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Richard R. GaillardetzDecember 07, 2009
The Future Church by By John L. Allen Jr.Doubleday. 480p $28

John Allen is the English-speaking world’s most informed, most insightful and most balanced commentator on the Roman Catholic Church today. Allen consistently offers richly textured reportage that refuses to opt for the superficial take on church events. His extensive travels across the globe, his years cultivating relationships among theologians, local church leaders and Vatican officials, his genuine curiosity regarding the manifold factors, apparent and hidden, that shape church events—all have uniquely equipped him to produce his most recent volume.

The Future Church explores a range of possible futures for the Roman Catholic Church based on what he identifies as 10 trends that will shape the church of the 21st century. Six criteria guided Allen’s selection of the trends that would make his “top ten” list: 1) the trend had to apply to the global church; 2) it had to affect the church at the grass-roots level; 3) it had to be a trend that church leadership felt compelled to engage; 4) it had to have explanatory power, helping to make sense of otherwise disconnected church developments; 5) it had to have predictive power, meaning that it must help anticipate some new ecclesial developments and 6) it must not be ideologically driven.

The first trend is the transformation of the Catholic Church into a genuine “world church.” Allen documents the momentous growth of the church in the global south and sketches out the distinctive ecclesial issues emerging there that will likely garner the church’s attention in the decades to come. The second trend, “evangelical Catholicism,” concerns Catholic leadership’s growing preoccupation with the preservation of Catholic identity and the reassertion of normative church doctrine. Many of America’s readers will find this the most discouraging chapter, as Allen contends that while progressive Catholicism will by no means disappear in the church, it will likely wield little influence in shaping the agenda of future church leaders.

The third trend concerns the emergence of Islam, which has replaced Judaism as Catholicism’s most important partner in interfaith dialogue. In spite of the negative fallout associated with Pope Benedict’s Regensburg address, the pope sees Islam as a potential collaborator in the fight against the postmodern forces of secularization and relativism.

In the chapter on the fourth trend, “the new demography,” Allen maps out some surprising changes in global population patterns, particularly the unexpected “fertility anxiety” that has emerged as a result of falling birth rates in Western Europe and Japan. He suggests ways in which the church may be well equipped to respond to these developments. The “expanding role of the laity” is the fifth trend. This chapter gives considerable attention to a wide range of lay movements and the emergence of lay ecclesial ministry.

The sixth trend is “the biotech revolution,” in which new reproductive technologies are emerging at a rapid pace and are attracting unprecedented attention from the church’s teaching office.

The seventh trend, “globalization,” considers not only the expansion of the reach of the Internet and the emergence of global markets, but the growing gap between rich and poor, festering regional military conflicts, expanding arms trade, human trafficking, increased migration and dire refugee problems. This global trend will lead to a growing emphasis on Catholic social teaching and encourage responses from a wide range of quasi-autonomous Catholic movements, associations, religious communities and ad hoc networks.

The eighth chapter, on ecology, suggests that Catholic teaching on stewardship and the sacredness of creation well situates the church to play a lead role in global discussions on pressing environmental issues.

“Multipolarism” attends to the emerging global influence not just of the United States but of four other emerging global powers: Brazil, Russia, India and China. Allen considers the potential contributions of the Catholic Church in those countries, even where the percentage of the Catholic population is likely to remain quite low.

The final trend considers the remarkable rise of Pentecostalism as “the de facto Southern way of being Christian.”

Faithful to Peter Berger’s axiom that no significant social phenomenon ever has a single cause, Allen resists simplistic narratives. At one point he considers 14 possible factors contributing to the rapid growth of Pentecostalism. Moreover, he also acknowledges that many of these trends stand in tension: the conservative impulse of evangelical Catholicism, for example, pulls in the opposite direction of an increased attentiveness to inculturation and the positive contributions of indigenous religions.

A particular strength of Allen’s work lies in the character of his prognostications. With each trend Allen distinguishes among “near certain consequences,” “probable consequences,” “possible consequences” and “long shot consequences.” This creates a fascinating portrait of the many possible futures of the church.

Allen dedicates an entire chapter to his explanation of why certain trends (e.g., the priest shortage, clerical sexual abuse, the growing role of women) did not make the list. Still, some of his trends seem to be more about larger societal developments to which the church must react rather than to trends in the church itself. Allen’s book offers the reader a compelling account of the challenges and possibilities that lie before the Catholic Church in this still young century. Those who are invested in its future will find it an indispensable resource.

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