By Marnie McAllister, Record Editor
Catholic journalist John L. Allen Jr., a CNN analyst and an associate editor at the Boston Globe, discussed the future of the Catholic Church — describing what he called three “mega trends” in the church today — during a gathering Nov. 3 at the Flaget Center.
As the keynote speaker at the latest Archdiocesan Leadership Institute, Allen shared his analysis of the church with archdiocesan agency staff, clergy, religious and parish staff and volunteers.
Allen, who’s also an associate editor of the Globe’s Catholic news website Crux, began by cautioning his listeners: Trying to predict the future of the church with Pope Francis at the helm is a “fools errand.” He suggested, instead, that Catholics “step back” and examine “the big picture.”
In thinking about Catholic life, Allen said he sees three “mega trends” that may shape the church’s future.
- The rise of a world church.
- The rise of a church of martyrs.
- “Tribalism,” a sort of multifaceted polarization, in the U.S. church.
On his first point, that the church has become global, Allen said, “We’ve lived through a demographic inversion.”
He cited a slate of statistics that show a major shift in the Catholic population. In the early 20th century, around 1900, he said, there were about 270 million Catholics in the world and most — about 160 million — lived in Europe or North America.
In the year 2000, there were about 1.2 billion Catholics in the world and more than half — 780 million — lived outside the West, in such places as Latin America, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific Islands.
“Within our lifetimes, three out of every four Catholics … will be living in the developing world,” he said. With this shift, “Everything is transformed; nothing is left untouched.”
And it demands a new perspective in the church, he said. As an example, he noted that the recent Synod of Bishops on the family struggled with how to best care for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
Bishops in Africa, where the church is growing rapidly, were opposed to changes that would apparently weaken the church’s teaching on marriage, Allen noted, because they are dealing with another pastoral challenge, one few Americans consider: polygamy.
“We American Catholics represent exactly six percent of the global Catholic population,” Allen said. “Ninety-four percent ain’t necessarily like us. It’s a bigger and more complicated picture than we can imagine.
“Fixes to problems that seem obvious to us … are not going to play that way in the rest of the world,” he added.
Catholics in some parts of the world are facing very different problems, he said.
Depending on which statistics you hear, a Christian is dying for his or her faith every five minutes or every hour. Regardless, Allen said, it’s a “human rights scourge of dumbfounding proportions.”
Allen said he has interviewed persecuted Christians around the globe and recounted horrific stories of violent killings, gang rape and displacement that have been used against Christians in India, Colombia and Egypt. It’s happening, he said, “on a vast scale all over the world,” yet it’s a story of martyrdom “that struggles to be told.”
“We face a serious call to be in solidarity with our brothers and sisters around the world who are suffering,” he said. Noting that the notion of solidarity sounds abstract, Allen recommended Americans take action when it comes to persecution in Iraq and Syria, “where Christians are being slaughtered wholesale.”
“We have both an opportunity and an obligation to make sure our suffering brothers and sisters in faith, particularly in
Iraq and Syria … know we are with them,” both in responding to the immediate humanitarian crisis and in the future, he said.
Turning to the domestic church, Allen said, “We are a group of people clustered into different tribes.” He likened the separations within the church to polarization in American politics, but said differences in the church are not just left and right, they are more complex.
He noted that a comparison of statistics from the 1968 and 2004 presidential elections shows that today’s voters know fewer people who voted for a different candidate. People with various leanings have their own media outlets, their own churches, their own heroes; people have fewer friends with differing opinions and perspectives, he said.
And that’s a problem, Allen said, because it’s easier to demonize a stranger. “Too often we are looking for victory rather than understanding,” he said.
The solution lies in friendship, he said. Allen encouraged his listeners, who represented the Archdiocese of Louisville’s parishes and agencies, to consider how their programs and projects can help bring people together, with a focus on building friendship.
“What we need in the Catholic Church today is a grassroots effort to build zones of friendship across the tribal lines,” he said, adding that you can’t rely on an institution to do this. “All of us have to own it.”