Wednesday, September 25, 2013

BkRev: Allen's The Future Church

John L. Allen, Jr., The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church, New York, Crown Publishing (Random House), 2009, 469 pp.

In the USA today, I think, Catholicism is the most powerful advocate of supernaturalism and mysticism. Can a book written about the Catholic movement—by a Catholic, and for Catholics—possibly aid activists dedicated to promoting reason as one's only source of knowledge? This review answers.

What is the subject? The book is about the future of the Catholic Church, the social movement of individuals who support Catholicism as a religion. The author expects no major changes in Catholic doctrines. Instead, the book is partly a prediction about the future relations between potentially conflicting groups within the whole community of Catholics around the world. The book is also about predictions of the Church's relations with the world outside the Catholic community: seculars, Muslims, Jews, and non-Catholic Christians (especially Pentecostal Protestants). 

Who is the author? John L. Allen, Jr. is a journalist who specializes in reporting about the Catholic movement in general and the Vatican in particular. He has written several books, including a biography of Pope Benedict XVI (now retired). Allen strives for objectivity, by which he means a factually accurate, "balanced" account of his subject, an account that states both the views of critics and the views of the subject himself.[1]

Allen (b. 1965) has been immersed in Catholicism all his life: in his early school, in his university studies (philosophy and religion), and in his work as a reporter for CNN, NPR, and others. He developed his ideas and practiced presenting them in a long series of "lectures, keynote speeches, workshops, and addresses" he gave in the two years prior to producing the book. (p. viii) This method of producing a book, first testing the presentation on a small scale, is similar to Leonard Peikoff's long preparation for his book, The DIM Hypothesis: Why the Lights of the West Are Going Out, which I reviewed here.

Who is the intended audience? Allen writes in this book to Catholics who want to understand the large movements around the world that are affecting the Catholic community. (p. 1)

What is the purpose? Allen says:

The aim of this book is to survey the most important currents shaping the Catholic Church today, and to look down the line at how they might play out during the rest of the twenty-first century. (p. 3) 

Some of the trends he examines are long-term changes occurring within the Church community; an example is the growing role of laymen, not clerics (priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes) in doing the non-sacred work of the Church (Ch. 5). Most of the other ten trends Allen identifies are long-term changes occurring outside the Church but call for response from Catholics; an example of an outside trend affecting Catholics is the spread of Islam (Ch. 3).

Allen defines a "trend" as a slow, impalpable, imponderable movement in culture, a movement that works below the surface of daily news events. (p. 3, citing historian Arnold J. Toynbee) He further defines "trend" in the next to the last chapter, "Trends That Aren't." There he names six criteria for designating a cultural change as a trend.

What is the theme? The main message of the book is that the ten trends that Allen identifies are happening now and they will turn the Church upside down. Allen says:

It's important to be clear at the onset about what this book is and what it's not. I'm a journalist, not a priest, theologian, or academic. My role is to document what's happening in Catholicism and provide context for it, not tell readers what to think. This book is therefore an exercise in description, not prescription. I'm not trying to argue that these trends are the way Catholicism ought to go, or the issues it ought to face. I'm saying instead that they accurately express the way Catholicism really is going, and the issues it really is facing. (p. 5)

Most of the book is descriptive. Some passages are prescriptive. For example, on pp. 446-452 Allen warns about the need of Catholics to consider four factors when they decide what to do in their activism. One example is his warning to not rely on Church hierarchy to solve world problems, such as pressure from Islam. Laymen, not clerics ("the hierarchy"), can take immediate and direct action. This "horizontal" solution has succeeded among pentecostal Protestants. (pp. 450-452)

What is the structure? Following the Introduction to the book, ten chapters identify trends the author sees in the Church now and expects to continue through this century. The author identifies a trend and projects its consequences. For example, the first chapter is "Trend One: A World Church." This trend began early in the 1900s, when only 25% of the world's Catholics lived outside of Europe and North America. Now 65% of the world's Catholics live outside Europe and North America. This trend has thus "turned Catholicism upside down," that is, caused a "revolution" in some aspect of the Church. As consequences of this trend, the Church as a whole is becoming more evangelical (focused on spreading the message of Jesus), more charismatic (emotional in rituals), and less intellectual.

