Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Future Church - Part 1

Fr Dwight Longenecker

I have been a follower of Fr. Longenecker's writing for some time now, and was pleasantly surprised to see him writing for Catholic Online periodically.  As Fr. Longenecker notes at the end, he has come home to Rome, as it were, from being an Anglican priest and then was received into the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church in recent years.  He has the perspective of a Father and of a father, and husband, and brings the richness of his own faith experiences to his writings.  The link to his own blog and web site are below in the credits to the article.

Here he starts a series on the recent book by John Allen about the future of the Catholic Church.
Catholic Online (
The ‘new Springtime’ of the Church predicted by Cardinal Newman may very well be sending up its first shoots.

GREENVILLE (Catholic Online) - [ Editors Note: We begin a series of articles by Fr. Dwight Longenecker which are based upon John Allen's best selling book entitled Future Church)

Who are the Progressives and where are they going? The progressive movement in the Catholic Church refers to those who believe that the church must continue to adapt itself to the progressive trends in society. Progressives push for married priests, women priests, permission for contraception, a more ‘pro choice’ position on abortion, ‘open-ness’ to same sex unions, an end to what they claim is clerical control of the church, and other ‘modern’ causes.

While progressives in the United States, Canada and Europe still have a strong voice in certain quarters of the Church, what is their future? According to journalist John Allen it doesn’t look good.

In his book Future Church Allen lays out the demographics of the Catholic Church of the twenty first century. From 1950 to 2005 the world population swelled from 2.5 billion to 6.5 billion. During that time the Catholic Church grew at about the same rate. However, the numbers are misleading because the growth was not equal to the population growth across the world. The Catholic Church in the Southern Hemisphere grew more while the Catholic Church in the Northern Hemisphere contracted. Allen reports, “the total number of African and Asian Catholics grew enormously, to 130 million and 107 million by the year 2000.”

The Catholic Church in the global south is therefore young and growing and like any adolescent, it is learning to flex its muscles. What will this young and vibrant Catholic Church look like? Allen lays out six characteristics which I will be exploring in six articles for Catholic Online.

The first quality of the Southern Hemisphere Church is that it is morally conservative and politically liberal. Catholics in Africa, Asia and South America are shocked by homosexuality and Western style immorality, while they are in favor of a preferential option for the poor and are critical of unbridled capitalism. Allen quotes Ugandan priest Fr John Mary Waliggo who likes aspects of liberation theology but says, “Things such as homosexuality are not just seen as sins, but as hideous perversions.” He points out that these prohibitions are deeply rooted in African tribal culture, not just in the rules of Catholicism.

Allen points out that the same attitudes prevail in Asian and Latin America. According to a 2006 study 72% of Indians, 78% of South Koreans, 56% of Philipinos believe that homosexuality is ‘never justified’. Across Central and South America numbers are about the same. What percentage are opposed to abortion? Brazil: 79%, Guatamala: 85%, India: 68% and the Philippines: 97%.

However, while the Southern Catholics are conservative morally, they take a more ‘liberal’ approach to politics and economics. They are skeptical of globalization and American power. They like the United Nations and don’t like Israel. They endorse state involvement in welfare systems and tend toward pacifism and an ecologically sound agenda.

Are our Catholic brothers and sisters in the Southern Hemisphere ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’? I think they’re just being good Catholics. Catholicism has always defended strong family values while also being justly skeptical of super powers, men of wealth and those who would dominate and exploit the poor.

How does this play out for the progressive Catholics in the United States, Canada and Europe? It is very simple: progressive Catholicism is passè. It’s already past it’s sell by date. It’s proponents are grey and going while the Church in the south is young and growing.

The positive way forward for Catholics, as always, is to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the Churches. The Spirit speaks from the past to the present and from the present to the future. The struggles of the church in the forty years since the Second Vatican Council have brought us to a new threshold. English priest, and Newman scholar, Fr. Ian Ker has said that it takes about fifty years for any general council of the church to come to it’s fruition. Furthermore, that fruition is never what the fathers of the council envisioned. The future always plays out differently. The Holy Spirit is always full of surprises.

The ‘new Springtime’ of the Church predicted by Cardinal Newman may very well be sending up its first shoots in the spiritually fertile ground of the South. For more signs of these fresh shoots, continue with this column in the days ahead.
Fr Dwight Longenecker is a former Anglican priest ordained through the pastoral provision. His books are available through Catholic bookstores and at Fr. Longenecker is Chaplain to St Joseph's Catholic School in Greenville, South Carolina. You can check out his many articles and books on his website, and from there you can also visit his popular blog, "Standing on My Head" where he comments daily and posts his weekly homilies as podcasts.
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