A Vision of the Church in the 21st Century
Alfred J. Freddoso
That said, I must confess to a certain trepidation in addressing so huge a topic as the future of the Catholic Church in the 21st century. I have enough trouble--in the present--trying to fulfill the joyful burden that the Gospel places on me: to deepen, through prayer and the sacraments, my relationship with Jesus Christ, the Son of God and our Savior; to spread the Good News of salvation to those around me; to sanctify and perfect my daily work on campus and at home; to nurture the faith of my wife, as she nurtures mine; to pass on the precious gift of the Catholic Faith to our five children through doctrinal formation and, most importantly, through our example; to build up the community of believers by generously living out time and time again, at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, the ideal of sacrificial love; and to seek forgiveness for the many times I fail, and fail deliberately, to imitate Jesus in conforming my will to the will of the Father.
This doesn't leave a whole lot of time for speculating about the future of the Church. Nor does it leave much time for the acrimony, bitterness, meanspiritedness, and name-calling that one finds on all sides in our current intramural disputes. It's not that I don't have views on the controverted issues--after all, some of these issues are very significant, and adopting particular positions on them has in part shaped my life and my character, e.g., deciding with my wife to follow the Church's teaching on contraception even before the evidence on the harmful side effects of the Pill had been widely publicized. It's just that I've found in my own experience that focussing on the controversial issues has distracted me from following our Lord as closely as I should. This kind of pastoral consideration, is, I'm sure, part of what Cardinal Bernadin, himself a very holy man, was concerned with when he proposed the Common Ground project.
I'm an optimist regarding the future of the Church, in large measure because I know something about her past. In a memorable chapter of The Everlasting Man called "The Five Deaths of the Church" Chesterton recounts some of the many historical episodes in which the Church was pronounced dead only to rise again with a new vitality, the children being "fanatical for the faith where the fathers had been slack about it." Is the Church in crisis now? Surely it is in the affluent countries of Western Europe and to a lesser extent in the United States. But it has always been thus with the People of God. Israel was in crisis approximately twenty minutes after crossing the Red Sea into the Sinai desert. So it is even in our own day. Yet God continues to raise up saints--now in unlikely places--and the Church not only survives but is renewed.
It seems likely to me that in the beginning decades of the 21st century the vitality of the Church will be most evident in the Third World--in Asia, Africa, Latin and South America, and perhaps Central Europe. The Church in these countries will exercise much more influence than it has in the past and will take the lead in setting the apostolic agenda for the Church as a whole. So in addition to talk about properly ecclesiastical missions such as evangelization and religious education, we'll be hearing a lot about economic imperialism and blackmail, about coercive population control programs, about the repression of women in Moslem-dominated countries with Catholic minorities, about creative initiatives on the part of lay Catholics to bring about just economic development and material improvement for the poor. At the same time the influence of the Church in Western Europe will wane until the increasingly moribund, xenophobic cultures of death have run their course. Move over, Holland; here come Korea, the Philippines, Uganda, Mexico, et al. One result is that some controversial issues which seem to dominate discussions among Catholics in the rich countries--e.g., contraception, priestly celibacy, and women's ordination--are not likely to feature prominently in the mind of the Church universal. Catholics in Third World countries will figure, rightly or wrongly, that there are more pressing causes for concern.
A second point is that the 21st century will usher in the age of the laity. By this I do not mean an age in which the laity assume more active institutional roles within the Church. Perhaps this will happen, too; but whereas not every lay person is called to fulfill a properly ecclesiastical function, every lay person is, according to Vatican II, called to strive in earnest for personal holiness and to spread the Gospel within secular society. To my mind, the most remarkable recent development within the Church is the emergence of a wide variety of lay movements, the vast majority of which define themselves by apostolates within the secular sphere rather than within the Church herself. We haven't seen anything quite like it since the days of the early Christians. Instead of new religious orders arising to meet new challenges, now it is mainly the laity taking charge within its proper arena. My experience has been that many clerics--especially, for some strange reason, the more liberal ones--don't yet have a very deep understanding of this phenomenon.
What of the Church in the United States? This is a harder call than Western Europe because America has a lot more religious vitality than Europe despite our many problems. I personally am very encouraged by the widespread infusion of Hispanic and Asian immigrants into the Church in our country--and into this university, for that matter. The main challenge here is religious education. We have not as a community been doing a very good job at this. Finally, I am less concerned than some about a shortage of vocations. If my experience on this campus is any indication, and I think it is, there is no lack of generosity among young Catholics. Besides, what we can't supply for ourselves will come, as it always has, from places where the Church is flourishing. And if you find this too optimistic, I note that in our own diocese right now there are priests from places like Uganda, Sri Lanka, and Ireland. This is, after all, a universal Church.