The Future Roman Catholic Church

/ Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010 / 4 Comments »

My friend, Leonardo De Chirico, pastors an evangelical congregation in Rome, Italy. His doctoral dissertation and much of his ministry has been dedicated to helping Christians understand and relate to the Catholic Church with gospel integrity. In the following article, he describes trends that promise to exert influence on the shape of Catholicism in years to come.

What will the Roman Catholic (RC) Church be like at the end of the 21st century? How will this institution be able to handle the multiple challenges that she is confronted with? More radically, will this church still be still around in a hundred years? And if yes, how different will she be compared with her present-day outlook?

These intriguing questions get some ever more intriguing answers by the CNN Vatican correspondent John L. Allen in his recent book The Future Church. How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 2009). Allen writes as a journalist and sociologist of religion who looks at what is happening in the RC universe within the context of a fast moving globalization. His immediate readership is North-American but what he writes is gathered from years of international journalism and aimed at painting global scenarios.

Asking readers to stretch their “imagination” (1), Allen argues that there are at least ten trends that are impacting the RC Church and that will increasingly be on the agenda. Here is his list:

1. A World Church

2. Evangelical Catholicism

3. Islam

4. The New Demography

5. Expanding Lay Roles

6. The Biotech Revolution

7. Globalization

8. Ecology

9. Multipolarism

10. Pentecostalism

Suffice it to briefly comment on each trend while pausing a little bit more on those which resonate more closely with Evangelicalism (i.e. Evangelical Catholicism and Pentecostalism).

1. The center of gravity is shifting from North to South. In 2050 the largest majority RC nations will be Brazil, Mexico, Philippines, USA, Congo, and Uganda. The global story of Catholicism today is growth, not decline (19). Its most pressing need is managing expansion, not contraction. Generally speaking, Southern Catholicism is youthful, morally conservative and politically liberal, open to the supernatural, more interested in ad extra missional challenges than in ad intra traditional issues (like doctrinal disputes and canon law debates), and bringing a new set of issues (e.g. polygamy, witchcraft, women empowerment). If RC “will become steadily more non-Western, nonwhite, and nonaffluent” (432), then the time for a Southern pope has come.

2. The ‘identity issue’ is what is at stake with Evangelical Catholicism. For Allen, the meaning of the word Evangelical here has little to do with the Biblical-Protestant understanding of the same word. It is rather “an underlying religious psychology” (57) that embodies a “hunger for identity” in a rootless secular culture. Evangelical Catholicism strives for liturgical conservativism, catholic education, priestly-laity distinction of order, and theological clarity both in Christology and ecclesiology. Champion of this type of Evangelical Catholicism is the 2000 document Dominus Iesus which stressed the traditional understanding of the RC Church as being the only rightly ordered agency which enjoys divine grace in its fullest measure. In the same vein, for Allen, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI are Evangelical Catholics, as well as ecclesiastical figures like Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris (57), writers like Geoge Weigel who urges Christians to have “the courage to be Catholic” (453), ecclesial movements like Communion and Liberation (entrepreneurial, yet strongly papist and marian), and events like the World Youth Day. Allen exegetes the word Evangelical as meaning a re-affirmation of RC identity in its basic, uncompromising markers, not as implying an openness to renewal according to the Gospel. For him Evangelical is a sociological category expressing a search for identity rather than a theological one based on Gospel transformation.

3. Islam is another global player of the 21st century and RC will attempt to develop cordial relationships while trying to avoid the clash of civilization mentality, refraining from outspoken missionary endeavors, and building a moral alliance based on natural law and basic religious sentiment.

4. Global demographic trends encourage the RC Church to support pro-life and fertility policies and also global migration movements. From the ecumenical point of view, the Eastern Orthodox churches will be less appealing than Pentecostals due to the declining demography of most Eastern Orthodox majority countries.

5. The last hundred years have seen the emergence of more than 120 lay movements (e.g. L’Arche, Focolare, etc.). They are a powerful force which has stirred a “democratization of catholic conversation” (209). Both lay and female ministries will expand their borders, yet not at the expense of overcoming the traditional understanding and practice of the (male) priestly ministry.

6. The biotech revolution has seen the RC Church on the defensive side. Confronted with the new challenges, there has been a revival of natural law which will allow the RC Church to build bridges with world religions which will regard her to be the global spokesperson for nature-based conservative bioethics. Here Allen seems to underestimate the potential of this trend for future inter-religious developments and future RC claims about the RC Church representing the whole of humanity.

7. Globalization has pushed the RC Church to expand her social teachings about solidarity, common good, subsidiarity, and integral humanism. She will become the only diplomatic global player which can embrace both the rich and poor, North and South, support for capital and labour, and concerns for social justice and economic development.

8. Global warming and climate change, along with water scarcity and deforestation will encourage the trend toward natural theology giving the RC Church the opportunity to shape her distinct “both-and” eco-theology.

9. The 21st century will see “the interaction of multiple points of influence” (340) with the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) raising their profile. In this new global setting, the RC Church is the only religious institution which is already multipolar and has the diplomatic structure and culture to deal with it.

10. Harvie Cox has dubbed Pentecostalism “Catholicism without priests” meaning an expression of folk spirituality without the Roman juridical system or complicated scholastic theology (382). After Vatican II the RC Church has found room for Pentecostal spirituality within the borders of her theological structure. In some regions (e.g. Latin America) the Pentecostal explosion has given rise to an anti-Pentecostal attitude by RC officials. Yet Pentecostalism is winning the day, both inside and outside the RC Church. “Pentecostalism, not Orthodoxy, will be the primary Christian ‘other’ for much of the Catholic Church of the twenty-first century” (361). New forms of “horizontal ecumenism” and bottom-up initiatives will develop (401). They will be less concerned with theological precision and more interested in exchanging spiritual experiences. Allen goes as far as arguing that the internal fault line of the 21st century will be between Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal Catholicism.

The wide picture emerging from Allen’s book is complex and multifaceted. The ecclesiological notes of the Church (“one, holy, catholic and apostolic”) will translate into four sociological notes: “global, uncompromising, Pentecostal and extroverted” (432).

Many sociological trends he highlights could be easily applied to global Evangelicalism and they would fit quite naturally. Yet there is a catholic difference that gives RC an extra input in confronting new phases and challenges: “the historical spirit of Catholicism is its passion for synthesis, for ‘both/and’ solutions” (449). The future will bring tension and conflict, yet the institution that is most suited to balance and accommodate different claims, interests, and concerns is the one that was able to survive the modernity project without selling its soul to it and will be able to navigate the waters of a thicker globalization. This is the RC theological genius that has been displayed for centuries. This is an essential part of the RC system and will be the primary tool to face the future. The RC Church will continue to claim and to act as if she were the sacrament of unity of the human family. This is her mission and it will continue to be so.

Rome, 18th November 2010

 

Leonardo De Chirico is church planter in Rome (www.brecciadiroma.it), having previously planted a church and pastored it for 12 years in Ferrara. He lectures in historical theology at IFED (Istituto di Formazione Evangelical e Documentazione) in Padova. His doctoral work was published as Evangelical Theological Perspectives in Post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2003).

4 Comments

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