PITTSFORD — Ten trends are rapidly changing the Catholic landscape, and Catholics worldwide must come together and engage in clear and honest dialogue if they want their church to survive in the 21st century, according to Catholic journalist John L. Allen Jr.
A correspondent for National Catholic Reporter and Vatican analyst for CNN, Allen visited Nazareth College Oct. 21-22 and gave two presentations, sponsored by the school’s William H. Shannon Chair in Catholic Studies. Allen, who has penned six books on the Vatican and other Catholic affairs, gave an Oct. 21 lecture on "The Future Church: How Ten Trends Are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church," which also is the title of his latest book. He also led an Oct. 22 colloquium about "All Things Catholic," which also is the name of his weekly column on National Catholic Reporter‘s website.
One of these 10 key trends shaping the future of the Catholic Church, Allen opined Oct. 21, is the changing demographic picture of Catholicism worldwide. In 1900, for example, a mere 25 percent of all Catholics lived in the Southern Hemisphere of the globe, he said. By the year 2000, however, he noted that 65 percent of all Catholics lived in the Southern Hemisphere, and that number is projected to increase to 75 percent by 2050.
"This, ladies and gentlemen, is the most sweeping, the most profound transformation in Catholic demography in more than 2,000 years of church history, and we are living through it right now," Allen said.
This demographic shift will have a profound effect on the way the Catholic Church looks and feels, smells and tastes in the 21st century, he added. Catholics in the global south live in different cultures and have different experiences than their brothers and sisters in the global north. They tend to be more conservative in areas related to sexual morality, but more liberal-minded when it comes to social-justice issues, Allen said.
Youth and optimism are two of the defining characteristics of the global south, he added. Catholic churches in many nations in the Southern Hemisphere are packed with young families, and the presence of children is a sign of hope and energy. This hope and energy has carried over to the Catholic leadership in these countries, whose confidence is growing by leaps and bounds, Allen said, citing his experiences covering synods in Rome for African bishops in 1994 and 2009.
"In 1994 the African bishops came to Rome thinking of themselves as junior partners in a multinational enterprise," he said. "In 2009 they came thinking of themselves as the leaders of the most dynamic, creative Catholic community on the planet. They came as full partners in the enterprise of Catholicism, expecting to take part in an adult conversation."
Another key trend is what Allen refers to as evangelical Catholicism, or a revival of Catholic identity or things that set Catholics apart, such as priests in Roman collars, women religious in habits, and Marian and Eucharistic devotions. This evangelical Catholicism also involves a public proclamation of that Catholic identity and an understanding of faith as a matter of personal choice.
Allen said he believes this evangelical Catholicism will be one of the guiding forces in public life in the years to come, and that Catholics will be challenged to find a middle course between two extremes. One of these extremes is what some have termed "Catholicism Lite," which refers to a form of watered-down faith that is Catholic in name only.
"At the other end of the spectrum is what I have rather cattily called ‘Taliban Catholicism,’ and what I mean by that is a distorted form of the faith that is so angry and so insistent upon pointing out what is wrong with the modern world that all it knows how to do is excoriate and condemn," he said.
The last trend Allen reflected upon during his Oct. 21 presentation was the current biotechnology revolution, which has spawned ethical debates about everything from embryonic stem-cell research and in-vitro fertilization to human cloning and the creation of chimeras, or organisms that have tissues from several different species.
"I think the basic philosophical question of the 21st century … is what is a human being?" Allen said. "The old bioethical debates — the debates over birth control, abortion, homosexuality — yes, we’re still divided by them, but in some ways we’re very comfortable with them. They’ve been around more than 2,000 years. This (new) type of debate has not been around two decades."
Each of these trends is rich with the potential to unleash creative new Catholic energy, but also fraught with the potential to divide the Catholic Church. Catholics must emphasize what unites them, rather than what divides them, and realize that Catholics of all stripes deserve a place at the table, Allen said.
"My final invitation is that we desperately need a new spirituality of communion in the 21st century. That work, let it begin here, let it begin now, let it begin with us," he said.