Global South will have impact on 21st-century Church


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January 14, 2013

Journalists typically cope with the slow news season at Christmas and New Year's by engaging in a wrap-up of the year-that-was and predictions for the year-to-come. The first task is journalistically safe, while the latter is an adventure, one almost certain to go awry in its details.

John Allen, one of the world's leading Catholic journalists today, went one better in his 2009 book The Future Church in which he projected current trends over the coming century. In Allen's view, the Catholic Church is moving towards becoming more global, uncompromising, Pentecostal and extroverted.

Barring the totally unforeseen, the Church 100 years from now will be overwhelmingly based in Africa, Asia and South America. Concerns of the Church in the global South will increasingly dominate. The global Church will be more morally conservative, outspoken about social injustice and focused on the Bible, because those are tendencies of the Church in the South.

In Allen's view, when the pope talks about the family in 50 or 100 years, he may be more concerned about resisting polygamy than same-sex marriage. He also may be less concerned with secularism - a concern only in the West - than with raising the Catholic Church's profile in a religiously competitive marketplace.

In the West, if the concern 50 years ago was for Catholics to find an equal place in a secular society, it has since gone full circle - today's main worry is assimilation into an anti-religious society. Catholics and other Christians are thus choosing to be deliberately different and doctrinally traditional. Catholics in public life will grow assertive and uncompromising in their beliefs.

In the West, the Catholic charismatic movement may seem to be past its prime of the 1970s and '80s. However, according to Allen, Pentecostalism is the way of being Christian in the global South and is likely to remain so. What will that mean? It will increase the emphasis in pastoral practice on the supernatural - miracles, angels, exorcisms, charisms of the Spirit. It will also mean more lay leadership in the Church, including women leaders.

Finally, an extroverted Church will not be focused on insider issues, such as the ordination of women and married men, challenging moral teaching and discerning the best form of Church governance. Catholic theology and action will deal more with relations with Islam, the expansion of biotechnology, and social justice and environmental issues.

Allen's predictions are akin to any predictions, some will be proven at least partially wrong. However, they are more likely to be borne out in reality than facile forecasts one might make about the coming 12 months. The writing is on the wall and we do well to pay attention to its new language.