Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"Evangelical Catholicism"

Some people just don’t seem to “get it” about World Youth Day. Some, for example, (some more ideologically motivated perhaps than others) like to point out that pilgrims to World Youth Day are not necessarily representative - in the intensity of their religious identification and commitment - of the majority their generation. Is that supposed to be a surprise? If so, why and to whom? When have intense religious identification and commitment marked the majority of that – or any other – generation? For most of history most people have practiced some form of religion – as indeed most people still do today in most of the world. In some instances, it may be primarily part of a tribal identity – what one observer has called “belonging but not believing.” For most people, I suspect, religion is much more than just an ethnic or cultural identity. It is an important part of life, but it is still but one part of life. And, as we all know, people vary in their differing priorities reflecting their different evaluations of relative rewards and benefits.
But among them are also those – in all religions and in all societies – for whom religious identification and commitment to a spiritual life (however defined in any given religion) are higher-than-average priorities. Those are the kinds of people who are attracted to religious activities above and beyond the minimum. They are the ones more involved in our parish activities. They are the ones most likely to consider a vocation to priesthood or religious life. They are also the ones who, as parents, are more likely to make the religious formation of their children a priority. They are not the whole Church Militant, by any means, but they are its standing army!
John Allen in his August 19 column “All Things Catholic,” made precisely that point regarding the participants in World Youth Day: “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.”
In an American context, “evangelical” is a highly synthetic term, laden with all sorts of distinctly American cultural baggage. What Allen (and others who employ the language of “Evangelical Catholicism") mean by it is both more universal in application and more precise in meaning. True to the root word evangelium, it means faithfulness to the Gospel message as it has been proclaimed in the Church, with a concurrent attachment to how that message has been incarnated both in the Church’s doctrine and in the Church’s worship life – as per the ancient dictum, lex orandi lex credendi (the law of worship is the law of belief). From this follows also a serious commitment to witnessing to the faith of the Church even in a less than accomodating world.
In his above-mentioned column, John Allen addresses what he calls “the contest for the Catholic future,” which will most certainly not be between today’s young Evangelical Catholics and an older generation of liberal reformers (however adamantly some of them try to hold on to their made-in-1968 alternative image of Church). Rather, the contest will be among Evangelical Catholics themselves, between what Allen calls “an open and optimistic wing” that emphasizes “what the church affirms rather than what it condemns,” and, on the other hand, “a more defensive cohort committed to waging cultural war.”
In a society increasingly polarized along political-ideological lines, Catholics – not least those engaged in ecclesial ministry or in religious life – experience that tension all the time. Like anything else, some people “get it” more than others. For example, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York hit the nail on the head during his August 17 World Youth Day catechetical session, when one Australian participant asked how to interact with those who may disagree with and live contrary to the Church’s teachings. The Archbishop’s response clearly portrayed the two competing approaches and which one we may infer is the more promising: "We can scream, we can yell, we can castigate, we can alienate, we can nag, and most of the time if we do that we lose," answered the Archbishop. "Or we can be gracious, patient, loving, understanding, persistent, welcoming. And most of the time when we do that, we're also going to lose. But less than the first one."

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