You had to know this was coming. During the days before the conclave in which Pope Benedict XVI was elected, many commentators predicted this would be the papacy that furthered the transition to the "global Christianity" reflected by many of the appointments made by Pope John Paul II. Well, that's true. But there are two ways to look at that.
One way is that this would be a papacy that symbolizes the rise of the Third World. The other is a papacy that symbolizes the fading of the First World.
What would this second reality look like? As has often been noted (Andrew Sullivan leaps to mind), Cardinal Ratzinger is a traitor to his class. He emerged from the heart of chilly European liberalism and has turned into a champion of the old ways and traditions of pre-modern Europe. He is a modern intellectual who does not worship modernity or postmodernity.
So this Associated Press report by Nicole Winfield is not really a surprise. But the language is blunt. If this keeps up, it is clear that many journalists are going to need to catch up on their Philip Jenkins (click here for that classic Atlantic Monthly article called "The Next Christianity").
The bottom line: The rise of the "Next Christendom" does imply that some other Christendom has to fall.
Here is some of what Big Ben had to say, during an informal talk to some Italian priests in the northern Valle d'Aosta region:
Benedict . . . said the "joy" at the growing numbers of churchmen in the developing world is accompanied by "a certain bitterness" because some would-be priests were only looking for a better life. . . .
Benedict also touched on another his favorite themes: the state of the church in Europe. He said in contrast to the developing world, where there is a "springtime of faith," the West was "a world that is tired of its own culture, a world that has arrived at a time in which there's no more evidence of the need for God, much less Christ, and in which it seems that man alone can make himself.
"This is certainly a suffering linked, I'd say, to our time, in which generally one sees that the great churches appear to be dying," he said, mentioning Australia, Europe and the United States.
At the moment, it is hard to think of an oldline and liturgical church that is not really being affected by this global tension, other than some that are so elite or tired that they literally have no ties to a vital faith community in the rest of the world. This is one news story that will not fade any time soon. It seems this pope will talk about it openly, even if it does represent a death in his immediate cultural family.