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John Allen Jr. Gets It (5093)

Weekend Book Pick

04/10/2010 Comments (6)

John Allen Jr. says he received — and rejected — many suggestions for inclusion in his The Future Church: How Ten Trends Are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church.

Judging by the ones he picked, he is a man who truly “gets it.”

The Vatican analyst for CNN and NPR (and senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter), Allen is the consummate Catholic journalist. There are certainly other excellent Catholic journalists who respect both sides of a disputed question, treat ideological “opponents” as legitimate voices, and who aren’t afraid to report a fact, even if it challenges their worldview.

But there are precious few.

Catholic opinion journalists are often so parochial in their approach that they produce works that leave the like-minded comforted, the curious unconvinced, and their opponents untouched.

Self-styled liberal Catholics writing about the future of the Church tend to read like Tory essayists in 1775 might. The statistics they like loom large in their minds, while they casually dismiss the signs of an insurgency welling up around them.

We have been told variously that the Church is “adrift” or “at a crossroads,” and laypeople are itching to “confront” or “reclaim” it. Funny. The Catholics I know didn’t notice. Maybe we were too busy shuttling giant vans filled with our kids in between hard-core Catholic boys’ clubs, girls’ clubs, home-school events and demonstrations for life and marriage.

Allen, however, can see the insurgency — and is able to distinguish some of its enduring trends from its passing issues.

Allen follows Phillip Jenkins and others (and avoids Samuel Huntington’s error in The Clash of Civilizations)  to remind us that the future Church will be “A World Church,” in which Christianity will not be synonymous with “white European” (as indeed it has ceased to be even now).

In a fascinating passage, he explains why he didn’t make the sexual-abuse crisis one of his trends:

“From a purely descriptive point of view, it’s difficult to make the argument that the crisis looms large in the day-to-day concerns of either the Catholic grassroots or the hierarchy anywhere outside the English-speaking zones of the world. … However one explains it, the fact is that nowhere else has the sexual abuse crisis gripped the public imagination to the same degree.  … Even in the United States the crisis has not had quite the transformative impact that some predicted.”

While he doesn’t separate out “sex abuse” as a trend, he offers two trends that touch on its root causes.

For those who blame clericalism for the abuse crisis, Allen offers Trend Five, “Expanding Lay Roles.” He points to a “new theological understanding” of lay roles in the Catholic Church.

For those who see the sex-abuse scandal as part of a larger faith crisis, Allen’s Trend Two is “Evangelical Catholicism.” It’s refreshing to read his account. Missing are the common sneering stereotypes of “fundamentalists” and “ultraconservatives.” He points to evangelical Catholics who sound sensible: They prefer that churches “look like churches” and are pro-life but also antiwar.

As Allen points out, “Their formative experience wasn’t growing up in a rigid, stifling Church, but rather a rootless secular culture. Their hunger for identity is better understood in terms of generational dynamics, not ideology.”

In the end, he concludes that evangelical Catholicism of the 21st century will be doctrinally traditional, politically assertive, “deliberately different” and “dynamic, yet divided.”

Readers will, of course, have their quibbles and quandaries.

“Islam” makes sense as a trend, though the dynamic tension between Islam and Christianity is hardly something new.

“Ecology” is clearly a trend in the world, but I’m not sure how it is “revolutionizing” the Catholic Church.

On the one hand, he’s dead on with “The Biotech Revolution,”  “The New Demography” and “Pentecostalism.”

On the other hand, the renaissance of Catholic higher education merits more than the brief mention he gave it. In the past 10 years, seven new Catholic universities faithful to the Church have been founded, and older schools have recommitted themselves to the doctrines of the Church. The influence of reinvigorated higher education can’t be exaggerated: Again and again in history, sea changes at the college level have had enduring and deep consequences in the culture.

But quibbles and quandaries aside, it’s great to read a book called The Future Church that isn’t a dissenter’s wishful thinking or a doubter’s despair, but a serious reporter’s careful scrutiny.

Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

THE FUTURE CHURCH

How Ten Trends Are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church

By John L. Allen Jr.

Doubleday, 2009

480 pages, $39.95

To order: randomhouse.com


Filed under john allen, the future church, trends in the church