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The Future Is Now

John Allen's reporting on the Catholic Church is of the highest order.

By From the July 2010 - August 2010 issue

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The Future Church: How Ten Trends Are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church
By John L. Allen, Jr.
(Doubleday, 480 pages, $28)

John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Register and a Vatican analyst for CNN and National Public Radio, has written an indispensable book for anyone interested in the Catholic Church or religion itself in its worldwide dimension. The Future Church: How Ten Trends Are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church is a "thick" book, not to be read in one sitting, augmented by a fine section at the end recommending further reading on the 10 trends Allen examines.

What makes this book of particular interest is the extreme relevance of the Catholic Church to secular world events in our time. Certainly many factors played into the fall of Communism in Europe only two decades ago. Nonetheless many experts point to the election of John Paul II, his first papal visit to his native Poland, and the formation of Solidarity as primary catalysts. During his fateful pontificate, John Paul II had not only a religious impact but often a political one as well, owing to his denunciation of corrupt, dictatorial, and totalitarian regimes.

The long-simmering eruption of radical jihadist Islam during the 1970s, which led to the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran, was a major factor in the election of Ronald Reagan, who in turn helped bring about the final collapse of Communism. In short, the two dominant forms of creedal religion in the world are Catholicism and Islam and both are growing vertiginously, as Allen points out.

In September, Pope Benedict will make an unprecedented state visit to the United Kingdom, where he will address Parliament and meet with the Queen at her palace in Scotland. Most importantly, he will personally carry out the first beatification of his pontificate -- that of John Henry Newman, perhaps the greatest religious writer, preacher, and theologian of both the English-speaking Anglican and Catholic Communions in the last two centuries. All of this takes place in the context of near-anarchy in the worldwide Anglican Communion over moral teachings on sex and marriage. This situation has led Rome to take the extraordinary measure of receiving not only individual conversions but also conversions of whole congregations and even dioceses.

In addition, Pope Benedict has had warmly friendly dealings with various patriarchs of the autocephalous orthodox national churches. If one or several of them unites with Rome under the primacy of the pope, we could see the beginning of the end of a thousand-year schism that is the scandal of Christianity.

With the 500th anniversary of the Reformation approaching in 2017, many serious evangelical Christians who belong to thousands of denominations throughout the world may want to bring their zeal to the church that gave them the Bible, and receive the grace-giving gifts of the sacraments that complete their baptism, including the liturgical life and historical culture that so many desire.

Christ's prayer "That all may be one" could possibly be seen answered by the grandchildren of children being born today.

As Allen's professional associations listed above suggest, he is not a paleocon Catholic with Lefrevrist leanings. However, his personal views seem to have evolved toward an essential assent to the basic teachings of the Church, and he does a fine job of maintaining his objectivity in a book that not only offers a contemporary snapshot of the Catholic Church but also attempts to prognosticate about the position it will hold at the end of our still-new 21st century. As he puts it, "I am a journalist, not a priest theologian, or academic. My role is to describe what is happening in Catholicism and to provide context for it. This book therefore is an exercise in description, not a prescription. I entrust the prescriptive debate to better minds than mine."

Allen's choices for the 10 future trends that the Church will encounter are: A World Church, Evangelical Catholicism, Islam, the New Demography, Expanding Lay Roles, the Biotech Revolution, Globalization, Ecology, Multipolarism, and Pentecostalism. Let's look at a few of them.

In his chapter on the World Church, Allen calls the shifting of "the center of gravity from North to South" the most important change the Church underwent in the 20th century. He predicts this trend will accelerate in our century as the populations of Africa and South America continue to grow while the ranks of old, formerly Catholic Europe dwindle still further. The United States is an outlier here, largely because of massive (mostly Catholic) immigration from Latin America.

In Africa, much of the Church's growth is due to a relatively high birthrate and more local control from native-born bishops (a sign their countries are no longer operating as missionary outposts). These bishops are on average younger and more vigorous in facing the struggles of enculturation, with polygamy and witchcraft being the most serious issues to be resolved. Allen does not draw the analogy, but this is reminiscent of the (700-year long) evangelization of the barbarian tribes flowing out of the Asian steppes, which was followed by the triple strains of dealing with the Black Death, the Avignon papacy, and the Protestant revolt. It is certainly helpful if the reader knows a good deal of Church history to understand Allen's approach to the future.

In his chapter on evangelical Catholicism, Allen waves the white flag of surrender to 50 years of liturgical, doctrinal, and sacramental confusion dating from the proliferation of poorly applied teachings from the misunderstood Second Vatican Council. As Allen puts it, "The defining features of evangelical Catholicism are a clear embrace of traditional Catholic thought, speech, and practice, the usual word for which is ‘orthodoxy'; eagerness to proclaim one's Catholic identity to the world, emphasizing its implication for culture, society, and politics; faith seen as a matter of personal choice rather than cultural inheritance."

In short, what we are seeing is a dropping out of the lukewarm and "dissenters" from the visible Church in the face of resurgent, vital, orthodox Catholicism. One in 10 Americans is an ex-Catholic, one of the greatest mass apostasies in the history of the Church. The Church of the future will be evangelizing and self-confident -- considerably smaller but much more powerful in its effect on American culture and society as mainline Protestantism continues its almost 500-year-long death march to oblivion, giving way before the mainly non-denominational freestanding mega-churches that rely on enthusiasm and private interpretation of the Bible.

The chapter on expanding lay roles allows Allen a different way to approach the reality that 98.5 percent of the Church's faithful are not bishops, priests, or deacons but rather the laity. Allen writes: "What makes lay roles a major trend in the twenty-first-century is that the laity is emerging as protagonists both inside and outside the Church. Internally lay people are occupying ministerial and administrative positions once held almost exclusively by priests. Externally, lay people are taking it upon themselves to evangelize culture and to act on Catholic social teaching. It is this one-two punch, lay ministers inside the Church and lay activists on the outside, that constitutes the trend."

The central teaching of the Second Vatican Council is the universal call to holiness. For the large majority of Catholics, this means holiness is to be pursued (and can be attained) primarily in the everyday world of family, work, leisure, and politics, which inevitably influences contemporary culture. It may take until the end of this century for this first and primary role for the laity to be grasped and put into effect. Allen examines the dozens of lay movements that, approved by the Vatican, all with their proper charisms, personify this approach to the role of the laity in the Church. In some ways these movements can be likened to pre-Constantine Christians who put little emphasis on structure but rather lived their Christianity in their family life, work, friendship, and works of charity, inspired by a faith that made them willing to bear witness even until death. However, one need not be a member of a lay movement to live out fully one's Christian faith in the world.

In second place are the lay ministries referred to earlier by Allen. They are most needed in the Catholic South, where there are relatively few priests for the exploding Catholic populations of the southern Continents, leaving dire need for catechists, teachers, leaders of Scripture study, etc. The danger in the developed North, however, is that lay ministers can think, in outmoded clerical terms, that they constitute more of the Church because they work inside the institutional Church of parishes, schools, chanceries, etc.

I have only briefly examined three of the trends, leaving the other seven for you to judge when you read this book. Catholic, Protestant, Jew, or Muslim, it will give you a much deeper insight into this third-millennial Church that, whatever your vantage point, shows no current signs of disproving its Founder's prophecy that it will remain with us until the end of time.

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About the Author
Matthew Kenefick is a Church historian who writes from Washington, D.C. and a Research Fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute.