Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A Response to John Allen re: "Evangelical Catholicism" among Catholic Youth


One of the privileges (or is the proper word “temptations”?) of having a blog of one’s own is that one can make a statement even when another blog chooses not to permit that statement to be heard.  Or when, perhaps, some glitch in the transmission of a response to a blog posting causes that response not to appear on the thread discussing that posting.

I don’t know which of the preceding two options explains the fact that a response I made to a recent article of John Allen’s at the National Catholic Reporter website failed to appear on the thread discussing the article.  For charity’s sake, I’ll assume that, even though the website confirmed that my comment did go through and would be considered for posting, something happened to prevent its transmission to NCR.

My comment was certainly not, to my way of thinking, either abusive or a personal attack on Mr. Allen.  It was an attempt to contribute to a discussion of an important issue about which he’s been writing—the rise of so-called “evangelical Catholicism,” particularly among younger Catholics.   Allen defines “evangelical Catholicism” as the reassertion of traditional Catholic identity with an impulse to express that identity publicly.

Mr. Allen begins his posting by noting that, in reporting about “evangelical Catholicism,” he’s being purely descriptive—he’s simply describing what’s undeniably there:

In The Future Church I identify “evangelical Catholicism” as a key trend, defined as a strong reassertion of traditional Catholic identity coupled with an impulse to express that identity in the public realm. At a purely descriptive level that claim is a no-brainer, because the evidence is crystal clear . . . .

With regard to younger Catholics, this trend to “evangelical Catholicism” is undeniably there, Mr. Allen proposes, because it’s arising from the ground up.  It’s not being imposed from the top.  It’s an expression of a hunger for a “thick” sense of Catholic identity arising among Catholic young people today without prompting from the top:

First, there’s a tendency in some circles to see evangelical Catholicism, with its strong emphasis on hierarchical authority and traditional doctrine, as a “top-down” project intended to bolster the sagging power of the clerical caste. No doubt, such political calculations can be part of the picture, but sociologists such as [Olivier] Roy confirm that the evangelical wave has much deeper roots in widespread social forces, and is thus a “bottom-up” force too. The hunger for a “thick” sense of Catholic distinctiveness among some Catholic young people these days, basically unsolicited by anyone in authority (and at times seen by church authorities with ambivalence), makes the point.

[B]asically unsolicited by anyone in authority: that’s where I have to part company with John Allen.  That’s the point about which I posted a comment.  And since my comment didn’t go through or was weeded out by whoever weeds comments at NCR’s blog sites, I want to make that comment now on my own blog.  What follows is a considerably expanded (and undoubtedly more pointed) version of what I tried to post in response to Mr. Allen at NCR.

In my view, it’s inaccurate if not disingenuous to say that the “thick” Catholicism, the reassertion of Catholic identity with a pronounced public presence, now manifesting itself among a select group of young Catholics worldwide is “basically unsolicited by anyone in authority.”

Pope John Paul II instituted the lavish, expensive, circus-like World Youth Day annual events (which Benedict has continued) precisely to solicit this “evangelical-cum-public” reassertion of Catholicism among Catholic youth.  John Paul II was an adroit actor who knew full well that the force of his personality could carry the day at such events, and that, through his charismatic appeal to Catholic youth, he could shape the consciousness of an entire generation of those youth.

And to his credit, he was very successful at reaching a certain slice of Catholic youth—precisely those who now represent the growing edge of what John Allen calls “evangelical Catholicism” among younger Catholics.  The top-down, well-planned strategy of soliciting that kind of Catholicism among younger Catholics has been successful, one may well conclude, if one disregards the much more significant proportion of younger Catholics who are quickly distancing themselves from the church because they do not buy into “evangelical” Catholicism.  (But how can one ever call a pastoral strategy successful in a catholic context when it shrugs its shoulders at the disappearance of large numbers of people from the midst of the community?)

I’ve written before on this blog about my considered judgment that John Allen embeds prescriptive journalism inside what purports to be descriptive journalism.  Under the guise of merely reporting what’s there, Mr. Allen often offers prescriptive analysis of matters Catholic, which instructs us on how things should be, as it describes how they presumably are.  

This is a point that has been made by other observers, as well—particularly re: John Allen’s book on Opus Dei, which informs readers that he is writing to set the record straight about a controversial movement, but which, in the view of many critics, leans over backwards to “describe” Opus Dei in a way that exonerates that organization of serious, credible charges made against it.  And which uses, for the most part, sources provided by that organization as Mr. Allen researched it, without balancing those sources with others from outside the organization’s governing circles . . . .

Despite Mr. Allen’s disclaimer, as he begins his recent article on “evangelical Catholicism,” that he is writing about this movement “at a purely descriptive level,” I suspect that something more is going on with his analysis of the inroads that “evangelical Catholicism” is making among Catholic youth: something precisely prescriptive.  The church we seem Mr. Allen describing here is one whose future he is grooming, and not merely reporting.

And I think the prescriptive game is given away with Allen’s observation that the rise of “evangelical Catholicism” among Catholic youth is “basically unsolicited by anyone in authority.”  Today’s younger Catholics have grown up in a world in which the restorationist agenda of Ratzinger and John Paul II was the dominant form of Catholicism they encountered, everywhere they turned during their formative years.  Today’s younger Catholics grew up in a period of strong, official, top-down reaction to Vatican II that has strongly shaped their understanding of what it means to be Catholic.

They have also grown up in cultures marked—particularly in the United States, but in Europe as well—by the dominance of neoconservative economic and political theories that have decisively shaped how religion and religious matters are treated in the mainstream media.  There has been an overweening mainstream media script (to which John Allen has himself contributed) throughout the lifetime of today’s younger Catholics about what constitutes “authentic” religion and “authentic” forms of Catholicism.

That media script has been largely inimical to progressive strands in various religious traditions, including the Catholic tradition.  It has acted as if being an authentic Catholic is more a matter of fidelity to magisterial teaching about, say, sexual morality or abortion than about capital punishment or economic justice.

It is no accident that today’s younger Catholics—that is, the minority of those who continue to listen to the magisterium—are trending “evangelical.”  And to deny the compelling, well-nigh irresistible political, economic, and ecclesial factors—from the top down—that have scripted this reaction among younger Catholics is disingenuous.