Catholics need imagination to address globalized world, journalist says

| November 4, 2010 | 0 Comments

Journalist John Allen was working toward a doctorate in Scripture when he started writing about religion for news publications. “I found I could be paid to write about religion without using footnotes and without using ancient languages by doing it as a journalist,” he quipped.  Allen left graduate school to become one of the most respected Catholic news reporters and analysts while covering the last 10 years of Pope John Paul II’s papacy at the Vatican. Today, he is a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and senior Vatican analyst for CNN. His blog “All Things Catholic” can be found at

Allen’s most recent book, “The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church” (Doubleday, 2009), explores the relationship  between globalization and the Catholic Church, and it identifies 10 trends the global church is facing this century. He spoke with The Catholic Spirit about the book, Catholic journalism and the American Catholic Church. The following are excerpts from the interview.

Q. What inspired you to write “The Future Church”?


A. There were two things I was trying to accomplish with the book. One was to invite American Catholics to think more globally about issues in the church. If there’s one thing that two decades of covering the global church have brought home to me, it is that we Americans are 6 percent of the global Catholic population, which means that 94 percent of Catholics in the world are not like us, and they don’t have the same instincts about things, the same sense of priorities and so on. So part of the motive of the book is just to invite a global perspective.
The other is to get beyond the fairly narrow canon of issues that we usually think about when we talk about issues in the church. I suspect that if you stopped the average Catholic in Minneapolis-St. Paul and ask them to tick off four or five issues facing the Catholic Church, nine times out of 10 you’d get a pretty similar set of stuff. People would talk about the sex abuse crisis; and women in the church; and debates over sex, particularly gay rights and things like that; and power — how much power do the bishops have, and how much power does the pope have? Those are all phenomenally important questions, of course, but that’s hardly the whole Catholic story.

There’s a lot else percolating in the church. I, of course, have long been aware of that. I’ve long been frustrated that in my work as a journalist, and maybe not so much for the National Catholic Reporter, but the stuff that I do for CNN and the big secular news outlets, you rarely get a chance to talk about all that, so the book gave me an outlet. Thinking globally, and thinking beyond the normal mix of things that we think about as issues in the church — that’s what the book was about.

Q. Why do you think that American Catholics have developed the view of the church that we have?

A. We reflect broader American culture. We are the world’s manufacturer of culture, right? We produce the books and the movies and the music that the rest of the world consumes. We’re not in the habit of consuming culture from elsewhere. Very few Americans on a daily basis would read a foreign newspaper. Foreign movies play only in art houses and to a pretty small demographic, and on and on. So part of it is the basic insularity of American culture. In terms of the Catholic thing, we are a very big and very diverse church just unto ourselves.

The Catholic experience of the Northeast is very different from the Catholic experience in the Southwest, which is very different from the Catholic experience in the Midwest. When American Catholics think about diversity, I think they typically think about diversity within the American Catholic Church and don’t take the next step of putting it in the context of the diversity of the global church. But increasingly we have to do that because we live in a world where two-thirds of the Catholics on the planet today live outside the West; they live in the southern hemisphere. By mid-century, that’s going to be three-quarters, which means that increasingly in the 20th century, the tone in the Catholic Church is going to be set by the global South, and it’s important for Americans to start thinking about what that’s going to mean.

Q. You describe that phenomena as part of the church being “upside down,” and the increasing influence of the global south is part of it. Can you describe some of the other ways you view the church as “upside down”?

A. One is the demographic thing. Two is that that in the years since the Second Vatican Council, most of the action, so to speak, in terms about debates about the future of the church have been ad intra, that is, having to do with the internal life of the church — things like, how far should we go in reforming the liturgy, how much power should the bishops have versus Rome, how much leeway should theologians have to question established doctrine, and so on. Those issues haven’t gone away, but increasingly in the 21st century, the action will be very much ad extra, which is the church’s engagement with the outside world. How do we engage with a multi-polar world, in which places like India and China are going to be hugely important players, and these are not Christian players, they’re not shaped by the Christian tradition, which requires a whole new vocabulary and psychology for figuring out how the Catholic Church can be a voice of conscience in the world, when the world is not being wed by people who speak the language of the church?

In the southern hemisphere, the number one issues for most Catholics in places likes Africa, in Latin America, in southeast Asia, is the struggle against corruption, which is a force that is just crippling the development of those societies, it is an ethical question, because you’ve got to raise a generation of people in public life who are people of integrity, who are willing to resist the lure of being bought off, and that would be the number one kind of social justice concern for many Catholics in the global south. They would find that far more important than questions like, how do we translate liturgical texts, or who gets to wear a stole at Mass and things like that. That’s another sense. We typically think of the issues being internal issues, but in the 20th century it’s going to be the exact opposite. The issues that matter are going to be ad extra issues.

