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Passions of Pope Victor

Passions of Pope Victor

Mini Teaser: As Europe secularized and the global South becomes the new market for potential converts, Christianity is undergoing a painful evolution.

by Author(s): Philip Jenkins

John L. Allen, Jr., The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday Religion, 2009), 480 pp., $28.00.

 

[amazon 0385520387 full] FORECASTING THE future of religion has a long and tainted history. Too often, futurology merely consists of watching the current trajectory of lines on a graph, and extending them until they reach some sensational conclusion. This was the process that led Mark Twain, a century ago, to predict that the world's largest religions by 2000 AD would be Roman Catholicism-and Christian Science. But no less troublesome is the enduring belief that religion is simply going to fade away and thus we need give it no account. That comforting construct generally endures until some vast explosion, literal or figurative, reminds us not just that many millions of people around the world take religion very seriously, but that they also do not draw sharp lines between the spiritual and political dimensions of life. As Western governments discovered in September 2001, we do indeed have a choice. We either pay serious attention to the patterns shaping religious belief and practice worldwide, or else we find ourselves very suddenly scrambling to play catch-up on that which we have failed to notice.

And thus we come to John Allen's dazzling study of Roman Catholicism in The Future Church. Of course, this is not to suggest that the West will face an armed onslaught from fanatical Roman Catholics anytime soon. Or that this is an ideology we need to comprehend and then confront. But Allen's book does an excellent job of identifying the broad trends-cultural, social, demographic, technological-that are going to have a major impact on all strands of Christianity. And to differing degrees, they will also reshape all the world's religious systems. We can argue about particular phenomena that Allen notes; I would leave out some and add others-but he has provided a singular service in beginning what should be a continuing debate. The Future Church is a deeply valuable book, and it demands to be very widely read.

 

IF PREDICTION guru John Naisbitt had not coined and cornered the term in the 1980s, Allen would probably be talking about "megatrends," those deep underlying movements that are transforming the Catholic world and the Church. Quoting Arnold Toynbee, Allen is careful to distinguish those profound currents from the passing trivia:

The things that make good headlines are on the surface of the stream of life, and they distract us from the slower, impalpable, imponderable movements that work below the surface and penetrate to the depths. But it is really these deeper, slower movements that make history, and it is they that stand out huge in retrospect, when the sensational passing events have dwindled, in perspective, to their true proportions.

And this leads Allen to omit various phenomena that, in his view, fall short of the categorical mark. Most startling for Americans, perhaps, is the clergy-abuse affair that has so occupied the headlines over the past fifteen years or so. Yet, as Allen says, this "crisis" has little resonance outside North America and Western Europe, and chiefly needs to be understood in light of specifically American circumstances. It is not, therefore, a trend in anything like the same sense as, say, the massive expansion of Christianity in the global South. Among other "trends that aren't," Allen lists the "return to orthodoxy," "homosexuals" and-daringly-"feminism." He is laudably anxious to avoid falling into the Mark Twain trap of extrapolating current trends ad infinitum. Let it be said, though, that of these supposed nontrends, feminism may be the one most likely to confound even as restrained a prophet as Allen.

What Allen does identify are ten key phenomena: "A World Church," "Evangelical Catholicism," "Islam," "The New Demography," "Expanding Lay Roles," "The Biotech Revolution," "Globalization," "Ecology," "Multipolarism" and "Pentecostalism."

Though they overlap considerably, each of these developments poses problems for the Catholic Church, which formed its institutional structure and its belief system in an older and radically different world. For example:

A Church dominated in the twentieth century by the global North, meaning Europe and North America, today finds two thirds of its members living in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Catholic leadership will come from all over the world in this century to a degree never before experienced. . . .
A Church whose social teaching took shape in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution now faces a twenty-first-century globalized world, populated by strange entities such as multinational corporations (MNCs) and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) that didn't exist when it crafted its vision of the just society. . . .
A Church whose diplomacy has always relied on the Great Catholic Power of the day is now moving in a multipolar world, in which most of the poles that matter aren't Catholic, and some aren't even Christian.

