The Common Good
December 2010

A Seismic Shift?

by César J. Baldelomar | December 2010

The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church by John L. Allen Jr. Doubleday.

The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church is John L. Allen Jr.’s most ambitious book to date. The longtime CNN Vatican analyst and National Catholic Reporter senior correspondent argues that various globalization forces are rocking the Catholic Church's ancient foundations. During this exciting and challenging period of change, and with the majority of Catholics living in the global South, it's an opportune time for the church to renew its vocation to the disenfranchised, to those on the underside of history and socioeconomic norms.

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According to Allen's trends, it's crucial for today's world church -- laity, clergy, religious, and hierarchy -- to embrace the rise of young evangelical Catholics and ever-expanding lay roles. Modern Catholics should also learn from and engage with other denominations and faith traditions, especially Pentecostalism and Islam. Lastly, Catholics need to consider the ethics of biotechnology, the perils of globalization (especially for the poor), and the surging world powers.

In the introduction, Allen warns his readers that his book is descriptive, not prescriptive. He maintains that the selection of trends was "based on more than a decade of day-in, day-out analysis of the global Church." He doesn't, however, explain his criteria for choosing trends until the penultimate chapter, "Trends That Aren't." Readers may wonder up to that point why Allen selected certain trends and ignored others. The trends, he says, have to be global, impact the Catholic grassroots and hierarchy, be explanatory and predictive, have long-term consequences for the church, and be non-ideological.

"A World Church" is the book's strongest "trend" chapter. Allen explores recent population statistics and projections, the causes of Catholic growth in the global South and its decline in Europe, a profile of Southern Catholicism, and his predictions for the global church. He maintains that, since more than 65 percent of Catholics live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, a "Southern" pope will soon emerge. This global South-dominated church will move beyond internal theological debates -- such as ordination of women, papal primacy, and infallibility -- and focus on external social and economic justice concerns, such as debt relief, wars, and migrants' rights. Moreover, issues such as polygamy and witchcraft will become increasingly important.

There is, however, some concern with Allen's future church. Given his assertion that global South Catholics are "robustly orthodox" on Catholic sexual ethics, can the future church truly be attentive to the marginalized if it does not seriously engage the issues of sexual orientation, gender, and contraception?

Further, Allen's portrayal of all global South Catholics as ultraconservative on sexual morality is problematic, since the current hierarchy's views on sexual issues don't necessarily reflect those of the laity. Many Latin American, African, and Asian bishops are ultraconservative on sexuality issues not because they're from the global South, but because they were selected by conservative popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Nevertheless, The Future Church contains an invaluable treasure trove of statistics, journalistic investigation, and expert opinions. Anyone seeking an introduction to significant issues enveloping both society and the church will do well to consult Allen’s book. But above all, Allen leaves readers with hope that the shift from internal church debates to external concerns will result in a more prophetic grassroots institution that places the economically marginalized at its center.

César J. Baldelomar (www.cesarb.com) is a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, where he focuses on liberation theologies and ethics from the margins.

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