Allen from Rome: Catholicism Growing in Arabia

John Allen has his usual mix of fascinating Catholic news, sharp analysis and fair comment here. Among other things he reports on the surprising growth of Catholicism in the Middle East, what to expect in this week’s news coverage of the first anniversary of Pope Francis’ pontificate and the opinions of African Cardinal Peter Turkson on marriage and family.

Many Americans have heard or read reports about an exodus of Christians out of the Middle East, and in terms of the indigenous Arab Christian population that’s all too real. Christians now make up only 5 percent of the region’s population, down from 20 percent a century ago. In places like Iraq, whole Christian communities are on the brink of extinction.

Yet the Arabian Peninsula today is also, improbably, seeing one of the most dramatic Catholic growth rates anywhere in the world. The expansion is being driven not by Arab converts, but by foreign ex-pats whom the region increasingly relies on for manual labor and domestic service.

I was also interested in Cardinal Turkson’s take on marriage:

“I don’t think giving consideration to the divorced and remarried would create any problem for the ministry of marriage in Africa,” he said.

Instead, Turkson said that what he’d like to see is a broadening of the church’s discussion, beyond the Western model of a two-parent nuclear family, to bring into view Africa’s experience of broader ties within a clan.

“For us, ‘family’ often means extended relationships within the clan, composed of several smaller family units together that give support to one another and provide rules for family life,” he said.

An exclusive focus on Western problems such as divorce and cohabitation, Turkson argued, risks leaving Africa out of the picture.

Countering the common narrative that the Catholic church is full of homophobes, Turkson also disapproves of the harsh anti-gay laws some African countries are putting into effect. His take is pragmatic. Repressive measures usually backfire.

During my visit to Rome in January I had lunch with John. I’m not often jealous of people, but what a dream job! Not only does he have the chance to live in Rome a good part of the year, but he mixes with a huge variety of people to gather news and report on what’s happening in the eternal city.

Read his whole report here.