In Thomas Friedman’s enormously popular book about globalization, he summarized the essential message in four words: the world is flat. Globalization is knocking down one barrier to opportunity after another, creating a world in which smart, hungry go- getters in India, China, or Brazil can compete not just for the low- wage jobs Americans don’t want, but for the hightech, high- pay jobs they definitely do want. For that reason, Friedman’s book came with a warning: Americans need to hustle in this century or they’ll find themselves run over by this phenomenon.
This too is a book about globalization. Its subject is the oldest globalized institution on earth, the Roman Catholic Church. Its bottom line can also be expressed in a few words: the church is upside down. By that, I don’t mean that the Church is topsy- turvy or out of whack. I mean that the issues, party lines, and ways of doing business that have dominated Catholicism in the forty- plus years since the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, that watershed moment in modern Catholic life, are being turned on their head by a series of new forces reshaping the global Church. This book comes with a warning too: Catholics in the twenty- first century won’t just need hustle (though they certainly will need that), but above all they’ll need imagination. They’ll need the capacity to reconsider how they think about the Church, and what they do with their faith, because otherwise Catholicism won’t rise to the occasion of these new challenges— it’ll be steamrolled by them.
Consider the following ways in which the Catholic Church is upside down in the twenty- first century:
• A Church dominated in the twentieth century by the global North, meaning Europe and North America, today finds two thirds of its members living in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Catholic leadership will come from all over the world in this century to a degree never before experienced.
• A Church whose watchword after the Second Vatican Council (1962– 65) was aggiornamento,
meaning “opening up to the modern world,” is today officially cutting in the opposite direction, reaffirming everything that makes Catholicism different from modernity. This politics of identity is in part a reaction against runaway secularization.
• A Church whose primary interreligious relationship for the last forty years has been with Judaism now finds itself struggling to come to terms with a newly assertive Islam, not just in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, but in its own European backyard.
• A Church that has historically invested a large share of its pastoral energy in the young now has to cope, beginning in the North, with the most rapidly aging population in human history.
• A Church that has long relied on its clergy to deliver pastoral care and to provide leadership now has lay people doing both in record numbers and in a staggering variety of ways.
• A Church used to debating bioethical issues that have been around for millennia— abortion, birth control, and homosexuality— finds itself in a brave new world of cloning, ge ne tic enhancements, and trans- species chimeras. Its moral teaching is struggling desperately to keep pace with scientific advances.
• A Church whose social teaching took shape in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution now faces a twenty- first- century globalized world, populated by strange entities such as multinational corporations
(MNCs) and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) that didn’t exist when it crafted its vision of the just society.
• A Church whose social concern focuses almost exclusively on human beings finds itself in a world in which the welfare of the cosmos itself requires new theological and moral reflection.
• A Church whose diplomacy has always relied on the Great Catholic Power of the day is now moving in a multipolar world, in which most of the poles that matter aren’t Catholic, and some aren’t even Christian.
• A Church accustomed to thinking of the Christian “other” as the Orthodox, Anglicans, and Protestants today is watching Pentecostals march across the planet, shooting up from 5 to 20 percent of global Christianity in barely a quarter century— in part by siphoning off significant numbers of Catholics. The Catholic Church is itself being “Pentecostalized” through the Charismatic movement.
An old car commercial carried the tagline, “This isn’t your grandfather’s Buick.” I would submit that what we’re looking at today isn’t your mom and dad’s Catholic Church— and it may not even be your older sister’s. 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. The word I’m using to describe these currents is “trend.” To explain what I have in mind, let me quote the historian Arnold J. Toynbee from his book Civilization on Trial
The things that make good headlines are on the surface of the stream of life, and they distract us from the slower, impalpable, imponderable movements that work below the surface and penetrate to the depths. But it is really these deeper, slower movements that make history, and it is they that stand out huge in retrospect, when the sensational passing events have dwindled, in perspective, to their true proportions.
Those “slower, impalpable movements” are what I mean by “trends.” (I lay out the six criteria I employed for what counts as a trend in the chapter on “Trends that Aren’t.”) In several cases, there are plenty of headlines associated with one or another aspect of the trends, but usually they’re treated in isolation, as random events, rather than being seen as part of deeper historical patterns. I hope to put the pieces of the contemporary Catholic puzzle together, so we can see what the picture looks like.
Each of the examples of an upside- down Church given above corresponds to one of the ten trends surveyed in this book:
1. A World Church
2. Evangelical Catholicism
4. The New Demography
5. Expanding Lay Roles
6. The Biotech Revolution
The ten chapters of the book correspond to the ten trends listed above. They are not listed in order of rank or priority, as if number one were more important than number ten. To be completely honest, the sequence simply reflects the order in which I wrote the chapters. No additional significance should be attached to why one trend is number two, for example, and another number eight. The format in each chapter is to give the lay of the land first, examining what’s driving the trend and what impact it’s having on the Catholic Church, in a section called “What’s Happening.” I then move into more speculative territory, trying to anticipate what the trend could mean for the Church as the century unfolds. That part is called “What It Means.” These are not really predictions, but possible lines of development that could still be redirected, blocked, or turned in the opposite direction by forces not yet on the radar screen. In each chapter, I offer four categories of outcomes: near- certain, probable, possible, and long shots. Not only does the degree of probability go down with each category, but the projections venture farther out in time. Near- certain consequences are usually short- term extensions of developments that we can already see happening. Long shots, if they happen at all, are usually far on the horizon. 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.
The book’s conclusion is intended as a stand- alone summary of what impact the trends will have in the century to come. I condense the likely profile of upside- down Catholicism into four points. They’re styled as sociological notes of the Church in the twenty- first century, inspired by the theological notes in the Nicene Creed: “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.” My notes are intended not as theological claims about the Church’s inner essence, but rather as descriptive terms for what Catholicism will actually look and feel like in this century. The four notes are: “Global, Uncompromising, Pentecostal, and Extroverted.” Readers who just can’t wait to arrive at the bottom line may want to read the conclusion first, then work backward.
Descriptive, not Prescriptive
It’s important to be clear at the outset 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 to 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. I invite readers to bracket off the immediate instinct to debate whether any given trend is positive or negative, and to try to understand it first on its own terms. After that, I entrust the prescriptive debate to better minds than my own. I stress this point because in writing about these trends, I find that many Catholics immediately want to challenge one or another of them on prescriptive grounds: “I don’t think evangelical Catholicism is what Vatican Two had in mind,” or “Ecology is just another word for pagan pantheism.” I understand those reactions. Religion is about someone’s ultimate concern, their ...