What will the Catholic Church of the future look like?  
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Brian Coyne

What will the Catholic Church of the future look like?

In hindsight I think Tom Roberts and his publishers, Orbis Books, chose the wrong title for this book. Mind you I'm not sure myself what the alternative title might be. When the book first arrived at Catholica I asked my wife to review it and I did a quick skim read to add to her comments. Neither of us really did this book the justice it deserves given our haste to get a review written and published as quickly as possible. Over the past few weeks I've been reading it at a more leisurely pace. I honestly think this is a "tour de force" analysis of the challenges facing institutional Roman Catholicism. I question that it gives us much insight at this stage as to what the Catholic Church of the future might look like.

While it is primarily looking at the Church in the context of the experience in the United States and, as Tom Roberts himself admits "it isn't a scientific analysis", so much of what he has    uncovered gels with our experiences here in a country like Australia. The "power" in this book   comes not so much from Roberts himself but from the stories of the many people — powerful and not powerful — whom he has interviewed or whom he quotes authoritatively. Tom Roberts' skill is as a journalist and editor in the way he assembles all the evidence in both a highly readable way and the overall coherence of his analysis.

Whatever part of the political or theological spectrum you feel comfortable in today there is almost nobody who does not believe the Catholic Church is in a severe crisis. The differences tend to be not in the admission that there is a crisis but massive, sometimes mutually exclusive suggestions as to what might be done to address the various crises.

This book started its life as a series of interviews and travels across the United States Catholic landscape by Tom Roberts for a series in National Catholic Reporter. It was only half-way through that exercise that the publisher of Orbis Books approached Tom and suggested it also be published in book form. As a book it possibly has even more "power" than it did in the original form in which it was published.

An overview of what is in the book...

Let me give you a brief overview of what is in the book and how Roberts lays out his canvas in preparation for the analysis he provides. At the end of this review I'll give you the actual chapter rundown but I think it might be helpful here to identify the six major themes that Tom picks up as what he sees as critical to (a) both understanding the crises; and (b) seeking to outline what might emerge out of everything that is happening at present.

  • What the statistics tell us
  • The clerical sexual abuse crisis: the abuse itself and the inadequate hierarchical response
  • The causes of the abuse crisis — clericalism — which points to a deeper crisis in the institution
  • The increasing response from sectors who are finding new ways "to be Catholic" or "form communion or community"
  • The theological belief challenges posed by science, new technologies and the new views comes to us from places like cosmology
  • The problem and place of authority amidst all of the foregoing.

Now some might disagree with what Tom Roberts outlines as the key issues to be investigated. For example I can imagine some asking "well where does liturgy fit into that? It's THE crisis in liturgy today that has destroyed the church or driven so many out of the pews?" Other may ask "where is the gender issue in all of that — the place of women?" What I like about Tom Roberts is that he's a "big canvas" player. In his book he does in fact cover those sort of issues I've used as examples above, and many others, within the various sections or chapters but he's endeavouring trying to not confuse us with too much of the nitty-gritty detail but keep our attention focused on what seem to be the big waves pummelling our spiritual shoreline and changing it, not the small waves, that while pretty, or interesting to watch, are not the major influences changing our spiritual landscape or seashore.

My own sense is that Tom Roberts calls it "about right" in how he outlines the macro landscape — those big factors that are either destroying Catholicism as we've known it, or which might be the big factors that might help us discern how the Church emerges in the future.

My own prognosis for the institution is far more pessimistic than what seems to be Tom Roberts' prognosis. Despite all our beliefs that Christ would be with the Church until the end of time, I think the institution as we've known it is now next to cactus. Benedict himself has called it accurately: the future is a "smaller, purer Church" that is basically irrelevant to the world at large and will only be of interest to the liturgical purists and those who desperately need a pope in their lives to tell them which way is up morally, or about anything. I am not pessimistic about the future of religion, spirituality or the ongoing place Jesus Christ might play in the affairs of humankind. What comes through strongly in Tom Roberts' analysis is that he also is very optimistic about the spiritual landscape of the future. The BIG question, or the big difference between our perspectives might boil down to the question of "what role does the institution as we've known it play in the future?"

