Global, Uncompromising, Pentecostal, and Extroverted"
That's how John Allen sums up what the observable Catholic Church of the 21st century is going to look like in his new book, The Future Church. But that summary is 432 pages in. Before you get there, Allen takes his readers on quite a ride.
Allen's book is 480 pages long, his thesis is as broad as the future of Catholicism, and it is just hard to wrap your mind around it all. Allen covers an enormous number of topics under the heading of his ten chosen trends, all fueled by a thousand statistics and anecdotes. The book reads like a patchwork made up of a series of short articles or blog posts (if you have been reading Allen’s blog over the last few years, you will recognize material.)
I'm not complaining exactly. Allen's view of the Catholic global scene from 30,000 feet is extraordinarily valuable, especially for western Christians caught up in our insider struggles. It is a salutary reminder that our world is not the Catholic world.
Allen is a journalist, not a theologian or historian or scholar. But I found myself wishing over and over that he would (or could) go into greater depth on a given topic, that he would stop and really dig in rather than hurtle breathlessly along. His reader will have to work to stitch it all together meaningfully for themselves. And humble bloggers will have to work even harder!
Where to begin? It is appropriate that right after a post on a new Orthodox/Catholic ecumenical effort to join forces in the face of secularism, I should write about how very different the world looks for the majority of Catholics who live in the global South.
The first trend is The World Church. As John Allen puts it: "outside of Europe and some elite pockets in the United States, secularism is not really a grassroots phenomenon." For Christians in the South, the issue is “a highly competitive religious marketplace.”
Southern Catholics are wrestling with pluralism, not secularism. In the southern context, Catholicism doesn't strike people as hidebound and conservative but rather as moderate and sophisticated. And in many places, the struggle is how to manage staggering growth, not steady decline.
In Nigeria, for instance, the Church's structures are stretched to the breaking point trying to catechize new converts and form new priests. The country has the largest seminary in the world - 1,100 men strong. In the South, Catholicism is often very young, historically and biologically. The huge growth in numbers has taken place over the past 50 years. “In sub-Saharan Africa, Catholicism is almost entirely the product of the late twentieth century.” And the majority are still children. Young and on the rise.
In light of my work on the 17th century French revival, I found this prediction fascinating: "Places such as Nairobi, Manila, and Sao Paulo are . . . likely to be to the twenty first century what Paris, Milan, and Leuven were to the Counter-Reformation, meaning the laboratories in which creative new theological and pastoral approaches of the era take shape."
And this will really help us grasp the gap in experience between northern and southern Christians. What are two of the biggest pastoral issues in the Global South? Polygamy and witchcraft. Seriously.
In February 2007, The Catholic University of East Africa in Nairobi, Kenya, held a three day symposium on the pastoral challenge of witchcraft. Experts warned that witchcraft was “destroying” the Catholic Church in Africa, in part because skeptical, Western-educated clergy are not responding adequately to people’s spiritual needs.”
“Witchcraft is a reality; it is not a superstition. Many communities in Kenya know these powers exist.” Said Michael Katola, a lecturer in pastoral theology. Katola warned that inadequate pastoral responses are driving some African into Pentecostalism.
“Many of our Christians seek deliverance, healing, and exorcism from other denominations because priests do not realize they have redemptive powers”, he said. “If we don’t believe in the existence of witchcraft as Satanism, then we cannot deal with it.”
I was steeped in such a perspective in my early evangelical missionary days. As I tried to sum it up as a newly Confirmed baby Catholic:
This is the recognition of what is called “The Excluded Middle”. The theory goes as follows: Western missionaries carried their rationalist and anti-supernaturalist cultural assumptions with them and went to people saturated with a spiritual worldview that incorporated minor deities, demons, curses, charms, and spells into daily life.
Western rationalist dismissed these beliefs as mere superstition and converted people to a worldview of a “high” Trinitarian God and a “low” moral code of behavior. The “middle” realm of demons and spells was never addressed, but it would not go away. These people have lived for many generations with the spiritual realities of the demonic, had seen people die of curses, and know, whatever the missionary said, that these things are real. To deal with them, they turned once again to their traditional spiritual practices and the result was the various forms of Christo-paganism.
To fill this gap, evangelical missionaries looked once again to the early Church and found in the experience of Pentecost and the healings, prophecies, and miracles of the Book of Acts, a Christian answer for the “excluded middle.” This approach has come to be called “power evangelism.
Allen’s comment? "It does not tax the imagination to picture a future pope from the global South issuing an encyclical presenting Jesus Christ as the definitive answer to the “spirits of this world . . . The implicit Christology of many Africans is that of “Christus Victor” whose resurrection invested him with definitive power to vanquish the dark forces in the spiritual world, to break spells, and to reverse curses."
See what I mean? You follow a single strand of Allen’s and you end up in a whole new world. And there are 100 such strands in The Future Church, all fascinating and with big implications. More in another post.