A Changing Church?

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.

  • Austin

    I think it is very possible that the next Pope may be from the “South”, i.e. South America, Africa, etc. For centuries, we had only Italian Popes, then a Pole, and now a German. Perhaps it my be time for a Pope from Chile, Mexico, etc?

  • Dan

    Austin, it nearly happened. As I understand, Arinze was one of the three most likely candidates for Pope after JPII.

  • Jon

    Why not an Asian as Pope? I notice that when people consider non-European possibilities for Pope, they always run through a list of Africans and Latin Americans, but the Church in Asia has a long history and held on to the faith through some terrible persecutions by the powerful guidance and witness of their shepherds. What about a Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, or Filipino for Pope?

  • PNP, OP

    We need whoever it is that the Holy Spirit sends us: Pole, German, another Italian, Lativan, or Japanese.

    Tokenism has no place in the papal elections.

    Fr. Philip, OP

  • Michael

    After Benedict, the secular world and half of the Catholic world will cry for a Progressive Papa! Then after Arinze is elected he will be as frank and straight forward as he is now, and will suggest that Catholics should actually believe what the church teaches. Then the great divide. The turmoil of the 70’s tenfold. Yes, you live in interesting times.

  • Austin

    The next Papal Conclave will be very interesting. I do see some possible pressure from Cardinals from the “South” to elect one of their own. Call it “tokenism” if you will, but the Church cannot go on forever being governed by Europeans. I doubt that you will see an American Pope any time soon, given political realities, but a South American is certainly a possibility.

    For centuries we had only Italians as Pope, with a Curia of almost all Italians. This has changed in the past 30 years.
    Things could get very interesting.

  • Tito Edwards

    After reading John Allen’s book on Opus Dei, I have become an avid reader of his columns and his other books.

    I’ve read the first chapter of Future Church and he does not disappoint.

    He is the rare journalist that leaves his politics at the door, but still writes with passion on the issues of the day.

    I would recommend the book to all Catholics of different stripes.

    Oh, I prayed that either Cardinal Ratzinger or Cardinal Arinze would become pope, and I was astonished as the next Catholic when Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI.

    Though I was hoping for another Pope Pius!

  • Tito Edwards

    Absolutely no tokenism.

    I want quality over political correctness.

    Thank goodness we aren’t governed by such facsimile passions or we’d have a gender-neutral Bible translation.

    As far as our next pope, I pray it be someone from Africa. Those Latin Americans are to wishy-washy when it comes to orthodoxy. Those from Africa love the faith and practice it openly. Not like many of our episcopals here in the states that are “privately” orthodox, but “publicly” whimpy.

  • Austin

    Orthodoxy, orthodoxy, orthodoxy. that’s all I hear from so many of the posters here. There is more to Christianity than orthodoxy. Keep this up and we are going to wind up with a Church that is ultra orthodox and one tenth of the current size.
    I don’t want to end up being another SSPX cult.

  • David

    He’s only in his late 50s but somebody like Archbishop Burke could be one day

  • Tito Edwards

    When he was a Cardinal, Pope Benedict did say that a smaller church that was dynamic and vibrant would be an excellent engine of the creative minority that would affect culture in a positive manner.

    I’m all for quality over quantity if it makes Heaven on earth a better possibility.

  • Veronica

    The SSPX are what 99% of the Church was before the Second Vatican Council. I know. I actually lived before it.

    Be careful how you view them. I have noticed too much acquired animosity toward them.

    The SSPX is not the enemy.[smiley=happy]

  • Austin

    I have nothing against SSPX. So long as they don’t try to inflict themselves on the rest of us. Actually, they [SSPX]don’t, but Opus Dei, Legionarries of Christ, etc have tried to inflict themselves on others with their secrecy and lies and personality cult. They have tried to say that they are the “Real Church” and the rest of us are pseudo heretics, who should either join them or leave the Church.

    I’m not joing a bunch of crypto, Fascist medieval nuts and I’m not leaving either. The Church belongs to Christ, not some jackass cult of personality [Maciel} fanatics. When I see Bishops wearing their colorful, extra long capes and trying to drag us back to the Middle Ages, in the name of “orthodoxy” I am reminded of the Pharisees. The detachment from reality is amazing and horrifying. The Bishops quibble over wording of documents that nobody reads.

    Now they are going after the nuns? Kabuki theater. Meanwhile millions vote with their feet.

  • PNP, OP


    Orthodoxy attracts people to the Church. Squishy muddle-mouthed ecclesial PC junk does not.

    Just check out the rapid decline and eventual collapse of the Episcopal Church. Despite its worship of the PC pantheon; its dogmatic “inclusivism;” and constant liturgical innovation, people can’t abandon its pews fast enough.

    People want stability in their faith, a constancy that transcends the wax and wane of fashion. Build a house on sand. . .

    The Pope isn’t the CEO of a marketing firm looking for better bottom-line numbers. He’s the Successor to St. Peter, the Rock of the faith. And whether he’s white, black, blue, or striped, his job is to teach the faith handed on from the apostles.

    Fr. Philip, OP

  • Veronica

    Fr. Philip:

    Spoken like a true “hound of the Lord.”[smiley=wink]

  • Austin

    Padre Phil, there is sane Orthodoxy, which is represented by the combination of faith and reason, i.e. the Society of Jesus, etc. and then there is insane, cult like Orthodoxy, as represented by the LC gang. There is a difference.

    I have no patience for blind obedience and unquestioned cult like docility. God gave us a mind {at least some of us}, use it man.

