Where Catholicism Is Going

A leading church observer sets forth a road map.

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Anyone following developments in the Roman Catholic Church today knows the work of John Allen. In addition to reporting prolifically for the National Catholic Reporter, formerly from Rome but more recently from New York, Allen has written timely books on everything from the organization of the Curia to the intricacies of the conclave (the process by which popes are elected) to the history and workings of Opus Dei. He also penned an intellectual portrait of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, which he quickly revised after his subject's elevation to the papacy. Not surprisingly, Allen is a prime talking head for television and radio whenever something important happens involving the Catholic Church.

I met Allen in person just before the death of Pope John Paul II. Between handling a stream of incoming phone calls as we sat in a small cafe off St. Peter's Square, he gave me a shrewd and, as it turned out, accurate lowdown on likely successors to the papacy. I also learned a little about why he excelled in the business of Vaticanology, a trade that some old-hand journalists compare to the now-defunct pursuit of Kremlinology. He understands the culture (being a Catholic himself), he speaks the language of officialdom (Italian), and he constantly worked his sources at every level of the Vatican bureaucracy. Allen also attended everything Vatican-related during his Rome days. If there was a cocktail party for a visiting Latin American archbishop or a seminar on the church's position on Third World debt relief, Allen was there, gathering string.

Some charge that the zealous reporter became too close to his subject. Allen responds to the criticism by saying that he came to the job as a liberal American Catholic (which he remains) but that from the beginning of his days in Rome, he suspended his own political agenda in order to report accurately on all aspects of Vatican life. Part of that suspension of personal bias includes recognizing that the concerns of the American Catholic Church are not the only, or even the greatest, concerns of the church universal. For some Americans, that may seem a little like a betrayal, but many readers find it essential to Allen's cleareyed take on what is really going on in the larger church and its headquarters.

I say all this about Allen to emphasize the importance of one of his recently posted columns on the National Catholic Reporter website. In it, he provides an edited version of a talk that he gave at a conference in Washington, D.C., in July. That talk offers a foretaste of the book that he has been working on for the past two years about megatrends in contemporary Catholicism, or what he describes as the "most important forces shaping the Catholic future."

Those forces are as follows:

1. World Catholicism

2. Secularism and Catholic identity

3. Islam

4. The new demography

5. Expanding lay roles

6. The biotech revolution

7. Globalization

8. Ecology

9. Multipolarism

10. Pentecostalism

One obvious fact about this list is that it does not name American Catholicism as one of the big issues in and of itself, though of course all of the items bear, one way or another, on developments in the American church.

But what is most surprising is what the list reveals about the bold ambitions of the church—and this at a time when the church is being led by a very elderly pope whom many thought would be nothing but a caretaker after the vigorous papacy of John Paul II. Many also thought that Benedict XVI would largely restrict his papacy to the task of restoring the faith in the old European core of Christendom.

What this list suggests, if accurate, is that this papacy is thinking very globally. The challenges facing the church in Europe and America have not been abandoned, according to Allen, but they have largely been subsumed under the more comprehensive category of "Secularism and Catholic identity." One sign of what the pope is doing on this front is his support of the widening use of the pre-Vatican II liturgy. Another is his declaration, disturbing to many liberals and ecumenists, that Catholicism is the only true church and that it was designated as such by Christ.

This is drawing orthodox lines in the sand, and it shows that the current pope may be more concerned about reassuring more conservative Catholics in the developing world than in wooing progressives in Europe or America. It also reflects his long-held conviction that a small but orthodox church in the West is preferable to a large but theologically squishy one.

Allen focuses on the relevance of these megatrends for Europe because Europe was the focus of the conference. But even in this partial foretaste of the book to come, he gives us a valuable template for evaluating specific teachings and policies that have issued, and will continue to issue, from Pope Benedict XVI and his Curia.