Saturday, August 20, 2011

John Allen on Evangelical Catholicism and World Youth Day: Tradition, Devotion, Authority

It's fascinating to try to follow the mental gymnastics, when Vatican cheerleader John Allen writes about "evangelical Catholicism."  He's on that topic again as World Youth Day occurs in Madrid.

Allen defines "evangelical Catholicism" by reference to 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. 
And he claims that, though evangelical Catholicism emanates from the "policy-setting level of the Catholic Church," in fact, directly from John Paul II, it's strongly a "bottom-up" phenomenon in the church: it's bubbling up spontaneously from younger Catholics energized by the vision of Catholic identity enshrined in evangelical Catholicism.  Finally, it's all about evangelizing, about asserting Catholic identity in a culture with waning room for that identity, in a way that makes what Catholicism has to offer attractive to the mainstream culture. 

Where to begin, in identifying precisely what's wrong with this picture?  First of all, I'm struck by its definition of authentic Catholic thought as marked by doctrinal orthodoxy, and authentic Catholic practice as marked by liturgical tradition, devotional life, and authority.  Foolish me, but I'd have somehow expected the word "love" to figure somewhere in that equation of what constitutes authentic Catholicism.

Instead, we get . . . authority?!  Something's drastically wrong with this picture.  Something's drastically wrong when we substitute authority for love in our definition of what makes a person a practicing, bona fide Catholic.

And when we try to equate that authority-centered definition of Catholic identity with evangelizing.  Perhaps those of us raised in evangelical Christian traditions, as I was, since I was raised Southern Baptist, have a certain advantage here.  Evangelizing, after all, was what we did.  It was how we defined our identity.

One of the constant points drilled into evangelical Christians throughout their upbringing is the centrality of being rather than doing.  "Be ye doers of the Word and not hearers only," I was told over and over again in Sunday School, as I grew up.  In fact, the verse was turned into a little song that we sang each Sunday in Sunday School, just before we processed over to church singing, "I was glad when they said unto me, 'Let us go unto the house of the Lord.'"

Do.  Don't say.  Obedience to external authority won't get you to the evangelical goal you want to reach.  Doing the Word of God in your daily life, through your actions: that's what will get you there, and will convince the world around you that you have something worth their consideration.

This was the lesson constantly given me as a child growing up in an evangelical Christian milieu.  The task of evangelizing, of preaching the evangelion, the good news of God's redemptive presence in the world through Christ, is first and foremost a task of living the good news, and not talking about it.  It has little or nothing to do with adherence to the dictates of an external authority figure, and everything to do with walking in the footsteps of a Christ who, you believe, lives inside you once you accept his grace.

And it has everything in the world to do with love, since "God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life."  If there was any other scripture verse branded on our young evangelical consciences as I grew up in the Baptist tradition, it was John 3:16.

It's about love.  It's about God's love for the world, and the love that Christians must demonstrate through their actions and lives to proclaim that message of love to a world that needs to hear it.  Being doers of the Word and not hearers only meant, we were told over and over again, loving.  Loving in a way that preaches the gospel without words to those around us.  (And so I was deeply drawn, when I became Catholic, to Francis of Assisi's formulation of Catholic identity as, "Preach the gospel at all times.  Use words only when necessary.")

The second point I'd like to make about John Allen's definition of evangelical Catholicism, then, is that it's not evangelical at all, to the extent that he is describing (and prescribing) a sectarian movement within the Catholic church that is quite deliberately weeding out lukewarm (read: authority-questioning) Catholics and turning its back on mainstream society.

You don't evangelize effectively by setting yourself apart.  You don't evangelize effectively by setting yourself apart from brother and sister Catholics against whom you have defined yourselves as authentic Catholics in a way that diminishes the catholicity of those fellow Catholics.  In an unloving way that diminishes the catholicity of those fellow Catholics and makes you authentically Catholic at their expense . . . . 

And you don't effectively reach the mainstream by setting yourself over against and apart from it, as if you alone own the truth and God and the means of salvation.  You effectively evangelize mainstream culture by living within it, by understanding it and what makes it tick, by engaging in creative dialogue with it.  

What John Allen is describing as evangelical, among younger Catholics, is anything but evangelical.  It's a carefully massaged top-down movement that is all about asserting the direct authority of church officials over a tiny, countercultural segment of a generation of Catholics that, in increasing numbers, call that authority into question for valid reasons.  And it's about redefining authentic Catholicism as obediential more than anything else--as giving unquestioning loyalty to church leaders simply because they are church leaders.

It's about making an external authority source the validating principle of true Catholic identity, the basis by which one distinguishes real Catholics from the shoddy common lot who have given up authentic Catholic identity by asking questions.  It's about substituting an external authority source for what actually drives evangelical identity in any authentic understanding of evangelical values I've ever seen: and this is set of internalized values that issue in behavior which exhibits the presence of the Spirit of Christ inside a believer.

Above all, it's about creating a tightly controlled, set-apart sect of true believers at war with the world (and with fellow Catholics identified as targets, as enemies who refuse to accept these reductionistic definitions of what it means to be Catholic).  Calling this impulse evangelical is not only spectacularly wrong, since it has little or nothing to do with embodying the love of Christ in the world in a dialogic, respectful encounter with the world: it's misleading in the extreme. 

It's downright false.

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