Q. In the beginning of your book you issue a warning that Catholics will need imagination to rise to the new challenges posed this next century. Of the 10 trends your book identifies, which one might require American Catholics to stretch their thinking the most?

A. The first two trends in the book are the foundational ones: One, about the rise of a world church in a 21st century environment where leadership is going to be coming from the global South. The other one I call evangelical Catholicism, which is this strong emphasis on recovering a clear sense of Catholic identity, over and against a secular world in the global North. And I think both of them challenge American Catholics. They challenge our myopia as Americans, and they also challenge the various ways in which we live in a secular world. And, we do face the challenge of recovering a sense of Catholic distinctiveness. What makes us different as Catholics, and where do we need to draw lines between who we are as Catholics and the kind of values and ways of doing business that are on offer in the broader culture? I think both of those will stretch us in ways that are both creative and sometimes painful.

Q. At the end of the book, you describe the tendency of the book among American Catholics to categorize each other’s views as “liberal” or “conservative.” Is this problematic? If so, how can American Catholics move past this when it seems to have become so entrenched in the way we think about the church?

A. I usually say that the situation in the American church is not so much polarization between left and right, it’s more tribalization. If you look around, we’ve got all kinds of different tribes — there’s the pro-lifers, there’s the neo-cons, there’s the church reform crowd, and there’s the peace and justice crowd, and the liturgical traditionalists, and all of that. I think that, in principle, all of that diversity is very healthy, but it’s obviously very dysfunctional when these tribes stop communicating and start seeing each other as the enemy. I think too often that’s our situation.

And you ask, what can be done about that? Where I would start is realizing that it’s not somebody else’s problem to solve.

Quite often, we want to rely on our institutions to fix this problem — [i.e.] this is something the bishops should be doing, or this is something the theologians should be doing. But this isn’t a doctrinal problem, this isn’t a structural problem, it’s a cultural problem, and cultures only change when people decide they need to. So, this is a classic example of where the change has to come from the bottom up rather than the top down.

It’s a profoundly counter-cultural exercise because, let’s face it, this problem doesn’t just exist in the Catholic Church in the United States. This is true of our culture generally. We live in an enormously tribalized, acrimonious, divided culture in America. Just look at the mid-term elections, right? It’s got to start with a recognition that this is something that Catholics, at the grassroots, on a one-by-one basis, have to make a decision that we’re just not going to live this way anymore, at least in terms of our relationships in the church. And we’ve got to make a very intentional, counter-cultural effort to build friendships with people who come from other tribes. That’s the only way this is going to change.

Q. You’re whole book is on globalism and steering Americans from focusing solely on the trends that you see in America. But, what are some of the trends you can identify in America in particular?

A. If you wanted me to tick off a couple things that in American Catholic life are hugely prominent big-picture issues, one would be the demographic shift in American Catholicism from a church that was pretty white-bread, European immigrant, to a church [in which] by 2030, according to the Pew Forum, white Catholics are going to be a statistical minority. [The] church [will be] dominated particularly by Hispanics, but also by Asian-Americans and African-Americans and so on.

In other words, the American Catholic population in some ways is becoming a microcosm of the global church. And, I don’t think we’re anywhere close to understanding, or even starting to think about, quite what all that is going to mean.

Another trend in the American Church would be recovering moral authority in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis. Most people who know the inside of the American Catholic Church would say that, internally, we’ve done a great deal to make things right. We’ve got tough policies these days for dealing with priests who abuse. We’ve invested a massive amount of resources in terms of educating for the prevention of abuse.

In some ways, you could argue that the American Catholic Church is a model for how you try to get your hands around this problem. But, in the court of public opinion, little of that has registered, and as you know these days, anytime the Catholic Church in the United States speaks out on anything, the automatic blowback is going to be, “We’ll listen to you guys when you clean up your act on the sex abuse mess.” In other words, the kind of blow to the moral credibility to the Catholic Church in America that the crisis has produced is just astronomic, and I think we’re still just on the brink of trying to turn that around. So, certainly, those two things would be hugely important issues in American Catholic life.

Q. In Minnesota, our bishops just released a DVD explaining the church’s teaching about gay marriage, and encouraging Catholics to push an amendment to our state constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman. There are some Catholics who wonder why they don’t hear more about gay marriage from Rome, but you suggest in your book that this is not on the radar of the global church.

A. It’s not so much that it’s not on the radar, and actually, Rome does often talk about issues related to the family. My point was simply that in the global south, and I’m thinking about Africa in particular, Asia, and to a great extent Latin America, although it’s changing somewhat, but in those places, the church’s teaching on the family, that is, that marriage is between one man and one woman, and therefore that things like gay marriage would not be socially acceptable, that’s just taken for granted. There is an overwhelming social consensus in favor of that kind of traditional view of the family, so if you stop the typical Catholic in Sub-Saharan Africa and you ask them, what are the important issues that you’re facing, they’re not going to mention gay marriage simply because it’s not a live social question.

