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January 18, 2010

Allen’s “The Future Church” – Trend One – “A World Church”

Allen’s first trend describes how over the course of the 20th century a “tight identification between the West and Christianity” has “disintegrated” and Catholicism has been turned “upside-down.”  In terms of numbers, at the beginning of the century, only 25% of the Catholic population lived outside of Europe and North America; by century’s end, 65.5% of the Catholic population was found in Africa, Asia and Latin America. (15)  Allen quotes Rahner’s observation that as a theological matter, Catholicism as a theological has always been a “World Church” in principle, but “now that identity is being realized as a sociological fact.” (16)  

After recounting some of the reasons for Catholic growth in the global south, he then denotes some of its characteristics, including: “morally conservative, politically liberal;” a comfort level with “miracles, healing and the supernatural;” institutionally, grappling with problems of growth—eg, infrastructure and staffing—rather than problems of decline; and several positive examples of the Church playing a strong role in political life. (23-32) 

Throughout the book, Allen’s reflections on what a given trend means for the future church are mapped out on a spectrum of near-certain, probable, possible and “long-shot” consequences.  Near -certain consequences of a World Church include increasing attention to matters of pastoral concern in the South (such as polygamy and witchcraft); and a gravitational pull away from internal “inside baseball” questions (such as how power is distributed in the Church) toward “ad extra” question of mission.  

Allen also predicts that Southern influence will bring an injection of “turbocharging orthodoxy” on sexual morality, with simultaneously stronger support of “left” leaning policies on economic justice and war.  (32-42) Attitudes toward ecumenical and interreligious dialogue (discussed with more depth in later chapters) might see a slightly tougher stance in light of Southern experience.  As the head of a Nigerian league formed in defense against anti-Christian violence by Islamic radicals put it: “You can’t turn the other cheek is you’re dead.” (46). 

What might this trend mean for Catholic legal theory and Catholic legal education?  In my own teaching and scholarship, working with the genre of the encyclicals, I have often struggled with the profound cultural differences between the European and North-American mind-frames:  eg, the European tendency to articulate highly abstract principles, and only eventually work its way down to a more concrete discussion, in tension with the more pragmatic problem-solving leanings of North-American culture.  I believe these perspectives have a profound impact on how we understand the mesh between law and church teaching, and on how we articulate how moral principles can inform their daily lives.  Reading Allen’s analysis, I have the sense that an “upside-down” World Church will present an even more interesting set of dynamic tensions which will require a much more complex exploration of how cultural attitudes toward law and social structures inform how we think about the Church’s social teaching—based not just on how the US interfaces with Europe, but on a richer, thicker interaction among the variety of legal cultures in the global South. 

In my seminar on CST & Economic Justice, when we have tackled portions of the US Bishop’s letter, “Economic Justice for All,” I have always gotten slightly stuck on the extent to which the CST principle and value of participation is in tension with a robust sense of global solidarity.  With Catholicism turned “upside-down,” and with the hope of becoming more aware of and sensitive to perspectives  from the global South, I wonder how this might challenge and change how I think about advocacy for the kind of wages, healthcare and basic services which enable  full and dignified participation in our industrialized nation?  

Finally, in light of Allen’s account of the challenges and tensions which emerge with the South-North movement of priests (45), I wonder what kind of institutional structures might help my students, and US Catholics generally, open up to the beauties and possibilities of a World Church.  In his introduction, Allen observes: “It sometimes comes more naturally for Catholics elsewhere to connect what’s happening in Congo, or Colombia, or Cambodia to their own fate.  A largely benign form of national parochialism is in some ways the original sin of much Catholic conversation in the United States.” (12)  Perhaps those grassroots components of the Church that already thrive within the structures of international staffing and exchange—religious orders, international service programs, and many of the new ecclesial movements—could be of service.  Reading Allen’s account, I realized that one of the reasons I am not afraid of the changes that an “upside-down” Catholicism presents is because I have before me the names and faces of women and men from Brazil, Argentina, Hong Kong, Korea, Thailand, Mexico, Uruguay, and the Dominican Republic, whose personal background, cultural heritage, and experience of the Church in their own country, have greatly enriched the Focolare communities where I have lived and worked.

I believe I have "opened" the comments section (and will get some technical help if I haven't!) - I look forward to further discussion of this chapter and the book generally.

Posted by Amy Uelmen on January 18, 2010 at 11:07 AM in Uelmen, Amy | Permalink

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Great questions, Amy. The debate over the "death penalty for gays" bill in Uganda provides a disconcerting snapshot of some of these coming tensions. Some difficult chapters loom, I'm afraid, because it's not just a case of western cultural myopia; it's also fundamental disagreement on important issues, which can provide westerners with such a confident self-righteousness that they feel justified in failing to try to take non-western perspectives seriously.

Posted by: rob vischer | Jan 18, 2010 1:53:01 PM

Thanks Amy, I wanted to make one comment. In his book, The Next Christendom, Philip Jenkins makes the point that it is somewhat misleading to view the Church as a Western European phenomenon. The connections to the South are as ancient as they are clear. Great early leaders of the Church, such as Tertullian, Cyprian, and St. Augustine lived in North Africa. Monica was an African.

Jenkins sees the new recovery of Christianity in the South as creating tensions, particularly with Islam. He cautions, "Based on recent experiences around the world-in Nigeria and Indonesia, the Sudan and the Philippines-we face the likelihood that population growth will be accompanied by intensified rivalry, by struggles for converts, by competing attempts to enforce moral codes by means of secular law. Whether Muslim or Christian, religious zeal can easily turn into fanaticism." (14).

The "death penalty for gays" may be a harbinger of things to come.

Posted by: Kevin Lee | Jan 18, 2010 8:16:57 PM

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