A century from now Catholics are likely to be the country’s largest Christian body. But the priesthood, the Mass and the laity may look startlingly different to today

An English Catholic in 1615 lived an entirely different life from one in the early 1700s, 1800s, 1900s or 2000s. The changing backdrops of the Elizabethan persecutions, the Jacobite revolutions, the legalisation of Catholicism, the First World War and modern secularisation gave each of them historically distinct experiences. By 2115, the life of an English Catholic will be different again.

Some of the following predictions are guaranteed to be wrong. Casting the runes of the future is an imprecise art. However, the broad themes of the next 100 years are already taking shape.

The first is the de-Christianising of England, where the number of Christians is dropping. This affects the Catholic Church as it does the others, yet not all are falling at the same rate. The most acute crisis is in the Church of England, where recent independent statistics show membership fell from 40 per cent of the population in 1983 to 17 per cent in 2014, a drop of 58 per cent.

Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has argued that the writing is now on the wall, and the Church of England is only a generation away from total extinction. Unless something truly radical happens to reverse decades of decline, the Church of England and its many charms will have disappeared before 2050. (The numbers look similarly bleak for the Church of Scotland, whose membership dropped from 36 per cent of the population in 2001 to 18 per cent in 2013.)

The death of the Church of England will be immensely significant. For the first time since the reign of King Henry VIII, the Catholic Church will again be the largest Christian denomination in England.

The second big theme will be the general trend in global religion. Although Christianity is waning in Europe, religious adherence (including to Christianity) is increasing globally, which will make the world in 2115 a more religious place.

Behind this trend, the big story is Islam, which is the world’s fastest growing religion. Today, there are 2.2 billion Christians and 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide. By 2100 the positions will have reversed, with Islam overtaking Christianity to become the single largest religion on the planet.

The life of an English Catholic in 2115 will be significantly affected by the consequences of these two trends. These are my predictions.

If the biggest religious story of the next 100 years will be Islam, the next most significant will be its composition. The largest divisions within Islam are currently Sunni, Shia and Sufi. But a fourth group is now clearly emerging. It has no official name, but it is Salafist and jihadist.

It started life in the 1979-89 Afghan war, when US-backed foreign mujahideen travelled to fight the pro-Russian Afghan government and Brezhnev’s Soviet invasion force. After a gruelling decade, the mujahideen won, and their combustible mix of Islam and active warfare spread throughout the wider region and beyond.

Fuelled by the grim reality of life in war-torn, failed, or corrupt states across Africa, Asia and the Middle East – and driven by inequality, poverty, a large youthful population and social exclusion – the global reality of Salafi jihadism seems likely to result in an eventual split from the mainstream. This will formalise a separate but permanent jihadist movement within Sunni Islam.

By 2115 there will therefore be increased tension between Islam and Christianity, and this will lead to a hardening of cultural identities. Religions are largely tied to the civilisations they grow from. The West (which includes Europe and the poorly named “Anglo-Saxon” family of countries) was founded on Christian values, and over the coming century there will be a growing reaffirmation of these principles. It will not come in the form of increased churchgoing or religious affiliation, but in a wider appreciation that Western civilisation has identifiable core values of equality and respect for human life.

Catholicism will remain Christianity’s largest denomination, and the changing religious landscape will inevitably require its priorities to evolve in order to meet the new challenges. Inwardly focused discussions on sexuality and the sacraments will disappear, allowing the space for a necessary global vision of religious tolerance and respect for a shared humanity.

Looking around England in 2115, the composition of the Catholic Church will have changed. It will have absorbed the majority of the Church of England (except the minority factions that switch to smaller, independent, Protestant denominations). Already one in 10 Catholic priests in England are convert priests from the Church of England. This trend will continue and increase.

The world is going to get a lot more crowded. The UN estimates that by 2100 Africa will have doubled its population and the planet will top 11 billion people. Here in England, migration from an increasing number of authoritarian regimes and politically and economically broken countries will lead to a more ethnically mixed society. Britain will no longer be in the list of the world’s top 10 economies, but one of the many pulls here will be that the internet and its numerous successor technologies will have made English the world’s dominant language. This altered cultural mix will inevitably have a profound impact on the make-up of the English Catholic Church’s congregations.

Before the Church of England files its final accounts, a number of its medieval cathedrals, churches, universities, schools and other pre-Tudor institutions will return to the Catholic faith that built them. Others will be entrusted to independent denominations, while a large number will simply be secularised and snapped up by property developers. By 2115, no one will raise an eyebrow at a church address being a domestic residence.

