Cloudy Crystal Ball

John Allen is the most prolific and widely quoted reporter on the Catholic scene in the United States today. For years he has served as the National Catholic Reporter’s correspondent from the Vatican, where he gained access and institutional trust. Now back in the United States, he streams columns and dispatches across the Internet. When a pope travels or makes an apparently newsworthy pronouncement, Allen will be quoted in the mainstream press or appear on CNN or PBS to explain what is going on. His column “All Things Catholic” on NCR’s Web site not only reports the news, it makes it (the most recent example being Allen’s extended interview with Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George). If others track the whispers in the loggia, Allen amplifies them over his several megaphones.

While Allen describes The Future Church as a work of “descriptive journalism,” its title and subtitle indicate that he will be venturing beyond his usual role as a reporter and stepping into the realm of the forecaster. In fact, his opening sentence pays tribute to the cultural trend-spotter and op-ed columnist Thomas L. Friedman, and it sets the tone for what is to follow. While “the global story of Catholicism today is growth, not decline,” Allen writes, Catholics in the twenty-first century “won’t just need hustle, they’ll need imagination.”

The heart of Allen’s study describes ten critical trends the church must navigate if it is to retain market share. Otherwise, “Catholicism won’t rise to the occasion of these new challenges-it’ll be steamrolled by them.” The trends include developments in “the Catholic biosphere” like “Expanding Lay Roles” and “Evangelical Catholicism,” outside influences like Islam and Pentecostalism, and megatrends like globalization, multipolarism, demographics, and ecology. Two concluding chapters describe the author’s methodology for settling on ten trends (he lists another twenty-five that he considered), and offer a “stand-alone summary” of what Allen calls the “upside-down church” he envisions as Catholicism’s future: a universal church dominated by the culture, practice, and theology of Southern Hemisphere Catholics, who already constitute a majority of the world’s Catholics.

Allen begins by declaring that his book will be “an exercise in description, not prescription,” that he will “entrust the prescriptive debate to better minds than my own.” Each chapter presents a summary of “what is happening” in a specific trend, followed by an analysis of “what it means.” Here Allen includes “probable,” “possible,” and “long-shot consequences” for the future church.

The individual trends are rendered unevenly. Allen is more at home examining church issues than addressing larger political and cultural ones, and his years in Rome have had an effect on his style. He frequently seems to be speaking for Rome as much as reporting on it, and this gives The Future Church a curious “inside baseball” quality, a term Allen uses to disparage both liberals and conservatives he feels are overly concerned with such matters as authority and dissent, women’s ordination, or the shape of the liturgy.

While this is ostensibly a book examining trends that are “revolutionizing” the church, much of Allen’s argument has to do with the status quo and with inferring that the demographic growth of the church in the Southern Hemisphere will cement more conservative theological and cultural views in the church’s coming century. With Pentecostalism spreading rapidly in the global South, he argues, Catholicism will have to become more like its competitor if it wishes to grow and thrive.

Allen also seems more comfortable providing lists, statistics, anecdotes, and sound bites than making analytical arguments. When he does offer a more sustained appraisal, he usually relies on the views of “orthodox” Catholic commentators like George Weigel. Allen’s dry, rapid-fire, repetitive style can be tedious, and apart from an occasional pun, he seldom attempts to inject humor into this volume.

A more serious problem is that Allen often begins a discussion with a broad generalization. He will follow this with an important qualification, but then backtrack to his original generalization, which becomes the premise for all that follows. His chapter on “Evangelical Catholicism” begins by examining Protestant divisions in order to offer a perspective on present-day Catholicism. The author trisects Protestants into mainline Protestants, who practice détente with modernism; Evangelical Protestants who want to convert modernity; and Pentecostals, who aim to challenge modernity head-on. He next divides Catholicism into three groups: Catholic liberals who “enjoyed a heyday” in the 1960s; “evangelical Catholics” who, with the ascension of Pope John Paul II in 1978, now dominate and embrace more traditional Catholic practices and theology; and finally Pentecostal Catholics, whom Allen sees as the key to the future. “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.”

But before proceeding to a discussion of these Pentecostal Catholics, Allen pulls back to observe that “in real life the opposition between the ‘evangelical’ and the ‘liberal’ position is not nearly so sharp as the shorthand treatment in this chapter makes it sound.” For the next four hundred pages, however, he underscores that evangelical Catholics are “running the table in terms of the church’s institutional battles,” and that when it comes to matters like liturgical reform, the role of bishops’ conferences, women’s ordination, and the church’s sexual teaching, “the debate has been closed.”

Allen does not substantively analyze the theological and cultural differences between liberal and evangelical Catholics. Instead, he says the church must face outward. Here he opts for his Pentecostal future and a church that will be more attuned to the supernatural (there will be more exorcisms) and to the individual, a church more entrepreneurial in style and outreach. Such a church, he says, will be nimbler and better able to attract new adherents. “The real challenge to Catholicism comes not from secularism,” he writes, “but from the dynamics of a remarkably competitive religious marketplace.” Catholicism must spend less time “defending itself against secular indifference, and more time developing a new sense of entrepreneurial ‘hustle.’”

There is much to consider in these juxtapositions. Still, the internal battles that have rocked the Catholic Church since Vatican II are not likely to vanish, even as the church’s population and attention shift southward. As the South becomes more influential, it will face the same vexing questions bedeviling the North and the West: How to understand the human person in an increasingly diverse, materialistic, and scientifically geared world? How to heed and interpret Scripture in the light of new historical understandings, particularly concerning issues not addressed in biblical times? How to incorporate the experiences and insights of women as full partners in both church and society? And how to convey God’s gracious, salvific presence in the midst of environmental, economic, intellectual, political, and religious upheaval?

Having arrived at the final chapter of this long book, some readers will be surprised when Allen raises an “industrial-size caution” about all that has gone before. Suddenly sounding less like Thomas Friedman than like Warren Buffett, Allen warns readers that “strategies premised on the assumption that the future will be like the past, only more so, generally turn out to be wrong,” and admits that “the presumption that these megatrends necessarily will turn the Catholic Church upside down rests on a potentially shaky premise.” Despite that concession, one would be wrong to think the author might revise his forecasts, if not his conclusions. Instead, Allen simply tenders his admission as another example of journalistic evenhandedness. Then it’s back to the future.

The Future Church will disappoint some readers and exhaust others. It recapitulates much of what Allen has reported in recent years and offers an admittedly shaky premise on which to base a forecast. Fortunately, though, the church’s future will not rely on journalists, academics, or even churchmen alone. Rather, as always, the Gospels, the life of grace, and the unpredictability of the Holy Spirit will play the larger, more lasting role.

Published in the 2009-11-06 issue: 

Patrick Jordan is a former managing editor of Commonweal.

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