The Future Church

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Article Reviews
The Future Church By John L. Allen Jr. (Doubleday, 2009)

There are few Catholic journalists as well-known and quoted as the National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen. As NCR’s Vatican correspondent for the better part of a decade, his access to Catholic figures of international significance is unparalleled. Allen has parlayed that access into his newest book, subtitled How Ten Trends Are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church, which considers the state of global Catholicism with an eye to how it may develop through the 21st century.
Allen identifies 10 trends—religious, political, and scientific—that he expects to fundamentally transform the world’s largest Christian communion. Each trend gets a chapter that describes the trend in its current form and looks forward to its consequences, with near-certain, probable, possible, and long-shot outcomes.

Anyone who consistently reads Allen’s work for NCR won’t be surprised by his conclusions; his regular columns have tracked his research, and much of that previous work appears in some form here. Like his columns, The Future Church reflects some of Allen’s weaknesses: an over-emphasis on the papacy, a tendency to generalize based on a few examples, and theological imprecision that would drive any scholar crazy.

Those blind spots are common to reporters, however, and this book is finally a work of journalism, though Allen’s interpretations go beyond traditional reporting. No theologian or sociologist would claim competence in just a few of Allen’s broad trends, much less all 10. Allen’s journalistic hubris ends up being a strength, as it allows him to introduce and explore topics as varied as Pentecostalism and ecology, which most U.S. Catholics probably would not have connected.

With these caveats, Allen’s book is well worth reading as an educated guess about how Catholicism will inevitably change in our shifting world. If anything, it will begin a conversation among Catholics as we move deeper into the 21st century.