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For Catholic theology, the future is global and lay-led.

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.

Brazal was a member of the planning committee for Trent, which clearly reflected the changing sociology of the field. When the Council of Trent took place in the 16th century, laity were essentially spectators. This time around, fully half of the 600 theologians in Trent were laity, and at least 200 were women. Another clear sign of the times was the significant presence of African women, including Vivian Minikongo, the first lay female professor of moral theology in Africa. All this illustrated what O'Connell referred to as the "feminization of moral theology "

O'Connell predicted that as women set the tone, issues such as work, the family and the environment will gain traction.

Orobator said the emergence of a global conversation may be less about changing topics than the way those topics are handled.

"The fruit is not so much a new agenda for theology, but a new way of doing theology," he said. "It's about having the kind of conversation that allows us to move forward as a world church, not just one small corner of the world."

On the other hand, several theologians say the transition to a global and lay-led discipline seems to be driving some specific concerns off the back burner of Catholic reflection and into the foreground.

Brazal identified several: "Migration, hunger and HIV/AIDS, due in part to globalization," she said. "In a certain sense, the South is in the North and vice versa. Improvement in intercontinental travel has also made the South closer to the North.

"Even the issues of the northern countries, such as an aging population, have their corresponding concerns in the southern countries, as the latter become the source of caregivers," Brazal said.

O'Connell flagged another topic of rising interest: racism.

"In the past, it was an issue on the periphery, something addressed in interest groups or smaller meetings," O'Connell said. Yet at Trent, "race, and the way we think ethically and theologically about dark bodies, was very much at the center."

The cumulative effect of the emergence of an ever more global world in Catholic theology, Brazal predicted, will be the emergence of "a pastoral magisterium" in theology, "more representative of different voices in the church, and thus living out more fully its Catholicity"

[John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is]
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Title Annotation:THEOLOGY
Author:Allen, John L., Jr.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Dec 24, 2010
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