Cultural fissures in the church suggest that African church leaders would more likely oppose women than married male priests, and also oppose any liberalization in the church's teachings on sexuality, especially regarding the rights of gays in the church and civil society. It's hard, however, to imagine a future Catholicism that can maintain legitimacy while continuing to discount the sincerity of women and gay Catholics who desire fuller participation in the sacramental life and hierarchical governance of the church. Catholicism runs the risk of becoming sect-like rather than the public catholic church its tradition honors if it excludes women and gays, especially while their rights and achievements in western civil society continue to expand.

Many faithful American Catholics already express a lot of dissatisfaction over these issues and, in general, contest the church hierarchy's unilateral exercise of authority. Their continuing loyalty to Catholicism cannot be guaranteed, however, especially amidst current trends toward denominational disaffiliation and the rising popularity of small groups in which Catholics convene to deepen their spirituality. Moreover, younger cohorts who have experienced a less rigorous Catholic socialization than their parents and who are less in the thrall of the promises of Vatican II, are less likely to stay within the Catholic fold if their everyday encounters with Catholicism are incongruous with their other lived experiences. 

While it is understandable that Catholicism seeks a unified pattern of doctrines and practices across its many global regions, it is also the case that it has long accommodated diverse interpretations in the practice of Catholicism. The future of Catholicism can be enriched if the church were to more openly affirm its acceptance that cultural context matters, and hence while it might not make practical sense to have women or gay priests in Africa, for example, these options may make sense in the U.S. In such a scenario, American Catholicism will look somewhat different to African Catholicism -- but it already does; and yet what will unify across these differences is the continuing importance of vital Catholic sacramental practices (e.g., the Mass).

Moreover, U.S. Catholics can deepen their unity with their fellow Catholics in Africa and South America through their commitment to social justice. Poverty and economic inequality, global problems recently highlighted by Pope Benedict XVI, continue to demand solutions crafted, in part, by local voluntary efforts. American Catholics, already committed to these principles, can be further educated and motivated by the needs identified by their fellow Catholics on the ground where these problems are most persistent.

On the other hand, the future may hold less change than these scenarios depict. As highlighted by the response to the sex abuse crisis, church officials are slow to adopt new habits and lay Catholics tend to compartmentalize their dissatisfaction; in Boston where the scandal exploded, the number of church-goers and donations dropped only to rebound a few years later. This suggests that the church might survive for a very long time without altering its doctrines on sexuality and women's ordination, and by adapting the sacraments to liturgies led by lay pastors.

This is likely to mean that Catholics will continue to consider themselves Catholic and to value its communal tradition, but will find other ways and other venues through which to satisfy needs not met by the church. This may result in further erosion in the hierarchy's moral authority and a decline in the meaningful significance of Catholic rituals even among the most devout.


Michele Dillon is professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire. Her fields of research include religion, culture, sociological theory, aging/life course, and Irish society. She is the author of numerous articles and books, including Catholic Identity: Balancing Reason, Faith, and Power, and edited the Handbook of the Sociology of Religion. Michele also serves on the editorial board for the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.