HONG KONG – Pope Benedict XVI had a busy holiday season, as you might expect, since it is a sacred time for Catholics and other Christians. He set himself the difficult-to- impossible task of trying to put Christ back into Christmas.
In his Christmas homily the pope pleaded with Christians to make space for God in their lives: If practicing Christians have no room for God, He does not have much future among humanity.
For the rest of the world, the question might be: Is it time to abolish Christmas? Christmas has come and Christmas has gone, but did anybody notice?
Of course, we noticed the endless Muzak playing in shopping malls worldwide, talk of angels singing on high, mummy kissing Santa Claus, flying reindeer and other unlikely UFOs. Even in hardly believing Japan it was difficult to escape the wretched tinkling noise.
Most places in the world celebrate Christmas for holidays and partying. But fewer and fewer people really believe in Christ in Christmas, the fairy story of the birth of a God-child in an outhouse.
So why not accept the reality and feasting and fun, as the ancient pagans did before Christians hijacked the festival?
Hong Kong, celebrating its self-proclaimed reputation as “Asia’s world city,” has shown the rest of the world the way in calling the period from Nov. 23 until New Year’s Day “WinterFest.” The city’s tourist board makes a genuflection toward Christianity, claiming that its celebration offers “a unique spin on Christmas festivities.”
With the promise of bringing a Tiffany’s makeover for staid Statue Square in the city center, winter sales, festive foods and menus, entertainment and a pyrotechnic welcome for the new year, its bottom line message is plain — “in keeping with Hong Kong WinterFest tradition, shop, eat, drink and be merry.”
No one should be surprised by Hong Kong’s strident secular leadership. According to international surveys, only 22 percent of its people say that religion has any part in their daily lives, not far behind Estonia, where only 14 percent think religion is important.
In Japan, religious believers are 25 percent.
Increasingly and globally, except in stern Muslim countries, this is a secular age where people are shrugging off the superstitions of religion and believe that life is for the living without the nonsense of fairy stories, extraterrestrial powers or a new life beyond the grave.
Even in the Roman Catholic Church, the central bastion of Christianity, hundreds of thousands of men have left the priesthood. Others have been caught in the terrible scandal and sin of abusing children. Catholic worshippers, especially in the West, have been deserting in droves.
How many of the pope’s army of 1.2 billion baptized Catholics are actually regular churchgoers?
No one has reliable figures, but at best 30 percent or 400 million people. That’s a large number but a small 6 percent minority of the Earth’s population of 7 billion. Why should such a small rump clinging to old myths make decisions for the whole world?
But hold on: Are Hong Kong and Japan and other secular places moving too fast and too far? A modern world that puts its selfish faith in the material here and now is exacerbating a terrible divide between those who have and those who are squeezed to the margins.
If you want to see the impact of money on a godless society, look to China. There, shopping malls are the swankiest, groaning with luxury brand goodies. Economic growth has created more than a million millionaires. But corruption is rife and hundreds of millions of Chinese have been lucky to pick up crumbs from the economic miracle. The Gini coefficient, which measures inequality, rose to an incredible 0.61 in 2010, according to a recent survey. Anything above 0.4 is considered dangerously unequal. The government last month refused to release its own figures for the coefficient, citing the ubiquitous need to preserve state secrets.
The savage irony is that China’s miraculous economic growth has undermined what was undoubtedly a highly moral system — communism.
Lord (Jonathan) Sacks, the chief rabbi of the Commonwealth, bravely makes the argument for organized religion claiming that religion is a great survivor: “Superpowers tend to last a century; the great faiths last millenniums,” says Sachs. He claims that the great religions offer the moral compass, including altruism that allows communities to be built and society to survive destructionist tendencies.
Pope Benedict in his Christmas homily said Christianity put great store on the dignity of each person because humans are created in the image of God: “If God’s light is extinguished, man’s divine dignity is also extinguished. Then the human creature would cease to be in God’s image, to which we must pay honor in every person, in the weak, in the stranger, in the poor.”
In the Financial Times last month, Benedict wrote that Christians are committed to fighting against poverty and they work for a more equitable sharing of the Earth’s resources out of concern for the “supreme dignity of every human being, created in God’s image. … The belief in the transcendent destiny of every human being gives urgency to the task of promoting peace and justice for all.”
Yet Benedict is an enigma. He is one of the world’s sharpest thinkers, and he recently wrote the third volume of his book on Jesus, in which he got a lot of publicity for the wrong reasons. He claimed that there was no evidence that cattle were present at the birth of Christ. He is correct, since the birth was probably in a cave — not the stable of tradition — though the pope’s own Christmas card shows animals in attendance.
He also claimed that the angels did not sing to the shepherds, but only spoke to them of about the birth of the Savior Christ. What a killjoy pope: With such Good News, surely the angels would not be whispering, but would be singing gloriously with the sweet melodies of a Mozart and the faith of a Beethoven.
Benedict has tried to be a modern pope, and last month opened a Twitter account, which has attracted a million followers. But he has not been able to discard his stern unforgiving bureaucratic past.
It is now 50 years since the Vatican Council began its work to open the church to the world. Blessed Pope John XXIII told the council fathers that they should engage with the world and “make use of the medicine of mercy rather than of severity” in dealing with everyone.
But the current pope, one of whose titles is “the Servant of the servants of God,” has reacted as if he is still “God’s Rottweiler” — the epithet he won when in charge of doctrine before becoming pope. Priests, and even bishops, who dare to suggest that for practical reasons the church should consider married priests or women priests or even — horror of horrors — take a new look at sexuality have been unceremoniously sidelined or dismissed.
In terms of liturgy and disciplines, Benedict is taking the church back into the holy smells and bells of its former European stronghold. This is a mistake, not least because Europeans have succumbed to the secular disease.
More important, it is a denial of the promise of the baby Christ who was born in poverty for all humans. The Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini in his final interview last year claimed that “the church is 200 years behind the times” and is weighed down by well-being, “like the rich young man who went away sad when Jesus called him to be his disciple.”
Kevin Rafferty was editor of The Universe, the best-selling Catholic newspaper in English.