Q & A

Future Vatican

An eternal-seeming institution is poised for major change, says John L. Allen Jr.

John Allen, the leading American authority on the Vatican, has written a new book on the future of the Catholic church. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff) John Allen, the leading American authority on the Vatican, has written a new book on the future of the Catholic church.
By Interview by Lisa Wangsness
May 9, 2010

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The Catholic Church is among the most enduring institutions in human history, holding fast through centuries of war, social upheaval and technological revolution to remain a constant in millions of people’s lives--an impression only enhanced by more than 30 years of theologically conservative popes.

Yet at the same time, the church is undergoing enormous change. Beyond the tremors caused by the abuse crisis, it faces deeper shifts in demographics, ideological focus, and its relationship with other religions.

John L. Allen Jr., one of the best-known lay experts on the church, thinks the next century will be transformative for Catholicism, as the church grapples with a whole new geography of belief, and a world where Islam, rather than Judaism, is its most important interfaith counterpart. Two-thirds of the world’s Catholics already live in the Southern Hemisphere, and by midcentury three-quarters of the church’s membership will live south of the equator. The rise of the ”global south,” Allen argues, will fundamentally alter the culture, worship style, and politics of the church.

Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, doesn’t doubt the importance of the immediate issues that Catholic leaders are now confronting. But his new book, ”The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church,” takes a longer view, tracing the tectonic movements that don’t always generate headlines.

Allen, who was in Boston to discuss his book at Boston College last week, spoke to the Globe by phone after flying in from Rome.

IDEAS: We think of the Catholic Church as a change-resistant institution, a kind of bulwark against modernity. But over time, hasn’t it had to adapt quite a bit to survive?

ALLEN: Oh sure. Just take the United States--the Catholicism of 2010 is enormously different from the Catholicism of, say, the 1950s. ... The way Catholicism works is that, on the surface, it tends to stay the same for an awful long time. And meanwhile things are bubbling underneath, the plates are shifting. And then you get one of these moments of eruption in which everything changes all at once. The Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s was like that. So judging what’s going on in Catholicism exclusively on the basis of surface impressions is almost always a prescription for getting it wrong.

IDEAS: What aspects of today’s church would have been unimaginable to believers 500 years ago?

ALLEN: Other than the fact that we’ve still got a pope and we’ve still got the Bible … it’s a completely new world. Start with the fact that Catholicism today officially teaches that other religions are valid pathways to salvation for their members. Five hundred years ago that would have been almost unimaginable. Even though the church will claim that was always their teaching, that certainly is not how people understood it.

IDEAS: Why are you convinced that the church will be so radically reshaped in the next century?

ALLEN: The shift from north to south in terms of the center of gravity in the church is like when St. Paul left Palestine in the first century and took Christianity to Greece, and ultimately to Rome, and made it a new religious movement in the Greco-Roman world, utterly transforming it. We are living in one of those transformative moments right now. ... In the 21st century, places like Abuja in Nigeria and Jakarta and Manila will be what places like Paris and Milan were in the 15th and 16th centuries--that is, they will be the primary centers where new theological ideas, new pastoral models, new political priorities emerge.

IDEAS: How are other forms of Christianity transforming Catholicism?

ALLEN: The most visible example would be styles of worship among Catholics in the global south. It tends to be very Pentacostal--there’s a lot of speaking in tongues and private revelations and healings.

IDEAS: Do you see a future pope speaking in tongues?

ALLEN: Well, speaking in tongues I don’t know. But I would anticipate a future in which there’s a pope who comes out of the global south ... who is much more comfortable with things like healings, visions and maybe speaking in tongues. And doing this all publicly--that’s the point.

IDEAS: You say Islam--an aggressive Islam--will be the church’s main religious counterpart in the coming century. Are we headed for religious war?

ALLEN: No. Once Catholics and Muslims work out their respective problems with religious freedom ... they have far more in common with one another than they do with leftist secularism. And if you want an example of how this works, the ruling coalition in the Philippines these days is actually the Christian Muslim Democrats. ... That to me would be the kind of model for the future of Catholic-Muslim relations, standing shoulder to shoulder against radical secularism.

IDEAS: The church knows it’s going to be around for centuries. Does it have people who plan for long-term issues?

ALLEN: It’s got academics and analysts and so forth, but if you are asking is there a futurology office in the Vatican, no, alas, it doesn’t really work like that. …. There are a lot of smart people in leadership positions in the church who are aware of all this, but it’s all kind of ad hoc and uncoordinated.

IDEAS: So you see the Vatican itself as surviving well into the future?

ALLEN: Oh sure. Look, you think the sex abuse crisis is going to bring these guys down? I mean, Napoleon marched his troops into Rome and took the pope prisoner.... Yeah, the Vatican is going to be around. Now whether it will be thriving or in the bunker is another question.

IDEAS: In the Southern Hemisphere, issues like hunger have become central. How do you think survival issues like that will intermingle with issues of morality?

ALLEN: As Catholic leaders from the Southern Hemisphere have the opportunity to set the tone in the church, their priorities ... aren’t going to be the kind of internal Catholic baseball that we tend to get consumed by in the West--can women be priests, are we going to change our teaching on birth control. Their priorities are more, how can the ... resources of church be used to promote change in the broader society? So, how can we feed the hungry? How can we retool the global economy to serve the poor? How can we shut down the arms race?

IDEAS: You’ve written about how Catholicism will be influenced by all these different dynamics. But how will the world be different in 100 years as a result of Catholicism?

ALLEN: If you had to find one issue that is the most live concern of the Catholic leaders in the global south, it would be corruption--for obvious reasons, the whole political class is corrupt. ... So I think ethics in government and ethics in the business would be huge, huge concerns of the Catholic Church in the future.

Lisa Wangsness is a member of the Globe staff.