The first ever non-European pope takes over at the Vatican, while Italy’s economic ills and ungovernability foretell, it is argued, the wider decline of the West. First-world Catholics enmeshed in scandal in Europe and the US have turned to a devout Argentine to clean up their mess.
Meanwhile, there are weekly signs of the West’s fall. It is not a Western high-tech company challenging Apple for global dominance of the smartphone market, but South Korea’s Samsung with its new Galaxy, launched with great fanfare last week. This week, the British government will reportedly announce in its budget that Qatar is coming to the rescue of Britain with a ￡10 billion (US$15 billion) fund for infrastructure. And everyone knows about the rise of China. The world is turning on its axis. It is now a commonplace that the West is in irredeemable decline.
Economically, the trends are well established. If they continue, by 2015 Europe’s share of world GDP will have fallen to 17 percent (and to 10 percent by 2040) from the 26 percent it commanded in 1980. The US’ dominance in defense is also being steadily eroded; its budget is stagnating while China’s is growing by double digits every year. Raw materials and oil flow to Asia rather than Europe.
Europe’s population ages and its work ethic, it is claimed, is undermined by its addiction to welfare. As Western economies underperform, the most exclusive parts of London, Paris, Rome and Berlin are being bought up by the newly rich from Russia, Latin America and Asia. The richest man in the world is Carlos Slim from Mexico, while the Group of Seven leading industrialized countries is no longer the locus of world economic power. That has moved to the G20.
Even Western democracy, one reliable export to the rest of the world, no longer seems so admirable. The US government is deadlocked over its budget so that after the arbitrary spending sequester on March 1, parts of government will start to close down at the end of the month. Perhaps the benign dictatorship of the Chinese Communist party offers a better model for governance.
Yet look more closely and a more subtle, more encouraging story is at work — less the decline of the West than the steady spread of its values and practices. Jorge Mario Bergoglio is pope because he embodies — at least in Catholic eyes — the best of the Western Catholic tradition. He may defend core values on marriage and sexuality, however irrelevant and unjustified they now seem in secular Europe and the US, but is avowedly liberal on social issues and poverty. Catholic social policy, with its commitment to justice, fulfilling work and the necessity to enfranchize every human, is one of the better components of the religion’s tradition.
This social policy was an outgrowth of the church coming to terms with the Enlightenment. If it is to survive, it will have to come to terms with the Enlightenment’s view that sex is not immoral and sexual preferences should not be stigmatized. Pope Francis might also come to regret his alleged compromises with the Argentine junta. Nonetheless, he is the best the Roman Catholic church can offer in holding an impossible line — and might prove to be one of the last who tries to do so. Soon, there will be no part of the world, not even the Catholic church, not touched by Enlightenment virtues.