Some answers or conclusions...

After presenting all his evidence — the "big canvas stuff" of what has gone wrong and why the institution is in this "crisis" situation today in the first eight chapters of his analysis — Tom spends the last three chapters trying to reach some conclusions about what seems to be emerging. He begins Chapter Nine with these words:

"More than once during the year and a half I spent traveling to different corners of the U.S. Catholic Church I wondered when I would come upon the thing, or even the combination of things, that would unlock the answer to where the church was heading. I struggled with coming up with a neat list-the ten action items or the five-year plan-a version of "news you can use" for the Catholic who wants a clear idea of what works, or for the one who's dangling by the fingertips and wants hard data on why he or she should stay. Of course, no single thing is the answer."

He then goes on for three chapters to show us why there is "no single answer". There are though two things that I think stand out in his analysis: (i) the institution as we've known it is going to be around for a long time yet — even if it ends up as a "smaller, purer Church" largely irrelevant to the world at large. This institution still carries a heck of a lot of bureaucratic momentum. There are still many people in it doing "good works". As he suggests, if you suddenly removed the Church from the American landscape America would be a very different place given all the great works of charity, mercy, human compassion, education and health care it is engaged in. And most of the people engaged in those many activities do not have their focus on what the pope thinks or what the bishops are deciding at policy levels. Their focus is on attending to the needs of ordinary people, and very often the poor and those who are powerless. That momentum will carry the institution forward for a lot longer yet even if fewer and fewer people are turning up on Sundays to worship or obeying the edicts coming out of Rome or the American Catholic Bishops Conference as to who is allowed to go to communion or what the rules for marriage or sexual behaviour are supposed to be.

(ii) What Tom Roberts also clearly gives us a better picture about is that many people are beginning to take up those sort of things and perform them outside the institutional structure but, and this is important, not motivated by any great desire to set up new churches or wanting to no longer think of themselves as "Catholic". The sense of Catholic "identity" remains strong and this would seem to be reflected around the world in that while many people have given up actively listening to the institution, or participating in the sacramental life of the church, when it comes time to "tick the box" on a government census form many still strongly identify themselves as "Catholics". The new directions people are exploring though seem to be diverse. Some are driven simply because there are no longer enough priests and local communities are developing new ways of expressing their 'catholicity" in the absence of priests. Others though, and the groups led by women who are taking on a more assertive leadership role and actively seeking ordination, necessarily have to take place "under the radar" and in a more removed way from the formal institutional structure.

Quotable quotes...

One thing I haven't emphasized enough in this review is the plethora of quotable quotes this book contains. Tom Roberts has been everywhere and interviewed so many fascinating people — and from across the spectrum. And when he personally hasn't been doing the interviewing he picks up on news reports and official statements published in recent decades which amplify his analysis. So often as I was reading the book I was tempted to bring the book to my scanner and quote sections as they were so pertinent to various discussions taking place currently on our forum. My hunch is that large sections of this book will resonant deeply with the sort of readership we have attracted to Catholica. The insight of this man, and those of so many of the people whose insights he came across and recorded, will resonant strongly with many at Catholica who are seeking either "an emerging Church" or where things are going to end up.

In the final analysis though I am personally not at all sure what the Catholic Church that emerges in the future from this fascinating time in ecclesial history we are travelling through will look like. I'm even reluctant to predict today who, or more precisely, which wing of the several that seem evident today trying to define what Catholicism is, and what its objectives are, will be left "holding the keys of the kingdom".


Here are the actual Chapter headings Tom Roberts uses:

  1. True Truths
  2. The Shrinking, Expanding, Changing Church
  3. The Sex Abuse Crisis Begins
  4. Into the Depths of the Crisis
  5. A Problem of Clerical Culture
  6. Travels on the Margins
  7. Of Rummage Sales and the New Cosmology
  8. In Search of Authentic Authority
  9. Amid the Tensions
  10. Where from Here?
  11. Final Thoughts

Brian Coyne

Brian Coyne is Editor of Catholica, and the above text was published at the website Catholica on 12 December 2011.

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