Liberal, conservative, progressive, traditionalist: Where is the Church going? The answer, according to John Allen in his post-World Youth Day reflections, is that the Church is going evangelical.
‘Evangelical Catholicism’ is his preferred term to capture our 21st century struggles over Catholic identity, where the political categories of left and right, progressive and conservative, simply don’t make sense any more (if they ever did).
Let me quote a large chunk. It’s well worth reflecting on. He writes:
I define Evangelical Catholicism in terms of three pillars:
- A strong defense of traditional Catholic identity, meaning attachment to classic markers of Catholic thought (doctrinal orthodoxy) and Catholic practice (liturgical tradition, devotional life, and authority).
- Robust public proclamation of Catholic teaching, with the accent on Catholicism’s mission ad extra, transforming the culture in light of the Gospel, rather than ad intra, on internal church reform.
- Faith seen as a matter of personal choice rather than cultural inheritance, which among other things implies that in a highly secular culture, Catholic identity can never be taken for granted. It always has to be proven, defended, and made manifest.
I consciously use the term “Evangelical” to capture all this rather than “conservative,” even though I recognize that many people experience what I’ve just sketched as a conservative impulse. Fundamentally, however, it’s about something else: the hunger for identity in a fragmented world.
Historically speaking, Evangelical Catholicism isn’t really “conservative,” because there’s precious little cultural Catholicism these days left to conserve. For the same reason, it’s not traditionalist, even though it places a premium upon tradition. If liberals want to dialogue with post-modernity, Evangelicals want to convert it – but neither seeks a return to a status quo ante. Many Evangelical Catholics actually welcome secularization, because it forces religion to be a conscious choice rather than a passive inheritance. As the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris, the dictionary definition of an Evangelical Catholic, once put it, “We’re really at the dawn of Christianity.”
Paradoxically, this eagerness to pitch orthodox Catholicism as the most satisfying entrée on the post-modern spiritual smorgasbord, using the tools and tactics of a media-saturated global village, makes Evangelical Catholicism both traditional and contemporary all at once.
Evangelical from the Bottom Up
“Evangelical Catholicism” has been the dominant force at the policy-setting level of the Catholic church since the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978. If you want to understand Catholic officialdom today — why decisions are being made the way they are in the Vatican, or in the U.S. bishops’ conference, or in an ever-increasing number of dioceses — this is easily the most important trend to wrap your mind around.
You’ll get Evangelical Catholicism badly wrong, however, if you think of it exclusively as a top-down movement. There’s also a strong bottom-up component, which is most palpable among a certain segment of the younger Catholic population.
We’re not talking about the broad mass of twenty- and thirty-something Catholics, who are all over the map in terms of beliefs and values. Instead, we’re talking about that inner core of actively practicing young Catholics who are most likely to discern a vocation to the priesthood or religious life, most likely to enroll in graduate programs of theology, and most likely to pursue a career in the church as a lay person — youth ministers, parish life coordinators, liturgical ministers, diocesan officials, and so on. In that sub-segment of today’s younger Catholic population, there’s an Evangelical energy so thick you can cut it with a knife.
Needless to say, the groups I’ve just described constitute the church’s future leadership.
Once upon a time, the idea that the younger generation of intensely committed Catholics was more “conservative” belonged to the realm of anecdotal impressions. By now, it’s an iron-clad empirical certainty.
Case in point: A 2009 study carried out by Georgetown’s Center of Applied Research in the Apostolate, and sponsored by the National Religious Vocations Conference, found a marked contrast between new members of religious orders in the United States today (the “millennial generation”) and the old guard. In general, younger religious, both men and women, are more likely to prize fidelity to the church and to pick a religious order on the basis of its reputation for fidelity; they’re more interested in wearing the habit, and in traditional modes of spiritual and liturgical expression; and they’re much more positively inclined toward authority.
To gauge which way the winds are blowing, consider women’s orders. The study found that among those which belong to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, considered the more “liberal” umbrella group, just one percent have at least ten new members; among those which belong to the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, seen as the more “conservative” group, a robust 28 percent have at least ten new members.
For the most part, it’s a mistake to diagnose this trend in ideological terms, as if it’s about the politics of left vs. right. For today’s younger Catholics, it’s more a matter of generational experience. They didn’t grow up in a stuffy, all-controlling church, so they’re not rebelling against it. Instead, they’re rebelling against a rootless secular world, making them eager to embrace clear markers of identity and sources of meaning.
Among youth, Evangelical Catholicism usually becomes ideological only if the older generation paints them into a corner, demanding that they choose sides in the church’s internal battles. That tendency, alas, seems equally pronounced on the left and the right.
Most of this fits with my experience of the Church over recent years. What do you think?
Perhaps this also gives one interpretative key to the recent introduction of the new translation of the Mass, and the promotion of Friday abstinence – to see them not as victories for the ‘conservatives’ but as concrete manifestations of this evangelical impulse within the Catholic Church today.