Allen organizes each chapter into three sections. (p. 4) The first section is a general introduction to the trend. For the first chapter, "A World Church," the introduction includes imagining an election of a pope from Nigeria. The second section of each chapter is "What's Happening," which describes in detail the trend as it is now; Allen presents that section because he thinks that trends that are evident now and meet certain requirements will likely continue for decades into the future. The third section of each chapter, "What It Means," makes the predictions explicit. Allen is organized; he presents predictions in levels of likelihood: "Near Certain," "Probable," "Possible," and "Long-Shot." Allen says:

The arc of time under consideration here is the rest of the century, meaning roughly ninety years. Farther out than that, all bets are off. (p. 4)

The final chapter of the book is "a stand-alone summary of what impact the trends will have [on the Catholic movement] in the century to come." (p. 4) He summarizes his "descriptive terms for what Catholicism will actually look and feel like in this century." (p. 4) The terms characterizing the future Church are: "Global, Uncompromising, Pentecostal, and Extroverted." (pp. 4-5) "Pentecostal" here means that individual Catholics will be mainly concerned with (1) direct experience of God through the Holy Spirit (accompanied by singing, arm waving, and "speaking in tongues"), and with (2) taking direct action to politically and socially achieve religious goals—rather than relying on the Church hierarchy to plan and implement activities. ("Trend Ten: Pentecostalism," pp. 375-413)

What are defects of the book? Allen presents a mass of information to illustrate and substantiate his points. In a general way, he often names sources in the main text. Unfortunately he has no notes citing exact sources. At the end of the book, in "Suggestions for Further Reading," he presents a chapter-by-chapter list of documents to consult.  Though helpful, it is not an adequate substitute for notes. Being a journalist does not relieve the writer of specifying his sources.

The two-column, seven-page index is helpful but insufficient. It often does not include special terms such as "base ecclesial communities," which apparently means small groups of laymen who come together for one or more common Catholic purposes (Bible study, mutual support, local activism). 

What is the author's style? Allen writes clearly, though loosely and informally. He is organized in presenting his information. If he identifies a number of factors, he then numbers them as he presents them. He presents lists where lists are needed.

Can advocates of reason benefit from reading the book? A slow reading of this book is one course seculars can follow to learn about the Catholic Church: its past, its present, and its likely future. A non-Catholic reader encounters many new terms. Allen often defines special terms as he uses them; for example:

Inevitably, the global character of Catholicism will push it in the direction of what theologians call "inculturation," meaning expressing the faith differently according to the argot and customs of local cultures. Celebrating the Catholic Mass, for example, is a different experience in Nigeria than in India …. (p. 41)

The author's observations about and insights into the mystical Catholic movement might stimulate thinking about the nature of activism for reason. One example is Allen's reminder to readers that various, sometimes competing Christians (such as Catholics and Baptists) can cooperate on common goals without ever uniting organizationally. (p. 53) That might apply to pro-reason activists.

A second example is the author's term creative minorities. Allen borrows the term from historian Arnold Toynbee. It means "subgroups [of a movement] which, because of their passion and vision, exercise influence beyond their numbers. For that to work, these creative minorities must have a solid sense of their own identity and a strong sense of internal cohesion …." (p. 58)

Referring to a Catholic dictionary may aid the serious, pro-reason student who is not already familiar with Catholicism. One example is A Catholic Dictionary, by Donald Attwater; conservative Catholics prefer this. Another example, which I have not yet read, is John A. Hardon's Modern Catholic Dictionary. A third, an online source, is:

Would you recommend this book for pro-reason advocates? I would recommend a careful reading of this book to certain activists promoting reason in the USA today. First, it can be useful as a contrast. How do the barriers and opportunities for advocates of reason differ from the advocates of Catholicism in particular and Christianity in general? One example is the importance, for advocates of reason, of knowing the foundations of one's principles; fideists can take anything on faith (though they do have the problem of deciding which of many competing claims to take on faith). Second, the book can be useful as a comparison, that is, looking for similarities. Do all activists, but especially those advocating fundamental principles, face some common problems? An example is the problem of priorities: What tactical steps should the activist emphasize the most or do first?

I am enthusiastic enough about this book that I would like to lead a study group online, a study group devoted to reading and discussing this book in light of Leonard Peikoff's views on predictions in The DIM Hypothesis. The Catholic movement, overall, is a movement of misintegration, the position Dr. Peikoff predicts will dominate the USA within the next generation or two.

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described here