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book review

The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church
Doubleday (2009)

By: John Allen
Review By: Diana Culbertson OP

One's first impulse upon opening this book is to hope that the author will tell us what we want to hear. That temptation must be resisted. John Allen is a journalist and, I would argue, a sociologist, whose forecasting is based on statistics: demographic changes, religious movements, technological developments, and a clear understanding of the modern history of the Church. He dashes our hopes in many ways, arguing that Rome is not going to change very much, although everything around it is changing. Rome will adjust its diplomacy, but not its fundamental self-understanding.

What does that mean in practice? Rome will be forced in the near future, for example, to deal with a Catholic population that is no longer predominantly European and North American. The inevitable inculturation that will follow population growth in third world countries and Latin America will be countered by emphasis on uniformity of ritual and possibly language. Declining fertility rates in traditionally Catholic countries will shift pastoral concerns to the aging and intensify the need for medical and nursing care. Priest shortages will become acute, and lay roles will inevitably expand, especially the role of women. More and more, the sacramental basis for ministry will be baptism and confirmation, rather than holy orders. As a consequence, the "internal culture" of the Vatican may change gradually-- but not dramatically. To counter the drift toward dependence on lay ministry, for example, the role of the priest will be emphasized even more.

Other factors—all related to globalization—will affect the Church significantly. Muslim immigration to Europe will require academic exchanges, deeper study of Islamic thought, and steady efforts to achieve religious freedom in Islamic countries.

The impact of the biotechnical revolution with its consequent political and economic ramifications will demand rigorous analysis and careful doctrinal positioning. Allen suggests that the Church may well be the ideal mediator between ideological fault lines, arguing that the Church is, in fact, broad enough to understand the tension, for example between advocates of genetically modified organisms and critics of biotech crops; or the ethical dilemmas of procreating "savior babies" and genetic engineering. Bishops with backgrounds in biology and chemistry will play important roles in bioethical debates.

The phenomenal growth of Pentecostal Christianity, especially in Latin America with its emphasis on the Spirit (as distinguished from Protestant emphasis on the Bible) will eventually touch North American Catholics. It has been dubbed "Catholicism without priests" and thus raises new issues for Catholics more influenced by a Roman juridical system and theological analysis. The charismatic renewal brings with it a deep concern for the poor and emphasis on justice, peace, and social issues. Charismatic healing ceremonies sometimes bypass the sacramental system and have occasioned special Vatican cautions. Although the Church is struggling not to alienate its Pentecostal constituency, these tensions will increase.

All of this makes fascinating reading and forces the North American reader, at least, to think beyond immediate ecclesiastical concerns. Nevertheless, those concerns are significant if the Church is to speak with authority on any issue. A divided and fractious church will be less persuasive in its outward reach if it is perceived as disunited. It should come as no small surprise that current efforts to retrench are more strenuous than seem appropriate, and that the Church is identified with the "far right," despite the large liberal component of its North American base.

Allen concludes with a kind of celebration of the Church as "the sacrament of the unity of the human family." He acknowledges, nevertheless, that the strains on the spirit of communion are intense. He shifts the burden of sustaining that communion on "Catholic hearts" rather than bishops' offices, urging that we struggle through disillusionment and turbulence with "courage, patience, and perspective." I am not sure what or whom he means when he suggests that we move beyond our "Catholic tribe" to achieve a "bold synthesis" of the best of each of the Church's constituencies. This is brave talk, but does not offer a resolution to the profound tensions that affect –often deleteriously—our most fundamental source of identity: the Eucharist. Without a clear path to the "source and summit of Catholic life," without access to the Sacrament that is our unity, the appeal to "foster holiness" and patience is thin gruel for a hungry people. Allen does not claim to be prophetic, nor is his book a lurch in that direction. It does, however, tell us what is going on, where the Church is heading, and possibly where our efforts must be directed.

Sr. Diana Culbertson OP is an accomplished writer and has published numerous books and articles. She is currently an editor and writer at the Center for Learning in Villa Maria, PA. Sr. Diana is a FutureChurch Board member.

Focus on FutureChurch

Winter 2010


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