On Monday, Charlotte’s St. Matthew Catholic Church will sponsor two free talks by John Allen Jr., Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and an analyst on CNN and NPR.
Allen, who’s 46 and divides his time between Rome and the U.S., is the author of a new book – “The Future Church: How Ten Trends Are Revolutionizing The Catholic Church.”
In a phone interview with the Observer this week, Allen said the headline of his talks in Charlotte will be: “It’s a more complicated church than you thought – and there’s hope.” Here’s more of what he said:
Q. With most Catholics living in the global South, when will we get a pope from Asia, Latin America or, as you imagine in your book, from Africa?
It could happen any time. The runner-up in the conclave that elected Benedict XVI was Argentinian – Cardinal (Jorge Mario) Bergoglio of Buenos Aires.
But the problem is, in a conclave, the guys aren’t electing a passport, they’re electing a flesh-and-blood human being. So even in the abstract, if the idea of electing an African or a Latin appeals to them, they have to have an actual candidate.
The next time, I think there probably are a couple of plausible guys from the global South, including one who is going to become a cardinal later this month: (Archbishop Luis Antonio) Tagle from Manila.
But remember that they don’t go in thinking, “We want to elect an African, a Latin American, a European.” They go in wanting to elect the best card in the deck, whoever that happens to be.
Q. The Catholic hierarchy is conservative on issues such as abortion, homosexuality and the role of women. But it’s also liberal on war, capitalism, immigration and the environment. Is the church more complex than its public image suggests?
Clearly, yes. I often say that the coverage of the Catholic Church in the secular media in the States is like trying to depict a three-dimensional object in a two-dimensional space: Only bits and pieces of it ever really come into view.
The reality is the Catholic Church is a global institution. Only 6 percent of its members live in the United States, meaning 94 percent of the Catholics in the world are not American. Therefore, trying to see what the Catholic Church is about exclusively through the prism of the kinds of things that show up in the American media is a prescription for disaster.
Q. You’ve titled your book “The Future Church.” Yet, you cover a Vatican that appears to be modeled on a medieval monarchy. Any chance that will change?
The Vatican is always slow to change. My sound bite on that is: If you hear the end of the world is coming, go to Rome because it’ll get there last.
The Vatican has changed. It certainly looks different today that it did 100 years ago. Bear in mind: 20 percent of the work force in the Vatican these days is composed of women. That may not sound like a lot until you consider that the first woman in a policy-making position didn’t get there until 1953. So, by historical standards, it looks very different. And it is more modernized than it once was. All the offices have computers and Internet access, which wasn’t the case as recently as 10 years ago.
So the Vatican will evolve, but at a pace that always lags behind the outside world. And that, to some extent, is by design: The Vatican is supposed to be the church’s last line of defense, to insure that it doesn’t just get swept away by a particular era’s fashion.
Q. In the U.S., many of the new bishops and priests embrace a Catholic traditionalism – you call it “evangelical Catholicism” – that many in the pews see as a betrayal of the reform-minded Second Vatican Council. Are we headed for a confrontation between conservative clergy and moderate-to-liberal laity?
Sure. (But) there are 65 million Catholics in America and not all of them are moderate-to-liberal. The laity in this country is wildly diverse. But certainly, for what you might call the left and the center-left in the church, they have become at odds with the ethos of the hierarchy. I don’t think the temper of the hierarchy is likely to change quickly, nor do I think the liberals are going to suddenly convert to evangelical Catholicism. So that tension is destined to be with us for awhile.
The drama is: Is that going to be a destructive tension, a prescription for perennial conflict? Or could it be a creative tension in which both sides recognize they bring something important to the table?