  • PNP, OP


    You are confusing global orthodoxy with its local expression; i.e., an ermine wearing Cardinal can be orthodox, so can a butt-naked St Francis. Conversely, either or both can be heterodox…and have been.

    That global orthodoxy is currently being preferred by groups who also happen to prefer “medieval” expressions of that orthodoxy does not mean that orthodoxy is medieval.

    In fact, expressions of both -doxies tend to be radically dependent on the cultures that nurtured them. But what counts as orthodox is timeless. And that’s why we have and need a pope, not a token who expresses the zeitgeist.

    Fr. Philip, OP

  • ralph esposito

    Orthodoxy is guided by the Magisterium which is a gift. That does not mean that the Church has to look the same everywhere, speak the same language (even in bad translations)and to be faithful to a “mythical” traditional Mass of the 16th century or anything like that. If anything,I believe that when the church ignores plurality it can easily fall into idolatry, which is not what Jesus wanted. Of course there will be a universal church..what on earth does the word Catholic imply?

  • Jitpring

    When O when will identity politics become tiresome? It’s really amazing how infected with the world some of these posts are.

    Austin: Cardinal Ratzinger/Benedict XVI has on many occasions pointed out that a smaller Church could be good. For example:

    Raymond: Talk for a moment about the New Springtime. The Pope has talked a great deal about the New Springtime and you, yourself have laid out your own ideas. Your vision is a little different from some. Some see the numbers growing and everybody believing and dancing hand-in-hand (the Cardinal chuckles) into the millennium. You see a different picture. Tell us what that picture involves. How do you see this Springtime evolving?

    Cardinal: As I do not exclude even this dancing hand-in-hand, but this is only one moment. And my idea is that really the springtime of the Church will not say that we will have in a near time buses of conversions, that all peoples of the world will be converted to Catholicism. This is not the way of God. The essential things in history begin always with the small, more convinced communities. So, the Church begins with the 12 Apostles. And even the Church of St. Paul diffused in the Mediterranean are little communities, but this community in itself is the future of the world, because we have the truth and the force of conviction. So, I think also today it should be an error to think now or in 10 years with the new springtime, all people will be Catholic. This is not our future, nor our expectation. But we will have really convinced communities with

  • Austin

    “Ermine wearing Cardinals” seem to strike me as some sort of medieval drag queen. I guess some of these guys never got the memo that the Middle Ages are over?

  • Jitpring

    Ah yes, Austin, in your conformity to the world and its myth of progress, you’re yet another chronological snob. A shame.

  • Michael

    First of all, Saint JoseMarie Escriva was not Fr. Marciel. Opus Dei is not LC, although there are some similarities. I am not involved in either but I have experiences with priests and laity within both organizations. I can easily see that while, on the surface, some similarities can be observed, there are some fundamental and important differences. Your animosity towards LC may be justified, but towards Opus Dei, I don’t know where that is coming from. There is a difference b/t “secret” and “private” in terms of Opus Dei. I’d recommend leaving the Dan Brown novels on the shelf.

    In terms of comparing a group like Opus Dei to the “spirit of the world” or a progressivist mentality, gosh… which really would you rather have: one that is faithful to the magisterium or one that is quick to espouse the next fad that blows in the wind? True, some such “old fashioned” or “orthodox” groups may seem like throwbacks or like cults but tell me this… where does more dysfunction come from: modernity or faithfulness to tradition? If you respond “the latter,” then you need to open your eyes a little wider and try to become a little more objective.

    As for your disdain for blind faith and wrongly accusing anyone who has it with not having or using a brain: What do you think faith is? Have you read nothing on faith and reason? Will you only ascent to a matter of faith after you have fully understood it intellectually? Do you comprehend the Eucharist to such an extent intellectually that you do not have any bit of “blind faith” at all in accepting it as true? C’mon man… be reasonable (if I can use such a word w/ you). Now, I’m not advocating that we swallow any pill that a nutbag like Marciel dispenses. In fact, I’m very skeptical about such things myself. But you cannot reduce faith (or all messengers of faith) to ascenting to only those things that you understand either…

    And as to your ascertion that there is more to Christianity than orthodoxy, I think then that you have a misunderstanding of what Christianity is. If one is orthodox, one is faithful to the teachings of Christ, both in Scripture and as He speaks from the mouth of the Church. To move in any orbit outside of that which is orthodox is to move outside of the teachings of Christ. What you then have is heterodoxy. In more extreme forms, heresy. Schism and a fracturing of the Body of Christ. 30,000 protestant denominations, all claiming (errantly so, I might add) to have a patent on the Truth, a truth that was ONLY given to the Catholic Church. You want to flirt with that nonsense, go right ahead. As for me and my house, we will serve The Lord.

  • Andrew

    There are many different ways to be orthodox. We don`t need to be all the same – if that is Austin`s fear. And the medieval ages were not that “backward” as he might think. The scientific method was developed in that age, just read a few pages of St Thomas to get a feel. But yes, the mediaval times were a time when people were fully immersed in faith with all its imaginations – a kind of worldview like the one in The Lord of the Rings. Mary could have appeared around every corner… Also think of the Gregorian chants…But then again, I appreciate contemporary pentecostal Catholicism or other forms with its focus on emotions etc as long as they are faithful to the Church – the Tree of Faith is really colourful and catholic (=universal). “Orthodoxy” is a real adventure – as G.K. Chesterton already asserted in his brilliant book with the same title. We don`t need to “look” orthodox to “be” orthodox.
    Cheers, Andrew

  • Jitpring

    We don`t need to “look” orthodox to “be” orthodox.
    Cheers, Andrew

    Really? Orthodox Catholics can dress as street hookers with no problem then?