A Changing Church?


November 18, 2009

John L. Allen Jr., Doubleday, 480 pages, $28
According to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, at the conclusion of His time on earth Jesus entrusted to the apostles and those who would come after them a mandate that was, and still is, altogether startling in scope. In Matthew’s version He tells His followers: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). And in Mark the instructions are even more sweeping: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15).
The Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul and other writers depict a vigorous and notably successful response. Taking advantage of the infrastructure of the Roman Empire, especially its roads and its political stability, the early Christians in a surprisingly short time ringed the Mediterranean with vibrant faith communities and began to push inland.

The fall of the empire and the rise of aggressive Islam in the East largely brought this first phase of Christian evangelization to a close. As time passed, Christianity more and more became a largely Eurocentric enterprise. Had Hilaire Belloc lived in the 14th century, few would have challenged him for saying then, “Europe is the faith.”

All that changed in 1492. The voyages of Columbus ushered in an extraordinary era of exploration, exploitation, and evangelization that was to last for half a millennium. By the time colonialism called it a day after World War II, local churches with indigenous clergy were commonplace and prepared to take over from the missionaries.
One result, as Philip Jenkins has documented in his book The Next Christendom, is a continuing shift of Christianity’s global center of gravity — from the old Christian bodies of the northern hemisphere to the new, rapidly expanding Christianity of the south. By 2050, to take just one example, the Philippines alone should be home to the third or fourth largest number of Christians on earth. “The day of Southern Christianity is dawning,” Jenkins declares.
This startling transition, already well advanced, provides the context for John L. Allen Jr.’s informative new book The Future Church: How Ten Trends Are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church (Doubleday). Allen, one of the very best journalists covering religion today, takes a close-up look at ten trends that he believes will largely shape Catholicism in the next 50 to 100 years. (Full disclosure: My name is listed in the acknowledgements section of Allen’s book.)
The trends are, in his formulation:
  1. A World Church,
  2. Evangelical Catholicism,
  3. Islam,
  4. The New Demography,
  5. Expanding Lay Roles,
  6. The Biotech Revolution,
  7. Globalization,
  8. Ecology,
  9. Multipolarism, and
  10. Pentecostalism.  
(“Multipolarism”? Allen uses the term to refer to the time — just around the corner, it appears — when the Catholic Church will have to pay at least as much attention to new powers like China and India as it did not so long ago to the great powers of Europe.)
As Allen points out, there is “really only one trend here, globalization,” which is “producing reactions inside the Catholic Church [e.g., the Synod of Bishops for Africa, which took place at the Vatican only last month] as well as creating a whole new series of challenges outside.” This will make reading The Future Church an eye-opening experience for American Catholics afflicted by what the author calls “national parochialism.”
I have no quarrel with any of Allen’s choices for his list, but at the risk of spoiling his decimal symmetry, I would add an 11th trend: the rethinking and readjusting — likely to be creative and positive in the long run, though not without tension and conflict along the way — of the relationship between papal primacy and communion with Rome on the one hand and, on the other, collegiality and inculturation as the Church becomes more geographically dispersed and ethnically diverse. The creation of new institutions or the updating of old ones, like the Synod, in order to accommodate this shifting relationship is likely to speed up and become intense.
Intelligent and well informed as Allen is, however, he finds it necessary to hedge his bets by laying out a range of possible scenarios for the working-out of his trends. To some extent, this makes his book more satisfying as an account of things happening now than of how things will be somewhere down the line. But The Future Church has a more serious, built-in limitation than that: It is journalism — skillful, high-calibre journalism, but journalism all the same — directed to surfaces and tangibles rather than the heart of the reality it describes. (I say this as a journalist myself.)
The discussion of “trends” is interesting and helpful; but, as I am sure Allen understands, the Church lives on deeper levels than that. The mission given by Jesus was to preach the gospel, and the gospel of Christ is the gospel of the cross as the way to eternal life.
In commissioning the apostles and disciples, Jesus did not tell them to clean up the environment, defend Catholic identity, or fight the culture war. These are all good things to do, and not unrelated to the Church’s mission, but they are not what Jesus said. He told His followers to go out and tell others what He had taught and done and suffered — and how His message had been confirmed by His rising from the dead. He told them to baptize and to celebrate the Eucharist in His name. These things, He promised, would transform the world. But not easily, not all at once, and not without much suffering.
In an essay written on the eve of the greatest — that is to say, the worst — war in history up to now, Christopher Dawson wrote that in comparison with secular liberalism, “the Christian view of life and the Christian interpretation of history are profoundly tragic. . . . The victory that overcomes the world is not success but faith.” And the Church? “She has been the guest and the exile, the mistress and the martyr, of nations and civilizations and has survived them all. And in every age and among every people it is her mission to carry on the work of divine restoration and regeneration, which is the true end of history.”
And also, one might add, the authentic future of the Church, to which, in God’s providence, all trends will somehow contribute.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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