From covering the Vatican to far-flung ministries in Africa, journalist and author John Allen Jr. has traveled the globe in search of stories about the Roman Catholic Church, primarily for the National Catholic Reporter, an independent newspaper.
The Post-Dispatch recently caught up with him after a speech at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Ill.
Q. What is the main point that you want readers of your latest book, “The Future Church,” to walk away with?
A. I suppose I hope they get two main points. First, the need to think about the Catholic Church in a global key – American Catholics are just 6 percent of the global Catholic population of 1.2 billion, and we have to learn to see the world through the eyes of others.
Second is to realize that there’s a much bigger Catholic story beyond the usual topics we cover in the media, such as the sex abuse crisis, abortion, and debates over women and power. As important as those things are, they’re not the whole picture.
Q. How is the American Roman Catholic experience different than in other parts of the world? You’d mentioned the word “tribalization” in your presentation.
A. One big-picture trend in American life over the last 30 years or so is to retreat into tribes of the like-minded, meaning gated communities of both the physical and virtual kind. American Catholics do that, too, which fuels division and acrimony in the church. In my view, we need a new effort to build zones of friendship across those tribal lines.
Q. Where does the phrase “Taliban Catholicism” come from and what does it mean? Why is it relevant?
A. It’s my effort to capture a certain kind of psychology, as opposed to real flesh-and-blood people, that one finds on both the Catholic right and left these days – an angry, distorted form of the faith that knows only how to excoriate and condemn. It’s relevant because it’s a special temptation in this world.
Q. What are the pros and cons of interfaith – even intra-faith – dialogue?
A. The pro is that you can build friendships despite very real differences, and develop an ability to emphasize the things that unite people more than those which divide them. The con, I suppose, is that it’s possible to become so invested in reaching out to others that you forget, or water down, who you are. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it’s a danger worth thinking about.
Q. What is the biggest obstacle for the Catholic Church?
A. Depends on who you ask … but from a spiritual point of view, the obvious answer is “sin.”
Q. What do you think the Catholic Church does best and doesn’t get much credit for?
A. Fundamentally, I don’t think the Catholic Church gets enough credit for being a hell of a lot of fun. There’s great warmth and laughter in most Catholic circles, a rich intellectual tradition, a vast body of lore, an incredible range of characters, a deep desire to do good, an abiding faith against all odds, an ability to go anywhere and feel instantly at home, and even a deep love of good food, good drink and good company.
All that is part of the tapestry of Catholic life, but it rarely sees the light of day in commentary and reporting that focuses exclusively on crisis, scandal and heartache.
Q. How serious is the Vatican about its recent push for evangelization in the West?
A. They’re serious in theory, as the New Evangelization is obviously the top pastoral priority of Benedict XVI. In terms of actually having a game plan to make it happen, however … well, that’s more of a work in progress.
Q. I interviewed a FedEx delivery man whose route includes Catholic facilities around the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis and St. Louis University, the private Jesuit school. In five years of working the route, he said, nobody invited him to Mass. What do you make of that?
A. It may say something fairly positive about the hesitance of most Catholics to shove their religion down other people’s throats. It also, however, clearly shows that Catholicism in America has a problem with missionary outreach.
A recent study of religion in America by the Pew Forum made headlines by concluding there are now 22 million ex-Catholics in the country, but in reality the Catholic Church’s retention rate is right in the middle of the pack at 68 percent. The real Catholic problem in America isn’t retention, but recruitment – the Catholic Church does not generate new members at anything like the rate of many other religious groups in the country.
Somehow Catholics have to find a balance between not being nutty or overzealous, but also not letting people like your FedEx guy fall through the cracks.
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