The Future Church: How Ten Trends Are Revolutionizing The Catholic Church
by John L. Allen Jr.
Doubleday, 480 pages, $28
About three hundred pages into his comprehensive analysis of the Catholic present and likely future, John Allen sketches a scene that summarizes his book: “Ironically, evangelical Catholics and eco-Catholics may find themselves cheek-by-jowl in the lunch line on Friday for fish sticks, once the staple Catholic dish everywhere—though their reasons for doing so, and the spiritual benefit they obtain from it, may be worlds apart.”
The evangelical Catholics will be having the fish as a traditional penance and marker of Catholic identity, while the eco-Catholics think fish better for the environment than the red meat of grass-guzzling, flatulent cattle.
Who are these people, the evangelicals and the ecos? They are two of the trendsetting groups that John Allen identifies as shaping the Catholic Church in the twenty-first century. In his book The Future Church, Allen sets out to describe—and he is emphatic that the book is descriptive, not prescriptive—the significant trends that will shape the Catholic Church. They are not strictly revolutionary, despite the hype of the subtitle, but they are significant. The strength of the book is Allen’s reporting of what is actually going on in many parts of the Catholic world, bearing out his principal argument that, in a Church that is truly global, the preoccupations of, say, The Tablet or Commonweal are yesterday’s news.
John Allen first arrived in Rome in 2000, fresh off publishing a book on Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger that summarized his career to date as the “enforcer of the faith.” The book notably ignored Ratzinger’s principal work, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as it catalogued instead his various crackdowns on various progressive matters. Then Allen began to doggedly report what he saw in Rome, and, in 2004, he renounced his own book as “unbalanced.” By that time he had emerged as the best Vatican reporter in the English language and went on to write the best book on Opus Dei for a general audience, as well as a biography of Benedict XVI that corrected his earlier errors. He is perhaps the only prominent Catholic journalist trusted by Catholics across the spectrum of theological opinion.
He puts that trust to good use in The Future Church, reporting on the great access he is given on his travels. If you want to know what Nigerian cardinals think about relations with Islam, or what the Sant’Egidio Community’s influence is on Italian politics, or why you should pay attention to what Indian theologians are writing, then Allen’s reporting is essential.
Some years ago, Allen set himself the task of identifying the major trends that would shape the life of the Church in the next century. It was an intriguing and ambitious task. After all, if someone had set out to do so in 1950, what would he have chosen? Would he have predicted that liturgical reform, sexual morality, and the defence of religious liberty would dominate Catholic life in the next decades? Would he have thought that the then nascent internationalization of the college of cardinals would lead to popes from Poland and Germany presiding over a Roman curia drawn from all parts of the world?
Allen’s first insight is that what has dominated Catholic life for the past fifty years will not simply continue. Relations with Jews, for example, will take a back seat to relations with Islam. Ecumenism with the Protestant mainline will move to the margins of ecclesial life, replaced by a focus on Pentecostalism, including its effects within Catholicism. In all, Allen identifies ten trends: a World Church, Evangelical Catholicism, Islam, the New Demography, Expanding Lay Roles, the Biotech Revolution, Globalization, Ecology, Multipolarism, and Pentecostalism.
Of those, several—world church, demography, globalization, and multipolarism—can be grouped under the slogan, as Allen puts it, “the Church is upside down.” By that he means that the Global South is becoming a dominant force in world Catholicism. Allen’s book is chock-full of illustrative statistics, such as the projection that, by 2050, seven of the ten largest Catholic nations will be south of the United States and Europe. The Congo, Uganda, and Nigeria will be in the top ten. Spain and Poland will not. Uganda will have more nominal Catholics than either France or Italy, and, in terms of practice, the contrast will be even more striking.
Consider that today far more Catholics attend Sunday Mass in Bombay than in Montreal, Paris, or perhaps even Milan. While the archbishop of Boston worries about how to manage decline, the archbishop of Seoul struggles to keep pace with growth. Indeed, “the global story for Catholicism is growth, not decline.” In practical terms, that means what happens in Boston is largely irrelevant; what happens in Bombay is not.
That demographic shift means a shift in priorities for the global Church. Allen argues that the ad intra debates of recent decades—women’s ordination, liturgical change, translation issues—will give way to a greater ad extra focus—evangelization, resurgent Islam, pursuit of justice in politics and economics. Within Catholic worship and prayer, the Pentecostal movement will lead to a more biblically based, supernaturally focused spirituality.
Allen’s balance offers something for almost everybody, with the notable exception of liberal Catholicism, which he all but pronounces dead—“an exhausted project,” in the words of Francis Cardinal George more than a decade ago. The evangelical Catholics have won the day and are “running the table in terms of the Church’s institutional battles.”
Who are the evangelical Catholics? Allen identifies George Weigel’s The Courage to Be Catholic as the manifesto of evangelical Catholicism, which means, inter alia, that First Things and the legacy of its founder, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, would also be among the trendsetters of twenty-first-century Catholicism. Yet it would be a mistake to see the defeat of liberal Catholicism as a move to a more conventionally conservative future. Better to think of it as an unconventionally conservative future, as a more assertive southern Church will be more aggressive on questions of economic justice and perhaps the environment. The “crunchy conservatives” of American politics will find much to like in Allen’s analysis.
“To put the point into a sound bite, the recent past of Catholicism belonged to the liberals, its present belongs to the evangelicals, and the future belongs to the Pentecostals,” writes Allen.
The most fascinating part of Allen’s book deals with the rise of Pentecostalism, especially in Africa. He imagines a future African pope issuing an encyclical, “Christus Victor,” on the conquest of all supernatural powers by the Risen Jesus. The Church in the West has become accomplished at dealing with the principalities and powers arrayed against her in various ages. Dealing with the spiritual hosts of wickedness is common in Africa today but rather rare in Europe and North America. As the Pentecostal influence within Catholicism grows, the biblical world of evil spirits to be vanquished will inform Catholic spirituality to a greater degree.
Allen’s task extends to analyzing biotechnology, ecology, and Islam as other trends worth watching. That judgment is not controversial, as the Church is already engaging those issues with greater frequency and in greater depth. Allen’s chapter on Islam tries its best to sketch out what growing Catholic–Islamic cooperation might look like, and he notes correctly that the pathologies of the Arab world are not the final word about Islam. Back to the statistics: The majority of the Islamic world is not Arab, and large parts of it (Indonesia, for example) have not been antagonistic toward Christianity.
In the end, on Islam as on other issues, Allen concedes that the future remains, well, the future. Nonetheless, the importance of Allen’s reporting is not whether his predictions are accurate as much as that the accuracy of what he tells us is already going on. As for the future, the best and most humble line of The Future Church is about Islam: “If [a plot to blow up St. Peter’s] were to succeed, all bets would be off.”
Fr. Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.