The Church in 50 years: John Allen's predictions

The Church in 50 years: John Allen's predictions

Frank Mobbs

In this review/article Dr Frank Mobbs examines key points made in the recently published book by Vatican expert John Allen titled The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church (Doubleday, 2009, 469pp hardback, ISBN 978-0-385-52038-6).

I warmly recommend John Allen's The Future Church for it is a mine of information on trends that are developing in the Catholic Church, together with cautious predictions about the courses these trends are likely to take.

John Allen begins by saying he is not interested in surface trends but, rather, in deep underlying trends. His method is to describe the trends then forecast their results. He divides the results into two groups: the more probable and the less probable. He is well aware that predicting what humans will do is hazardous but argues that we cannot escape doing it.

No policy can be formulated without making predictions. Catholics who are interested in the future of the Church of the next 50 years need a well-informed Catholic like Allen to get them thinking.

John Allen is a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter (USA) in which he publishes a weekly column. He is also a correspondent for CNN and National Public Radio and has written a number of books, focusing on Vatican affairs and recent popes. He spends much time in Rome where he has many contacts with leading members of the Roman Curia and other Church officials. As you would expect, he is particularly well informed on the Church in America.

He detects ten significant trends in the Church. I shall not list them all. Rather, I shall summarise his accounts of the most important trends.

Firstly, there is the changing population distribution of what is a world Church. Today there are about 1.2 billion nominal Catholics. Australian Catholics constitute 0.4% of this total, so whatever happens in the Church in Australia has little significance for the rest of the Church.

In a century the distribution of Catholics has gone upside-down. In 1900, of 266 million Catholics, 200 million lived in Europe and North America. Today 750 million live outside Europe and North America which contain only 350 million. Nearly half live in Latin America.

By 2025 only one Catholic in five will be a non-Hispanic Caucasian. Brazil contains 150 million Catholics and, on UN projections, in 2050 there will be 215 million. Mexico, the Philippines, USA and Democratic Republic of the Congo will see huge increases. These are just a few statistics which Allen uses to show that there is a Northern Church and a Southern, the Northern being Europe and nations whose inhabitants are mostly of European descent e.g., Australia. The Northern Church is rapidly declining in strength while the Southern is booming and vibrant, youthful and optimistic. Its problem is not decline but growth.

Big changes

Today in Asia there are almost as many Christians (Catholic and Protestant) as Buddhists. The number of Catholics in Africa rose by 33 percent in the period from 2000 to 2008. While no reliable figures for China exist, there are many reports of rapid growth in the number of Protestants, mostly Baptists and Pentecostals, with some increase in Catholics. The Church in China may be about to expand rapidly. Certainly, the Church of the future will be predominantly Southern.

One does not have to be a seer to confidently predict that big changes are underway in the Church. Allen sketches some.

The South will come to dominate the Church. It is conservative on morals, intolerant of any weakening of the family, and of homosexuality and abortion. It does not fuss over sexist language and liturgical nice-ties, or strive endlessly to reform Church structures, being concerned about poverty, exploitation, and HIV/AIDS. It is very interested in miracles, healings, visions, exorcising demons, piety and ecstatic prayer.

Southerners live in a supernatural world. They will demand more attention to the supernatural from Church leaders. The North is sceptical in religion, the South credulous. Church leaders will have to manage these differences.

The Holy See of Rome will still be in charge but there is strong probability that soon Popes will come from the South, as will a majority of the Roman Curia, and papal diplomats. The 'colour' of Rome will change. Allen speculates that Pope and Curia may relocate to one of the great centres of Catholicism, such as Mexico City.

A second trend is towards an evangelical Catholicism. This is a movement gathering strength in emphasising Catholic identity. It is orthodox in theology, loyal to the Holy See, and insists that Jesus is divine, not a mere social reformer, and the Catholic Church is "the one true Church" to which all should belong, so it promotes apologetics and the conversion of outsiders.

These Catholics are not interested in reforming doctrine but in preaching it. The trend has been quietly promoted by multiple movements often founded and led by laity. Some are: Focolare (founded by Chiara Lubich and reaching 4.5 million people, it runs 750 businesses and pools profits), Communion and Liberation, Sant'Egidio Community (influential and intensely liturgical) and L'Arche (140 communities in more than 30 countries).

It can be seen in World Youth Day, the huge numbers of pilgrims going to Rome, television station EWTN and apostolic radio stations in Latin America, magazines such as Catholic World Report and AD2000. It insists that Catholic schools, hospitals, and universities be authentically Catholic. It likes Catholic identifiers, such as churches which look like places of worship rather than halls, the wearing of distinctive clothing by priests and members of religious orders.

