For better or for worse, 2003 has been a year of Catholicism and of Islam -- and to some extent of world Anglicanism, which is now breaking up as a result of the consecration of an openly homosexual cleric as bishop of New Hampshire.
1. Catholicism: More than ever, Pope John Paul II dominated the news. A man of declining health, he celebrated his 25th anniversary on St. Peter's throne in 2003.
Shaking from Parkinson's Disease, the pope nonetheless attracted hundreds of thousands, especially the young, on his journeys abroad, for example to the Ukraine. There he made further inroads in his endeavor to heal the 1,000-year rift with Eastern Orthodoxy, though he still failed to win over the intransigent Russians.
John Paul may no longer be able to finish a sermon; his brilliance has not faded, however. In 2003, he issued one of his most powerful encyclicals, "Ecclesia de Eucharistia" (Church of the Eucharist).
Rome's ecumenical partners were disappointed that this document still offered no altar fellowship to their churches, but it clarified the weight of Communion in the Vatican's thinking: This is no feel-good ceremony in which all can participate, regardless of how they interpret the sacrament. Inter-communion is not a shoe ladle to church unity, but its completion.
Though weak, John Paul's recognition as the world's most relevant spiritual leader continued to grow in 2003. At the same time, though, Catholicism persisted in being troubled by dark aspects, some of which senior Vatican officials link to the fact that John Paul is an ambiguous disciplinarian.
Galloping syncretism -- or the mixing of religions -- in segments of the Roman church reminds many observers of apocalyptical visions of a "world religion," to wit proposals to turn the Marian shrine of Fatima in Portugal into an interfaith meeting place.
Another sinister feature of contemporary Catholicism, the sexual abuse of adolescents by hundreds of priests especially in North America, cannot be blamed on this pope. It was chiefly due to 1960s libertinage that turned several U.S. seminaries into hotbeds of homosexual lust well before John Paul was elected pope.
Nonetheless, the crisis came to a head in 2003 -- with shameful consequences for world Catholicism. For instance, this correspondent learned in Rome that American bishops are regularly turning down their African brethren's request for financial help, saying the scandals had bankrupted their dioceses.
2. Islam: With the exception of reform-minded Muslim scholars in North America and Europe, world Islam dashed Christian hopes for a fruitful dialogue in 2003. This led the Rev. Hans Voecking, a leading expert on Islam, to conclude that its mainstream variety was on the verge of implosion, leaving the minority of Islamist radicals as this religion's only audible spokesmen.
Voecking and others interviewed by United Press International in 2003 found that Muslim scholars from the Middle East, Africa and Asia showed little theological interest in Christianity. Moreover, the fear of being murdered by radicals prevented them from joining other religious leaders in stopping Islamist outrages, such as the execution by stoning of alleged "adulteresses" in Northern Nigeria. Using Protestant imagery, Voecking, a Catholic, said, "There are no 'Here-I-stand' types in Islam."
Christians have little cause to rejoice in this, he added, even though more and more Muslims are converting, especially women. The passivity of moderate Muslim scholars makes the religious environment in the globalized world all the more volatile.
3. Anglicanism: In 2003, the Anglican Communion, which has 75 million members worldwide, was in the vanguard of a schism threatening traditional Protestantism. On the one hand, there are faithful, Bible-centered Christians, who are centered primarily in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where their churches are burgeoning. They are successfully evangelizing in Europe and America.
On the other hand, there are the rich, shrinking churches of the global North, many of whose dioceses and parishes are rapidly developing into a bizarre post-Christian sect with a new theology. It is no longer upholding Scripture but pursues instead the new theology of "Me."
The pivotal moment here was the consecration of V. Gene Robinson, an active homosexual, as Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire. As a result, much of the southern hemisphere's Anglican provinces either have or are about to cut ties with the Episcopalians, as have the Russian Orthodox Church and other denominations.
Meanwhile, a schism is taking shape among America's 2.2 million Episcopalians; 400,000 have already joined a growing confessional movement opposed to their church's liberal theology.
The ECUSA's presiding bishop, Frank Griswold, who participated in Robinson's consecration, resigned as co-chairman of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, after the Vatican had made it clear that it would not meet with him anymore.
This is only the beginning: Already Archbishop Peter Jensen of Sidney in Australia is wondering aloud if he will not soon have to shift his allegiance from the liberal Archbishop of Canterbury as Anglicanism's spiritual leader to an alternative figurehead.
The prelate most often mentioned as potential Anglican "anti-Pope" is feisty Archbishop Peter Akinola of Abuja; his fast-growing province, Nigeria, has 18 million members, almost nine times as many as the ECUSA.