"Practices and expectations that belong to an idea of 'Christendom' that is for practical purposes anachronistic make the assimilation of new members coming from a new and different world effectively impossible." So wrote the 20th-century Dominican theologian who was so influential at Vatican II, Yves Congar (1904-1995), some 65 years ago in his still relevant classic True and False Reform in the Church.
Of course, Congar's concern was hardly new. Isaac Hecker (1819-1888), who founded the Paulist Fathers 157 years ago this month, was preoccupied with how to convert America to Catholicism by presenting Catholicism to an American audience in as accessible and as un-foreign seeming a manner as possible. For Hecker, the Church's potential "new members coming from a new and different world" were Americans, predominantly "Yankee" in culture, socialized in the mores of democratic republican citizenship. Ultimately, Hecker's and Congar's concern was one that itself goes all the way back to the Acts of the Apostles and the controversies that culminated in Acts 15 in the Council of Jerusalem. In Acts, the Church's potential "new members coming from a new and different world" were Gentiles, socialized in the mores of Hellenistic paganism." It was the success of that initial effort that providentially made it possible for a small Jewish sect to grow into a multi-cultural world religion.
The common thread through all these arguments and authors is precisely the evangelizing imperative to assimilate "new members coming from a new and different world." Evangelization is, after all, a Blessed Pope Paul VI famously proclaimed in Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) the essential mission of the Church.
The challenge, of course, is to discern what, at any time and place in the Church's historical journey, belongs to an anachronistic superstructure that needs to be rethought and reformed in order to assimilate those "new members coming from a new and different world." That, in turn, presupposes appreciating what constitutes that "new and different world." To reach out, for example, to today's "nones," an evangelizing Church must come to comprehend their world, such as it is, with all its proverbial joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 1).
Of course, the wider world may well determine for itself what "practices and expectations" it deems anachronistic remnants of an idea "Christendom" it is in the process of replacing.
In some respects, some of what constitutes the so-called "culture wars" in contemporary Western societies (especially in the United States) may be about what social and legal "practices and expectations" are remnants of an older "Christendom" that no longer corresponds to contemporary cultural understanding of society and law - and about how the Church adapts itself to the loss of those once widely agreed upon "practices and expectations." It would seem that the perennial evangelizing imperative to facilitate "the assimilation of new members coming from a new and different world" should dictate the substance and style of that response.
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