Just as religions with clear boundaries grow, so also do groups within the Church. From these movements come a disproportionate number of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life, who will become the leaders of the Church. Allen predicts that their influence will cause dissident groups, such as We are Church, to wither or exit from the Church.

In the predictable future, there will be a shortage of priests and religious, so there will be a huge increase in paid employees of Church agencies, in addition to the engagement of volunteers. Already in Germany there are thousands of lay workers, often highly qualified in theology, and usually well paid because the Church receives about US$5 billion annually from the Church tax collected by the government.

In the USA there are 31,000 lay ecclesial ministers, and more than 20,000 laity are in training to serve the Church, 80% of whom are women. Large numbers of catechists will be needed to instruct new Catholics and lead them in worship. Clearly the lay workers will exercise more authority in the Church.

Feminisation

This use of women to do much of the work of the Church, notes Allen, reveals a problem: the feminisation of the Church seems to diminish involvement of men, who feel somewhat excluded.

Half a century ago the theologian, Karl Rahner, pointed to the danger of making males feel they are not wanted. In Australia evidence for this trend lies in the reluctance of males to become altar servers when they have to serve alongside females. Serving at Mass has become "girls' work".

The predominance of women amongst Church attenders and in lay ministries reveals another problem: in Northern countries the target audience of the Church is middle-aged to elderly women. Priests and bishops, perhaps unconsciously, direct their attention to this segment, thus neglecting other segments.

John Allen notes another trend: urbanisation. It is estimated that by 2050 two-thirds of the world's population of nine billion will live in cities. This means that traditional Catholic communities will be dispersed and without community support for their faith. Any counter-response will demand employment of large numbers of laity.

Another trend is that of Pentecostalised Catholicism. Allen holds that the Church of the South finds congenial Pentecostal spirituality and modes of Church life, while not rejecting the authority of Pope and bishops. So energetic is this movement that it will determine much of the Church's future.

However, while the Church of the South is expanding, it is only one "product" available for choice in the religion market. There are three strong rivals: secularism, Islam, and Protestant Pentecostalism. These also are expanding and doing so at the expense of the Catholic Church in many regions.

In the case of secularism, this movement is well known to Australian readers. It comes in many forms but can be characterised as belief that either God does not exist (atheism) or that, if God exists, that fact does not matter, so belief in God does not deserve respect and it can play no part in public policy.

We know the statistics for flight from the Church in Europe. With other commentators, Allen notes that in recent years some secularists have moved from treating religious belief with contempt to outright hostility.

This is evidenced in making illegal the display of crucifixes in courts and school classrooms, as also in strident denunciations of State funding of Churches, and of Christian leaders by advocates of abortion, homosexuality, the 'marriage' of homosexual couples. A new trend is the growth of secularism in traditionally religious areas, such as Latin America.

At the same time sociologists note that many in Europe, North America, Australia, etc, say they are religious but do not belong to a Church. They make up a set of beliefs which they find agreeable. The Christian Churches, however, still have their uses for these people crowd into churches on occasions of national mourning and catastrophes, such as when the Princess of Wales, Diana, died.

The Evangelical Catholic response is likely to be a strong demand that bishops debate on behalf of the Church in the public arena. These Catholics want strong opposition to secularisation, with clear assertion of the Church's teachings and policies.

A second rival is Islam which in many parts of the world is in competition with the Church, often bloody competition. It is expanding, fuelled by the oil revenues of Arab states. Muslim populations increase rapidly because of high fertility rates with over fifteen million Muslims now dwelling in Europe.

They challenge the Church in two important ways. First, from nations with a Muslim majority, such as Iraq, Catholics and other Christians are either being forced to flee after living for a thousand years under Muslims or are severely threatened. Second, Muslims are converting thousands to Islam.

Interestingly, writes Allen, "a study published on April 15 by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has found that the number of Christians in sub-Saharan Africa grew from seven million in 1900 to 470 million today. During the same time period, the number of Muslims grew from 11 million to 234 million."

Pentecostalism

A third rival is Protestant Pentecostalism. As is well known, this is the most vigorous section of Protestantism, one which has converted millions of Catholics, especially in Latin America. One Catholic response has been to adopt such of Pentecostalism as is compatible with Catholic dogma.

John Allen does not challenge Church authority, as he knows his theology. Moreover, he writes well, and, as far as I can tell, accurately reports trends in the Church.

Finally, there are two classes of Catholics: the parochials and the universals. The parochials will listen to an account of what is happening in the Church in Russia or India with glazing eyes, then turn attention to what is happening in the local parish. The universals are interested in every part of the Church.

Seeing that AD2000 devotes many of its pages to developments in the Church outside Australia, it is reasonable to assume readers will find this book of considerable interest.

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