Two articles have appeared on the National Catholic Reporter’s web site both by my favourite ecclesiastical journalist John L. Allen Jnr:
The Triumph of Evangelical Catholicism
Liberal Catholicism endures in pastoral church
Take my advice and read both of them — back-to-back. This is Allen at his (literally) balanced best. You could see it as a bet both ways, but you need to remember who his audience is — writing for a more conservative audience might have produced a different approach. Nevertheless, as he himself would say, the role of the journalist isn’t to make the news but to report it as it is. And he does a fairly good job of that.
Assuming you have now taken the time to read these articles, there are a few comments I would like to make. (And for those of you who don’t know me, it should be fairly obvious that I self identify as an “Evangelical Catholic”).
My first comment is by way of the quibble.
The second, a brief declaration from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, addresses a phrase from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) that the church of Christ “subsists in” Catholicism. Many people thought it meant the true church cannot be identified with institutional Catholicism, and it was understood as a gesture of ecumenical openness. Now, however, the Vatican has ruled that “subsists in” means the true church “endures” in Catholicism alone, without denying that “elements” of the church can be found in other Christian bodies.
The “quibble” is that Allen consistently uses the word “Catholicism” as a synonym for the communion of Churches which is the “one holy Catholic Church” (ie. the Una Catholica). That will be a cause for misunderstanding if it is allowed to continue. “Catholicism” is usually used to describe that way of being Christian which is Western, Latin, and papal. In truth, the Una Catholica is the Church “governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him”. That is manifestly not quite the same thing as “Catholicism”. To put it bluntly, to say that “Catholicism” is “the Church” is not to use the word “Church” in the proper sense.
David Bebbington…defines [Evangelicalism] in terms of four commitments: the Bible alone as the touchstone of faith, Christ’s death on the cross as atonement for sin, personal acceptance of Jesus as opposed to salvation through externals such as sacraments, and strong missionary energies premised on the idea that salvation comes only from Christ. Clearly, some of these commitments mark areas of disagreement with Catholics rather than convergence.
Yet if these points are restated in terms of their broad underlying concerns, the evangelical agenda Bebbington describes pivots on three major issues: authority, the centrality of key doctrines, and Christian exclusivity. If so, there’s little doubt that Catholicism under John Paul II and Benedict XVI has become ever more boldly evangelical.
I wonder if we can’t analyse this even perhaps a little further. For instance, evangelical Catholics share a high regard for the Bible as Word of God with evangelical Protestants more than they do with liberal Catholics. Evangelical Catholics emphasise the atoning work of Christ present in the sacrifice of the mass. Evangelical Catholics emphasise the personal encounter with Christ in the sacraments. And, as the name would suggest, evangelical Catholics are strongly in favour of the call to the “New Evangelisation”. In other words, there are direct correspondents to each of the classic marks of evangelicalism.
To be clear, evangelical Catholicism isn’t fundamentalism… While evangelical Catholics believe in dialogue, they insist it can’t come at the expense of strong Catholic identity. The bottom line is unambiguous assertion that the visible, institutional Catholic church alone possesses the fullness of the church willed by Christ… None of this means the Vatican is claiming that only Catholics can be saved. The congregation stated that other Christian bodies can be “instruments of salvation,” and there’s nothing in the document to roll back Vatican II’s teaching that non-Christians can also be saved “in ways known only to God.” Yet evangelical Catholics reject suggestions that all religions are equally valid; ultimately, they insist, salvation comes from Christ, and the church is the primary mediator of this salvation. This belief remains the basic motivation for missionary work.
In all these statements, Allen hits the nail on the head.
In his second article, Allen asserts that
most sociologists say that complex religious institutions are likely to contain both and many others — only sects, they argue, have the luxury of rigid consistency.
again he is quite right. This is a sociological reason– rather than a theological reason–why it is hopeless, and in fact undesirable, to search for a “pure” church.
But the second article was a little too accepting of the claims of the liberal Catholics. He quotes Richard Gaillardetz as saying that
liberal Catholicism is less an ideology than a “pastoral phenomenon … alive in parishes that have a flourishing catechumenate, vibrant liturgies, thoughtful and relevant preaching, and multiple lay ministerial opportunities.”
I beg to point out, that these virtuous attributes are by no means lacking among evangelical Catholics. Evangelical Catholicism proposes and offers catechisation intentionally founded on the church’s teaching authority, liturgies vibrant with beauty and sacredness, and a strong emphasis on spiritual gifts, the lay apostolate and personal vocation.
The results of Dean Hoge’s research, cited by Allen, is questionable in value with regard to the attitudes of active, faithful lay Catholics, precisely because the “Catholics” he surveyed include (on his own evidence) 76% who believe that “one could be a good Catholic without going to mass on Sunday”. One assumes therefore that 76% of his survey total are not in mass every Sunday.
Allen cites “engaging social and political questions outside the church” as a “progressive cause”. We will have to wait and see if Pope Benedict is able to reclaim it as an “evangelical cause” in his upcoming encyclical.
The lecture Allen cites by Jesuit Father Thomas Reese is alarming if only for the reason that it considers schism as a possible “survival strategy for reform, minded Catholics”. And if “laying the intellectual foundations for change” is cited in support of the liberal cause, evangelicals too (with the help of the Pope) are hard at work on this.
Finally there is far more comfort for evangelicals than for liberals in Allen’s constant reminder that the future of the church quite likely belongs with charismatic Catholicism. Evangelical Catholics and charismatic Catholics have, as Allen notes, basic theological ground work in common. Liberal Catholics can take no solace at all in the rise of charismatic Catholicism.