Linda Woodhead explains how traditional authority gives way to charismatic authority

There’s a puzzled tone to some of the coverage of the election of Pope Francis by a largely secular Western press. I noticed the same thing in the coverage of the last Pope’s tours of European capital cities.

The Catholic Church in Europe and North America has been declining dramatically for decades now. Church attendance in the UK, for example, has more than halved in the last two decades. Even amongst those who still call themselves Catholic, there is widespread indifference and outright rejection of much official church teaching.

Take the ban on artificial means of contraception, for example. Surveys have shown for some time that most Catholics no longer take any notice, but a poll we commissioned last month to inform the current series of Westminster Faith Debates on faith and personal life revealed that 89 % of Catholics would no longer even feel guilt about using contraception.

Add to this widespread disillusionment with the Church’s failure to deal with sexual abuse scandals, to come to terms with women’s emancipation and equality legislation, or to get a grip over chaos and corruption in its own central bureaucracy, and you seem to have all the marks of a moribund institution.

The journalists covering the papal election know all this. But at the same time have found themselves caught up in the drama, excitement and collective effervescence which of the latest papal election. It’s a global media event par excellence, and the excited faces of young Catholics set the mood.

It was the same with Benedict’s grand tours. Many predicted that they would be a damp squib. But huge crowds of all ages treated him like a pop star and celebrity.

Pope John Paul II was the first pontiff to become a charismatic global media personality in this way. The timing was not coincidental. It took off around 1989 when new global media like the internet reached critical mass, and when a new ‘connected’ generation was born and raised. Celebrity leaders replace the old local, clerical cadres.

It’s the same for young Muslims in Europe. Many have little good to say about their local imams and self-styled community leaders. They are turning instead to charismatic preachers and teachers accessed through the internet and global rallies and festivals. They seek inspiration, excitement, and authenticity. Traditional authority gives way to charismatic authority.

Hence the contradiction which journalists sense but don’t quite name. Traditional forms of religious institution are dying. Official teaching is widely ignored. But new networked forms of community are taking their place, and global charismatic leaders are reaching and creating new religious publics. And sometimes, as with the new Pope, the traditional and the charismatic overlap.

Watch the Open Forum Davos 2013 Is Religion Outdated in the 21st Century? debate

Opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of the World Economic Forum.

Author: Linda Woodhead is Professor of Sociology of Religion at University of Lancaster and Head of the AHRC Religion and Society Programme and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Faith communities.