John L. Allen, lead journalist at the National Catholic Reporter and author of several books, gives masterful evidence of a wide-ranging perspective of the Catholic Church and insights provided by celebrated informants, including theologians, bishops, cardinals, and even Pope Benedict XVI – who was once Cardinal Ratzinger. In The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church, Allen presents a global view of the challenges facing a millennial church as it grapples with changes and puzzles that may present Catholics with stark choices.
Allen identifies 10 religious, political, and scientific trends while prognosticating that they will radically transform the world’s largest Christian community. For each trend there is a chapter describing the trend in its current form and looks forward to its consequences: with nearly certain, probable, possible, and improbable outcomes. With a characteristic self-effacement, Allen says he is “a journalist, not a priest, theologian or academic.” His achievement then is not, then, of an expert but as a faithful observer and witness.
English-speaking readers in the United States and elsewhere are familiar with Allen, the lead journalist for the National Catholic Reporter – a venerable U.S.-based journal that leans to the left in politics and hosts progressive Catholic writers such as the retired Bishop Thomas Gumbleton and Sister Joan Chittister. Allen’s regular columns exhibit his research that then appears in the book. He is not a theologian, but a peripatetic journalist whose fault may be in seeking to cover too much in one volume without demonstrated competence in the fields he describes. However, his vision is vast and indeed catholic, (that is to say universal) especially for an American.
The experience of Catholics in the U.S. is of course colored by the history of their country and is sometimes a point of annoyance for Catholics elsewhere, especially those outside of Europe. North American Catholics are wont to impose their own paradigm when approaching the Catholic Church as it is lived elsewhere. Allen is not entirely free of this approach, even while he treats issues as diverse as the rise of Islam, Pentecostalism, environmentalism, and the demographic crash in Europe.
Allen says the ten trends he addresses will “revolutionize” the Catholic Church, and as a journalist he evenhandedly offers descriptions rather than prescriptions for approaching changes that he believes will radically change that church. He does not identify the trends as either good or bad, but as inter-related and nearly inevitable. Allen even admits in his blog at the National Catholic Reporter website that he may have been wrong in his assessments, with a frank modesty.
The ten trends Allen describes are: 1) A World Church, 2) Evangelical Catholicism, 3) Islam, 4) The New Demography, 5) Expanding Lay Roles, 6) The Biotech Revolution, 7) Globalization, 8) Ecology, 9) Multipolarism, 10) Pentecostalism.
To these are added, “Trends that Aren’t” and “Catholicism in the Twenty-first Century.” For Allen, these trends must be global, have impact at the popular level, involve official hierarchy, non-ideological, have predictive power, and the potential to explain a variety of factors. Issues such as the widely ballyhooed sexual abuse crisis are therefore out of contention as “trends.” However, the chapter entitled “Trends That Aren’t,” while short is as masterful and engaging as those preceding.
As for “The New Demography”, Allen notes that by the middle of the 21st century, Nigeria, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo will be among the 10 largest Catholic nations in the world, displacing Spain, for example. The church he describes will have thereby taken root beyond what was European Christendom and is meanwhile affected by another trend: “Globalization.” It means that emphases and perspectives that may be at odds with Catholics in Europe and North America. For example, while politically conservative Catholics in North America may applaud African rejections of condoms and abortion, they may not be comfortable with a growing African denunciation of ever-increasing Western libertine consumerism and unbridled capitalism at the expense of the poor.
In Africa, and Latin America, the introduction of native languages and customs will present challenges to the hierarchy which tries to be both inclusive of cultural differences but also faithful to the Magisterium and age-old liturgies. Oddly, the use of Latin in masses may actually serve as a bridge between disparate languages and culture. What Allen describes as “Evangelical Catholicism” is not a proposed sect, but a trend that underlies the rest of those described in the book. This is a trend that emerged with the papacy of John Paul II. Allen describes that since John Paul II, “Catholicism has become steadily more evangelical – uncompromising and unabashedly itself, more interested in evangelizing culture than accommodating it.” Among its defining features are: a clear embrace of Catholic thought, practices and speech (in other words, orthodoxy), an eagerness to proclaim Catholic identify, and faith as a personal choice rather than a cultural inheritance. Hence, such evangelical Catholics may find themselves clashing with European and North American definitions of secularism (laicite’) in the first case, and the “separation of Church and state” in the second.
In his chapter on Islam, Allen offers a tantalizing glimpse of what could be future cooperation between the Catholic Church and the faith of Mohammed. Of the two main currents of Islam, Shia and Sunni, he identifies the former as actually being more likely to forge an alliance with the Catholic Church because of shared affinities: pilgrimages, healing shrines, a pantheon of saints, a theology of sacrifice and atonement, and belief in free will. These affinities should not deter dialogue with Sunni Islam – dominated now by Saudi Arabia’s Wahabism – nor with Iran’s extremist Shiite faith, personified by the violent cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr. The Islamic trend is, of course, tied in with both “Globalization” and “The New Demography.” For example, Allen points out that Islamic demographic growth is tapering off and Catholicism continues to grow in Africa.
The final chapter in Future Church provides a useful synopsis of the book. But by way of illustration, Allen shows just how quick change or reform can take place in Christ’s Church. He recounts the story of “Mastro Titta”, the official once responsible for carrying out executions (by guillotine!) at the Vatican. The Vatican guillotine saw its final use in 1870, “just two months before Italian revolutionaries captured Rome,” having remained busy until then. And it was not the Catholic Church that was part of the movement to abolish capital punishment. Centuries of custom and theological argument (e.g. in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa contra gentiles) had underscored the right of authorities, including the Pope as temporal ruler, to use the sword on offenders.
But it was gradually and, finally, most notably by Pope John Paul II, that there was a change in Catholic thinking. As Allen notes, the change came with the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI who removed a provision in Vatican law that called for the execution of anyone who should murder a pope. It is now that popes plea fervently for an end to capital punishment, not only in those countries where democracy is foreign (China) but in well-developed democracies such as the United States – an ostensible friend of the Vatican where capital punishment continues unabated.
By drawing together the threads of the 10 preceding chapters, Allen presents four main lines of development that may be the future courses of the Church. These “sociological notes” to be exhibited for the rest of this century are “’Global, Uncompromising, Pentecostal, and Extroverted.’” Taking a risk at predicting, Allen notes that “Taken together, these four notes could trigger a series of upheavals in Catholic though and life every bit as breathtaking as the shift from Mastro Titta to Pope John Paul II.” In brief, Allen sees the future of the Church as “Morally conservative,” “Liberal on Social Justice,” “Biblical,” “Young and Optimistic,” and “Alien to Europeans and Americans,” among others. These are but the subsets of the sociological note entitled “Global”, and the remaining subsets make Allen’s work not only a challenge, but an inspiration for Catholics the world over.
Martin Barillas is the editor of Speroforum.com