HENRIETTA — John L. Allen Jr. is out to clear up some widely held, yet mistaken beliefs among United States Catholics.
The noted journalist dispels the notion that the Catholic Church here is a superpower that drives much of Vatican policy. In fact, he pointed out, we only make up 6 percent of the world’s Catholic population.
He said many folks don’t realize that whites, long the dominant ethnic group in the U.S. Catholic population, will be in the minority before too long.
He shies away from the term "polarization" because that inspires the terms "left" and "right," when in fact divisions in today’s church are more complex.
And, he said a bishop alone cannot be expected to shape any significant trends.
These were among the viewpoints Allen shared as part of his keynote address, "The Future Church," at the seventh-annual Gathering of the Ministerium on May 12 at the DoubleTree Hotel. Approximately 400 pastoral ministers from across the Diocese of Rochester attended.
Allen serves as correspondent for National Catholic Reporter and as a media analyst on the Vatican. During his talk he noted the massive rise of Catholicism in the Southern Hemisphere; the revival of "evangelical Catholicism" — outward signs of Catholic identity such as women religious wearing habits and Marian and eucharistic devotions; and the ethical implications of the biotechnology revolution.
Regarding the increase of Catholics outside North America and Europe, Allen remarked that "the global Catholic story of the 20th century was one of massive, explosive growth." He noted that approximately two-thirds of all Catholics live in the Southern Hemisphere compared to only 25 percent in 1900. Even within the United States, the global mix is apparent: Allen said the year 2030 is expected to be a watershed point when, for the first time, whites will not constitute the majority of the U.S. Catholic population. They are projected to be at 48 percent, with Latinos the next closest ethnic group at 41 percent and Asians at 7.5 percent.
Thus, reaching out to Catholics of diverse ethnic backgrounds "isn’t just an abstract gesture of global solidarity," Allen said. "It will also be a characteristic of the people in our own back yard."
Allen said U.S. Catholics have not only become more ethnically diverse, but also are splintered into many causes. Whereas he said polarized Catholics are commonly depicted as being either liberal or conservative, he prefers the term "tribalization" over "polarization." Examples of so-called tribes are pro-life groups, peace-and-justice advocates, liturgical traditionalists and feminists.
"Each of these tribes tends to move in their own little world. They have profoundly different senses of what is happening in the world," Allen said.
He observed that not surprisingly, tribalization has hindered U.S. Catholics’ ability to come together as church. Allen said he supports the Common Ground Initiative, begun in 1996 to promote respectful dialogue among Catholics despite differing perspectives — "but more than 15 years after it was launched, we’re more divided than we were."
Allen reasoned that perhaps not enough Catholics have really cared to see eye-to-eye: "We all know 12-step programs don’t work for people who don’t want the help." However, he emphasized that Catholics must strive to unite in order to withstand the growing influence of secularism and other religious denominations. One way to achieve this, he suggested, is not to view differing ideological camps in an either-or way but by "instead understanding the legitimate concerns of their positions" without passing quick judgment.
He added that Catholics need to focus on strengthening ties at the grassroots level, stating that "creative change in the church rarely originates with the bishop." This remark was made in response to the observation made during a question-and-answer session that Bishop Matthew H. Clark is due to retire in 2012. The keynoter said anyone expecting immediate and significant upheaval under Bishop Clark’s successor will likely discover otherwise.
Allen’s appearance continued a trend of nationally recognized keynoters who appear annually at the Gathering of the Ministerium. The event was originated in 2005 by Bishop Clark as a means of gathering diocesans priests, deacons, women religious, pastoral administrators, pastoral associates, education coordinators, youth ministers, hospital chaplains, campus ministers, prison chaplains, Catholic-school principals, parish volunteers with significant ministerial responsibilities and diocesan employees.