Now, who knows where they’ll be 50 to 100 years from now, who knows what social change might bring. But, at least at the moment, it’s just not a topic that gets too many people out of bed in the morning because it’s not in the hopper socially. They’ve got other issues. They would take the church’s teaching on the family for granted, as do most people in their societies. They would be dealing with other things.

Q. As is the case in much of the country, our Catholic population growth in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is fueled almost exclusively by immigration. Is there any part of the United States that is handling immigration well that could be a model for other dioceses?

A. Obviously the places in the States that have been on the front line of the immigration issue for a long time would be were you would want to go looking, so I’m thinking particularly about the Southwest, so the Archdiocese of Houston, the Diocese of Dallas, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles — they’ve all got their struggles, but you’ll also find that they’re these places that have been wrestling with these issues for an awful long time and have developed some strong pastoral models to deal with it. We’re very good at the church in the United States in terms of accommodating diversity. When new waves of immigrations come, we’re very good about creating pastoral centers and providing them with pastoral care in their own language and accommodating their devotional styles.

What we’re often not as good at, however, is integration, that is, bringing these new arrivals into the mainstream of church life. What you often have are almost self-contained parallel universes, where in many dioceses you’ll have the Hispanic parishes, and Hispanic pastors, and Hispanic feasts and so on, and then you’ll have what they’d call in the southwest the “Anglo” parishes, meaning white parishes, that would have their own life. And that’s terrific — that’s great that we can accommodate all that. But what often doesn’t happen is that these things come together and have a joint conversation about where we’re going, and that’s the next challenge that we’ve got to face.

We’ve got a Catholic Church in America where 40 percent is composed of Hispanics, not all of them recent immigrants, of course. At some stage in the not-too-distant future, they’ll be in the majority of the American Catholic population. Yet, our public conversation in the States is often dominated by more traditional white Catholic voices. . . .  Both pastorally, and in terms of vision about where the church is going, the challenge is to bring that [Latino] half of the demographic pie into the conversation.

Q. Some have accused you of being a “liberal” Catholic reporter. How does that strike you?

A. Actually, most liberal readers of [the National Catholic Reporter] actually accuse me of being a conservative. There are some people that because I write for NCR presume I must be a liberal. As I say, there are a lot of traditional readers who read my stuff and presume I’m a conservative. What I hope is that most people think I’m just trying to get the story right. I don’t perceive myself as trying to advance an ideological agenda — that’s somebody else’s business. My job is to try to get the facts right, try to provide the context that you need to think about those facts intelligently, and leave the conclusions to somebody else.

Q. What newspapers and periodicals do you read religiously, so to speak?

A. Three things I would read everyday: Corriere della Sera, which is the main daily in Italy; L’Osservatore Romano, which is the Vatican newspaper, and The New York Times.

Q. What do you think of the Catholic press in general — what does it do well, and what could do better?

A. I think there are a lot phenomenally talented people working in the Catholic media in the United States, not only in print but also broadcast, so there is a great deal of very high quality material being produced on a daily and weekly basis. What I think is unfortunate about the Catholic press in America is that it is as badly tribalized as the church in general. That is to say that every major national media outlet in this country has a pretty clear ideological affiliation. I think pretty much everybody would know what side of the street NCR is talking to, or what side of the street First Things is talking to, or whose constituency EWTN would appeal to.

I don’t think in principle there’s anything wrong with that, but what I do regret is that honestly, if you look at the national Catholic news media in America, there’s not a single outlet that Catholics from all the different tribes would look to as a kind of fair broker, as equally open to all points of view in the Catholic Church. I don’t think it exists. In that sense, as I say, it reflects the kind of tribalized atmosphere in the church. . . . Salt + Light Television in Canada makes a real effort to be open to everybody, so it’s not like it can’t be done.

Q. Which church figure, past or present, has made the biggest impression on you and why?

A. It’s not original, but John Paul II. I had the great privilege of covering the last 10 years of his papacy, which from the outside you might think of as the least compelling, in that, for a good period of that time the pope was in physical decline and limited in what he could do, and yet, it was an amazing dynamic time. What this kind of frail, physically struggling figure could nevertheless do to move global opinion and change the history of his times was just astounding. I think John Paul II, taking off my Catholic hat and just putting on my journalist hat, was the most compelling journalistic story of the last half century, and to be able to cover it on an up-close and personal basis was an amazing gift. And then, obviously, on a personal spiritual level, just being able to watch the kind of fire of faith burn in that man was an incredible gift. Now, covering Benedict XVI is as equally compelling in a very different way, but in a way, as a journalist, he’s my second pope, and that first is always going to have a special place in your heart.

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