For Catholic Theology, the Future Is Global and Lay-Led

Article excerpt

Auguste Comte, the father of modern sociology, famously claimed, "Demography is destiny." If so, demographic trends in Catholicism in the early 21st century suggest a two-pronged destiny for the church's theological guild: one, that it will be increasingly global; and two, that it will be led ever more by laity, especially women.

"The new face of theology is diverse, multicultural, gender-sensitive, inclusive and representative," said Kenyan Jesuit Fr. Agbonkhiahmeghe E. Orobator, considered a leading voice on the African theological scene. "That gives us a lot of hope for the future."

For a taste of that future, consider what transpired this past July in the famed Italian city of Trent, which hosted a gathering of nearly 600 Catholic ethicists and moral theologians, representing four continents and 73 countries. The event's principal architect was Jesuit Fr. James Keenan of Boston College.

Paticipants say Trent represented a crossing-the-Rubicon moment.

"What emerged is that today's challenge is to avoid falling back on classic Western ecclesiologies and typologies in thinking our way through things," said Maureen O'Connell, a laywoman with a doctorate in theological ethics from Boston College and an assistant professor at Fordham University in New York. "We have to allow this new context to speak. for itself."

Population numbers lend obvious credence to O'Connell's point. As of 2010, there were 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, of whom two-thirds lived in the global South--Latin America, Africa and Asia. A century ago, two-thirds of the Catholics in the world still lived in Europe and North America. In other words,. 100 years witnessed the most rapid, most sweeping transformation of Catholic demography in more than 2,000 years of church history

"Today, there's a new Catholicity taking shape," said Keenan, who raised more than $700,000 in order to make sure that theologians from developing countries were strongly represented at Trent. "We recognize that we have to be voices with others, not just for others."

Filipina scholar Agnes Brazal, a lay-woman and president of the Catholic Theological Society of the Philippines, said the new context of theology is fueling a desire to "cross borders," and not just the geographical kind.

There's a keenly felt need, Brazal said, to hear the voices of laity, especially women; to make younger theologians part of the conversation; and to draw on the resources and perspectives of other faith traditions. …