Monday, September 5, 2011

John Allen on WYD and "Evangelical Catholicism"


John Allen is a widely respected journalist on all things Catholic. This is part of a column he wrote about World Youth Day, or more generally, young people in the Catholic Church. It seems to be generating a lot of buzz. What do you think?

Defining Evangelical Catholicism

“Evangelical Catholicism” is a term being used to capture the Catholic version of a 21st century politics of identity, reflecting the long-term historical transition in the West from Christianity as a culture-shaping majority to Christianity as a subculture, albeit a large and influential one. I define Evangelical Catholicism in terms of 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.

I consciously use the term “Evangelical” to capture all this rather than “conservative,” even though I recognize that many people experience what I’ve just sketched as a conservative impulse. Fundamentally, however, it’s about something else: the hunger for identity in a fragmented world.

Historically speaking, Evangelical Catholicism isn’t really “conservative,” because there’s precious little cultural Catholicism these days left to conserve. For the same reason, it’s not traditionalist, even though it places a premium upon tradition. If liberals want to dialogue with post-modernity, Evangelicals want to convert it – but neither seeks a return to a status quo ante. Many Evangelical Catholics actually welcome secularization, because it forces religion to be a conscious choice rather than a passive inheritance. As the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris, the dictionary definition of an Evangelical Catholic, once put it, “We’re really at the dawn of Christianity.”

Paradoxically, this eagerness to pitch orthodox Catholicism as the most satisfying entrée on the post-modern spiritual smorgasbord, using the tools and tactics of a media-saturated global village, makes Evangelical Catholicism both traditional and contemporary all at once.


In that sense, World Youth Day is the premier reminder of a fundamental truth about Catholicism in the early 21st century. Given the double whammy of Evangelical Catholicism as both the idée fixe of the church’s leadership class, and a driving force among the inner core of younger believers, it’s destined to shape the culture of the church (especially in the global north, i.e., Europe and the United States) for the foreseeable future. One can debate its merits, but not its staying power.

In the real world, the contest for the Catholic future is therefore not between the Evangelicals and some other group -- say, liberal reformers. It’s inside the Evangelical movement, between an open and optimistic wing committed to “Affirmative Orthodoxy,” i.e., emphasizing what the church affirms rather than what it condemns, and a more defensive cohort committed to waging cultural war.
How that tension shakes out among today’s crop of church leaders will be interesting to follow, but perhaps even more decisive will be which instinct prevails among the hundreds of thousands of young Catholics in Spain this week, and the Evangelical generation they represent.

That’s the big picture in Madrid, whatever the individual brush strokes end up looking like.

There is a lot to think about here. What do you think of the term "evangelical Catholicism"? Do you think Allen is right in his characterization of WYD, young devoted Catholics, and the rest of the world? What about his forecast for the future?

Read the whole piece and discuss!