Another consequence of the Church of England putting up the shutters will be its de facto disestablishment from the Crown, leading to the repeal of the laws forbidding the monarch or monarch’s consort from being Catholic. There will almost certainly have been a Catholic monarch or consort by 2115.

Thanks to its unprecedented speed of advance, by 2115 technology will have evolved beyond anything in science fiction. Computer and communication systems will be routinely embedded in human bodies for all manner of social, commercial and medical activities. Around us, advances in artificial intelligence will have created major roles for robots of equal or greater intelligence then humans, and they will fill multiple functions across civilian and military life.

With equally seismic leaps in genetic and medical sciences, there will also be the opportunity to implant nanobots into people, and even fuse – perhaps interbreed – humans with robotic technology. All of these advances will raise new and profound moral and ethical issues, which religious thinkers will need to engage with.

By 2115, the priesthood will have undergone its most radical change since the high Middle Ages, and priests will be married. This will not be the result of any profound theological readjustment, but a necessary application of the Darwinian mandate to Adapt or Die. (Darwin did not write that the fittest survive; he stated that survivors are those most able to adapt to change.)

The imperative for married priests is clear, as the biggest threat to the survival of the Catholic Church in the coming century will be the under-supply of priests. Given that the insistence on clerical celibacy has already been relaxed for certain categories (for example, married ex-Church of England priests) and for certain churches in communion with Rome, the exception will become the norm, and permission will inevitably be extended universally.

Every century’s clothes look different. Casual wear regularly becomes the formal dress of a subsequent generation. Many clerics, monks and nuns have already abandoned identifiable day-to-day religious clothing. By 2115, it will have gone. Liturgical vestments alone will remain.

More broadly, at a popular level, the media’s preoccupation with presenting a binary choice of “science or religion” will have passed. Historically, in most cultures, the search for knowledge of the physical world and the hunt for existential meaning have been compatible activities. For every Dawkins, Nye or Fry, there are many lovers of science and technology who have room for spiritual enquiry.

The sheer number and quality of the Church’s scientists should already have answered any questions about the compatibility between science and Catholicism. World famous examples include Canon Nicolaus Copernicus, who posited in 1543 that the sun, not the earth, is the centre of the solar system; Fr Gregor Mendel (1822–84), the founder of genetics; Mgr George Lemaître, the physics professor who proposed the Big Bang theory in 1927; and the Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, who won the prestigious Carl Sagan Medal for Excellence in Public Communication in Planetary Science in 2014 for using radio shows (including the BBC) to explain astrophysics. There is also the small matter of the current Pope having a titulo in chemistry, and having formerly worked as an industrial chemist.

By 2115, as the world – and the Church – become more scientific, the science versus religion debate will have burnt itself out for all except the most fundamentalist Protestant creationists.

But long before 2115, a casualty of science and technology will be the pivotal role of the homily as the primary medium for sharing spiritual thought. It is already outdated: a medieval form of mass communication in a world in which millions now interact on screens, where pictures, animations and stories offer far more potent channels of communication.

It may feel that 2115 is a long way off, but it will come around quickly. Some of the children coming into the world today will see it.

The final theme, which encompasses them all, is change. History shows that the Church has changed many times. The liturgy was once in Greek. In the Roman and early medieval periods, monks did not seek ordination and priests were regularly married (as were several popes). The papacy once controlled a state and an army. Requirements concerning Penance and receiving the Eucharist have been modified multiple times. In 1966, Pope Paul VI abolished the Index Librorum Prohibitorum after 400 years. Before Vatican II, the celebrant faced east. And so on. While remaining true to its beliefs, teachings and traditions, the Church will inevitably continue to evolve its practices and messages in the lead-up to 2115. Failure to do so would be both unnatural and terminal.

The Church has never had a pope who understands so well the need to look outward and engage with the issues affecting the whole of humanity. It will be this type of focus that will position the Catholic Church to survive in a 2115 world in which the epicentre of Christianity will be in Africa not Europe, and in which Christianity’s values – the bedrock of Western society – will need to offer a vital vision of tolerance, compassion and human dignity. With its unique history and vibrant future, the Catholic Church in England is well placed to play a major role.

Dominic Selwood is an historian, author and barrister. Visit dominicselwood.com

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (28/8/15).

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