Back to the Future

I’ve been looking over a very interesting book – John Allen’s The Future Church: How Ten Trends Are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church. I know – but don’t let the trendy title turn you away. Yes, maybe there are only eight or really thirteen such trends. And the Doubleday PR people probably didn’t like the way any number besides ten sounded. And perhaps the whole notion of sensational “revolutions” in Catholicism should be retired for a while, if not for good. Still, Allen, who started his journalistic career as a standard-issue National Catholic Reporter liberal, has matured into a quite fair, well-informed, and intelligent Vatican specialist. And what he has to say here is worth pondering, even if you find some of what he says unpersuasive.

For starters, he acknowledges how parochial most of the concerns of Church liberals in Europe and the United States have become. The sheer fact is that two-thirds of the world’s Catholics now live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Church leadership, long dominated by bishops from the North, is likely to reflect this trend very soon. Partly as a result, the aggiornamento (“updating and opening to the modern world”) that many thought was a central lesson of Vatican II is bumping up against this large number of Catholics outside the First World who consciously and vigorously define themselves over against the un-Christian elements of modernity. All this, of course, is transpiring while demographic collapse in Europe and the secularization of Catholics there and in America has made modernist Catholicism quite literally a diminishing force. Besides, as time passes and liberal Catholicism and Protestantism become ever more indistinguishable from the surrounding culture, it will become clear – indeed, already has – that a “newly assertive Islam” is the more pressing challenge, even in the historically Christian countries of the West.

Of course, there are plenty of other challenges in our countries, but Allen astutely observes as the first of them that: “A Church that has historically invested a large share of its pastoral energy in the young now has to cope, beginning in the North, with the most rapidly aging population in human history.” He is a little less than eager to connect that crisis with the widespread embrace of contraception and anti-natalist ideologies, including overpopulation alarmism and extremist environmentalism. But he does allow that abortion, birth-control, homosexuality, and what might be called second-generation life-issues such as cloning, genetic manipulation of human genetic codes, and even human-animal hybrids are raising ethical questions that will be front and center for decades.

Complicating the picture further, the Church’s worldwide presence is now matched and perhaps even surpassed by the rise of multinational corporations and global political institutions. We forget that not that long ago, international networks were few and the great national powers – openly Catholic ones among them – shaped international relations. In this new environment, action becomes more difficult and the old “Catholic” nations (as Austin Ruse reported Friday in this space with respect to abortion rights at the United Nations) are unreliable and no longer Catholic – or even Christian – international actors in any substantial sense.

Finally, Catholics in the developed world still regard the Christian competition as consisting of the old triad of Protestants, Anglicans, and Orthodox. But around the globe, it is Pentecostalism, as British sociologist David Martin and American historian Philip Jenkins have demonstrated, that is growing like wildfire. Don’t expect to see this reported on the nightly news or in mainstream journals (it’s just too shocking to the received wisdom about what’s happening in the world). But in the last quarter century, Pentecostalism has gone from 5 to 20 percent of the total number of Christians around the world, and has even influenced Catholicism in many countries.

Pentecostalism, like any large movement, contains several different currents, some of which are opposed to one another. Like American Evangelicalism, it can sometimes preach a Gospel of wealth that sits uneasily alongside other elements in the Gospels. But whatever else can be said about these currents, faith matters to them, and it is a faith that is not particularly concerned to observe the etiquette of the developed world’s secular elites or their assumption that religion is – if not exactly fine – at least tolerable as long as it stays out of the public square. And we may only be at the beginning of this outpouring of the spirit.

Allen examines all these trends in light of a good deal of experience of how the Church operates around the world. That reporting is quite valuable. He told me once when he was writing his book on Opus Dei that he went to Peru expecting to find that movement embroiled in the usual conservative/liberation theology split in Latin America, pitting the wealthy few against the revolutionary many. Instead, he found that some of the Peruvian bishops who were members of Opus Dei had no interest in those First World categories and neither did their people. When he was there, they were much more concretely focused on how the Church could help local Catholic farmers buy a few cows.

You may agree or disagree with the more fine-grain analysis. I found myself mentally developing different explanations of various phenomena at many points. But Allen has latched on to some of the large-scale realities of our world that are often overlooked and that the Church will inevitably face during what has already shown itself to be a quite surprising century.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.