There has been quite a discussion going on in other blogs about evangelism and Catholicism. I have been thinking I needed to bring them up, but have never quite gotten around to it. But now, reading a post from another blog, I see why. That last blog post is what's needed to wrap it up. Or maybe get it going again.
The discussion, as far as I can tell, started at Fr. Dwight Longenecker's blog. Fr. Dwight is a convert from Anglicanism (with an evangelical background before that) and a priest in the diocese of Charleston, SC. He is the author of several excellent books, of which my favorites are those that concern St. Benedict. He attended the Evangelical Catholicism conference in Wisconsin a week or so ago and blogged about it. Immediately, some of his commenters took exception to the whole concept, and the conversation - not always civil - went on from there. The salient posts are here and here.
It then spread, not surprisingly, to the Intentional Disciples blog, which is the blog of the Institute of St. Catherine of Siena, an apostolate dedicated to deepening the faith of lay Catholics and equipping them to be active, conscious disciples of Jesus in the world. Their pertinent posts are here and here.
Others have chimed in: Jay Anderson here, Catholic Mom here and perhaps inadvertently and perhaps not, at Insight Scoop, in an interview with Russel Shaw, the long-time journalist, observer of the Catholic scene, and co-author of Good News, Bad News: Evangelization, Conversion and the Crisis of Faith
There have been several tangents to the discussion, but the essence of it is this: Is an emphasis on "evangelism" as embodied in, say the Siena Institute, Evangelical Catholicism or any number of other lay apostolates really "Catholic?" Or is it just Protestant evangelicalism dressed up in Catholic clothes. For what reason, I can't really fathom.
The contention of critics in these comboxes seems to be that these efforts are not sufficiently Catholic in that they emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus in a way that is not organically connected to the Body of Christ. The Siena Institute folks have been defending themselves against this for a while, and repeatedly just ask people to go to their website and study their materials to see if that charge sticks. Which I don't think it does.
Another issue that pops up is that of "judgment." That is, the sense that those who are seeking to help renew Catholic life by means of this emphasis are planting division. That implied in their efforts is the assumption that the "real" Catholics are those who adopt the language, spirituality and sensibilities that perhaps characterize evangelical Protestantism, and those who choose a quieter, more traditional route of seeking holiness are somehow lesser or not as serious or "intentional."
This is a critique that is often leveled at any sub-movement within Catholicism, and always has, both in lay spirituality and religious orders. It is also a legitimate critique to keep in mind for anyone involved in any kind of movement or segment of the church - whether it is the clergy's attitude toward the laity, the laity's attitude toward the clergy, lay Franciscans, Opus Dei, Communion and LIberation, the Charismatic Movement, the Indult Mass goers, the Lifeteeners...whatever. This Catholic thing has forever been about embracing diversity, moving toward unity and always living humbly. Which can be hard when a certain movement has turned your life around. It is hard to see that not everyone else is necessarily into it, and that doesn't mean they're any less committed to Christ than you are.
I think the basic issue is this:
Does the catechesis, liturgy and spiritual life of 21st century Western Catholicism produce the fruit we would hope it would? With Catholics living in largely secular societies, Catholic "culture" no longer in existence, is Catholicism the vibrant face of Christ that it could be?
Of course, in one sense, the answer is both yes and no. Yes because it is what it is. In the present moment, Christ is present because this is the Church, this is the Body of Christ. And it there is no sense in pretending that before the present age, everything was great and everyone was really up on their faith and committed to living it fully. If that was the case, you could make a list of the things that would never have happened in human, not to mention Church history. So there's your no- because it is what it always has been. Which is not heaven.
I do think that the collapse of Catholic culture, the historical shape of Catholic spiritual life and the power of contemporary secular life are key here. When Catholic was essentially the only Christian game in town, in societies in which people tended to stay put for most of their lives, up to the 16th century, it all had more of a cosmic sense to it. It wasn't that there wasn't a need or an ideal of being "intentional disciples" - aka saints - it's that baptism was very much like being born, in that one was baptized into a total community of faith in which you could make your way, a community which was clearly made of saints and sinners of people at various stages of spiritual life. I am not sure if that makes sense. Perhaps Fr. Thompson can help me explain ...or at least tell me I'm wrong!
But now, we are on our own - not for the first time, either. Christianity was not born in a Christian culture. It was born in a culture which embodied values inimical to Christianity, and the gospel was truly radical. As it is today. But the difference seems to be - the culture has more power over us. Perhaps that is because society is not threatening to kill us or at the very least criminalize our faith. That does tend to clarify things.