Obviously, what many Westerners see as the reactionary, benighted Catholic Church is anything but unique in being slow to come to terms with this emerging world, or in failing to resolve its relationship to postmodernity. But that certainly does not mean that Church authorities fail to understand the gravity of the issues they face. In fact, we could argue that the Catholic Church was the very first global institution in history. After so many "world empires" that were strictly confined to Eurasia, the Church was the first to span the globe. If you are looking for a convenient date for the birth of globalization, what about 1579, when the diocese of Manila was created as a suffragan see of Mexico City, in a stunning transoceanic leap? Today, debates about the role of a traditionally Western-oriented church in the New World are probably more intense among Catholic leaders than those of any other faith tradition.

 

THE FUTURE Church is so hard to summarize because its content is so astonishingly rich. Through his journalistic career, Allen himself has met every significant player in the realm he describes, and visited every theater of transformation in the Catholic world. Frequently, he will throw out an anecdote or a case study in a paragraph or a page that any other author would have developed into a full-length book. (To take one example, somewhere in these pages there lurks an excellent future tome on Christianity in India).

But to approach The Future Church through the one trend that spills over into multiple sections, we find ourselves confronted with "The New Demography." Put simply, people around the world are having far fewer children than they used to. In order to sustain a stable population, a society needs a birthrate of 2.1 children per woman. If the rate rises above that, populations grow; if the rate falls below 2.1, they shrink. A high fertility rate means a large surplus of teenagers and young adults, while a low one opens the possibility of a sharply older population. Not long ago, very low fertility rates were seen as a particularly European phenomenon, even as a continental crisis, but today, much of the world is experiencing what the Economist recently termed "a staggering fertility decline."

The economically advanced regions that led this drop in progeny production have seen a dramatic fall in their share of world population. If we combine the figures for Europe, North America and the lands of the former Soviet Union, in 1950, these global North regions accounted for 29 percent of the global populace. By 1970 the share had fallen to 25 percent, and to around 18 percent by 2000. By 2050 the figure should be around 10 or 12 percent. Africa and Latin America combined made up only 13 percent of the world's people in 1900, but that figure grew to 21 percent by 2000, and should reach 29 percent by 2050. In 1900 Northerners outnumbered Southerners by about 2.5 to 1; by 2050 the proportion will be almost exactly reversed.

Those crude figures underlie the shift in the Catholic Church, which as recently as sixty years ago was heavily focused in Europe. During the twentieth century however, Catholics-like most Christian denominations-made huge strides in both Africa and Asia. Between 1900 and 2000, about half the population of Africa converted from primal religions to either Christianity (40 percent) or Islam (10 percent). This mass conversion would have been important enough in its own right, but it coincided with the southward demographic shift. Not just were there far more Africans, then, but a massively larger proportion of them were Christian. During the twentieth century, Africa's Catholic population grew from 1.9 million to 130 million-an increase of 6,708 percent. And it continues to swell. According to the Catholic Church's Statistical Yearbook, just in the five year period 2001-2006:

The Catholic population in Africa increased 16.7 percent, with a 19.4 percent increase in priests and a 9.4 percent increase in graduate- or theologate-level seminarians. In Asia, the Catholic population increased 9.5 percent.

All that in five years!

Putting these trends together, we can project what the Catholic world will look like in the near future. By 2025, almost three-quarters of Catholics will live in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and that figure does not even count people of the global South living in the North-for instance, the 60 or 70 million U.S. residents who will then claim Latino origin. By 2050, the nations with the largest Catholic populations will be (in descending order): Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, the United States, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, France, Italy, Nigeria and Argentina. All these projections have a sizable margin of error. The inclusion of France, for instance, is dubious when recent surveys show less than half of French people accept even a notional Catholic label. Surely, baptism alone does not make a Catholic for life? But the broad picture is beyond question. By 2050, the Catholic Church will be, overwhelmingly, a Southern institution. The Vatican, arguably, is located two thousand miles too far north.

Pullquote: Evangelists and megachurch preachers will probably emerge to seek the leadership of nations, especially if those countries have been economically devastated during a global downturn.Essay Types: Book Review