tribes. In Rwanda, the Catholic Church could do nothing to mitigate the genocide of the Tutsis; in some cases, clergy participated. Nationalism destroyed Christian life in Europe, and tribalism may well reverse the enormous gains of evangelization in Africa. All the more reason, then, that theologians should draw a sharp distinction between ethnic identity and membership in the People of God; the living Jewish commonwealth in the modern State of Israel establishes this distinction as an existential matter rather than as a mere point of doctrine.

A Third World Church that burns its Jewish roots, as Cardinal Mardiaga proposes, will disappear into the swamp of tribalism.

My Asia Times Online colleague Francesco Sisci, one of journalism’s most perspicacious Vatican watchers, offered an important thought in a February 15 column:

China is the new frontier, starved as it is of religion and home of a foreign religion, Buddhism, and thus without any innate prejudice against Christianity. Yet here Catholics are just too few, less than 1% of the population, and there is only one cardinal, John Tong, from Hong Hong, who can’t speak good Italian, a shortcoming for a man who would be the Bishop of Rome.

A cardinal from the Philippines could be a choice. The country has a Catholic majority and a strong candidate, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, 55, who is also an appreciated theologian, a necessary virtue for a pope. He is very young, as a pope, even “young” Wojtyla was elected when he was 58, and he is still untested, he was ordained cardinal only three months ago.

Cardinal Tagle also is ethnically Chinese. That is a special consideration. If John Paul II’s Polish origin qualified him to lead the Church during the Cold War, a Mandarin-speaking Catholic may be the most qualified leader to fight for the Church in the greatest battle of the 21st century: the fight for the soul of China. It is likely that China will be the world’s pivot in the 21st century.

Asian Catholics have an advantage over their African or Latin American colleagues: they do not feel like the world’s losers. They come from a self-confident culture in the first phase of its ascendancy.

China, moreover, may have a special affinity towards Catholicism. It is an empire rather than a nation-state, uniting linguistically and ethnically diverse peoples with a written language, culture, and political center. For a Church whose natural habitat is universal empire, China offers an opportunity and a challenge comparable to Rome in the 4th century CE. And as Francesco Sisci wrote in a 2009 essay in First Things,

Not since late antiquity has the world seen a migration of peoples like the great urbanization of China now in progress. By 2025, migrants will make up two-fifths of China’s billion-strong urban population, a fifth of all the Chinese, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.

I do not presume to guess whom the conclave will select. But for non-Catholics like this writer who wish the Church well, an Asian solution to the Church’s dilemma following Benedict’s abdication is a prospect to consider closely.