Is there a problem? Of course. In a sense, it is the same problem that always has been. But it has a new twist in that this is a new landscape in every respect, and those involved with and committed to bringing this sense of intentionality and evangelicalism into contemporary Catholic awareness share the lineage of every spiritual renewal movement that has come along the pike, in that sense.
I think the question that concerns people, wrongly or rightly, is - is this emphasis (however you want to describe it) disconnected from traditional Catholic ways of seeking holiness? To them, it seems like what those involved are, in a sense, blaming traditional Catholic modes for the present problem, and suggesting a completely new way, heavily informed by evangelical Protestantism, that will correct the mistaken emphasis of traditional Catholicism.
I can't speak to that because I have no deep familiarity with it all, but I would imagine that those involved are constantly re-examining what they are doing and saying. Perhaps, if it's not been done, it might be helpful to bridge this gap by actually examing and appropriating some of the more traditional language of Catholic spirituality, a language that emphasizes "holiness" and calls us to be "saints." Emphasis on the corporeal and spiritual works of mercy - finding and serving Christ in the poor - as a primary mode of evanglization and discipleship. Making sure we're accepting of the real spiritual diversity that exists in Catholicism. And so on.
All of that is by very lengthy preview to today's required bloggage reading: this post by Fr. Jim Tucker, ordained a few years. He is actually reacting to the Braxton/confirmation story, but his post struck me as incredibly pertinent to that other discussion. In the post, he expresses great frustration with people's expectations of the sacramental life of the Church - what they bring to it, and what they take away. I'll let him finish us off, and then you can connect the dots:
It's great that people are asking for Sacraments. But what spiritual value does the Sacrament in question really have when one begins to realize that it's being sought for reasons that have next to nothing to do with faith in God and discipleship to Jesus Christ? Or when it's based on the most superficial understanding of what a Sacrament entails? When the rite of Baptism is an afterthought to the big party and family reunion, and the several thousand dollars one has spent on the reception hall? When parents don't understand why they should be expected to keep coming to Mass once their child has made his First Communion? When people who haven't been into a church in years make an appointment to get married, and make the point to tell you they really can't be bothered with Sunday Mass, that they don't know if they'll raise their children in the Faith, and really they need to pin down the date and where photographers are allowed to stand? When parents bring their kids to get confirmed "in case they want to get married in the Church later on"?
I've heard all of that, and I really find it harder and harder to be scandalized anymore. In all those cases, you sit down and calmly and cheerfully begin the work of catechesis, you try to make the connection between the Sacraments and faith in Christ, between the ritual they're seeking and the normal practice of religion that it's a part of. Once in a blue moon, you see a real turn-around and a positive change of attitude that lasts even after the Sacrament in question has been given. The opportunity for evangelization has paid off. Most often, though, you begin to suspect that the people are obediently jumping through the hoops and have resigned themselves to telling Father what he wants to hear. Then they get their Sacrament and disappear until the next time they want something. The others forget the whole thing when they realize it requires something personal of them, or they go find some other parish where they can get what they want with a nice little contribution and no questions asked. I have come to understand why so many people who work in the Church are cynics, why so many priests have opted for religion without content, and why so many fundamentalist Protestants accuse us of fostering a religion of faithless works and empty rituals.
This is not about whether or not someone is worthy. None of us is worthy of grace. That's the whole point of grace: Christ gives it freely before we can deserve it, and we are free to take it or leave it. What this is about is discipleship. To ask for the Church's Sacraments is a way of saying, "I want to follow Jesus. I want to receive His grace, through this particular Sacrament He has given to His Church. I accept Him and His law upon me. And I am determined to seek to follow His Word." How can I do that, if I don't know His Word? How can I do that, if I don't know His law? How can I do that, if I don't know Him? Or, knowing Him, if I don't particularly care to follow Him? By virtue of the Sacrament given, we know that grace is poured out by God, independent of the minister's worthiness (ex opere operato, as the theologians say). But the negative disposition of the recipient can prevent the grace from having an effect, and if that is done with malice or willful negligence, it entails the sin of sacrilege.
There was a time when faith and a basic knowledge of the contents of the Faith could be presumed, and we hammered the necessity of the Sacraments into people's heads, so much so that perhaps they became automatic assumptions and fixtures in the Catholic culture. I think what's happened is that as faith and knowledge of the Faith (the difficult, personally costly part) disintegrated over the past several decades, the rituals (the easy, pretty parts) have survived as lovely cultural objects to be desired in themselves, apart from any faith commitment or understanding of what's going on. If the Faith can't be restored on as widespread a level as before, is there really any point on insisting on such a widespread administration of the Sacraments?