The New Evangelization and Its Institutionalization in the Catholic Church

I concluded my last blog on the New Evangelization (NE) noting that I believe parish NE committees are an indication of a larger process of the institutionalization of the NE in the Archdiocese of Detroit (AOD), even though only 35% of parishes currently have one.  I also concluded that if the Church wants its members to know about the NE then developing parish NE committees is an effective method for getting the word out. 

In summary, parish evangelization committees are effective and, moreover, they are basic indicators of a larger process of the institutionalization of the NE in the Catholic Church.  I would like to speculate further on this process of the institutionalization of the NE in the Catholic Church.

One means of growth for any given group or social movement, sociologically considered, are the institutional resources such as people, money, buildings, and leaders devoted to its purposes.  These are much more concrete indicators than just getting people emotionally charged-up about some reality, as important as this can be.  If the NE is to spread, the archdiocese and its parishes need to develop institutional infrastructure (resources) to support it, and I believe that they have.  The Archdiocese establishing an Office of Evangelization (and now a Department of Evangelization) staffed with professionals devoted to the implementation of the NE is one example of institutionalization  at the diocesan level.  Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit (SHMS) starting the first graduate degree program in the USA with a concentration in the NE in 2005 (an STL in the NE) is another.  And, as previously noted, at the parish level the development of evangelization committees is yet another example of institutionalization.  As I detail below, both qualitative and quantitative data suggests the beginning of a process of institutionalization of the NE at the archdiocesan and seminary levels alongside the parish level.

I believe that the beginning of a process of institutionalization has occurred.  I say “beginning” because of how sociologists view the process of institutionalization.  For example, the sociologist of religion Christian Smith has stated:

“The difference between a dependent subjective reality and a dependent objective reality is that the latter has become objective in human social life because it has been institutionalized.  By ‘institutionalized’ I mean that the beliefs have become shared and acted upon by a significant enough number of people that they

  • a) influence other beliefs in people’s larger belief sets,
  • b) mobilize sustaining material resources, and
  • c) create patterns of human mental and bodily practices and behaviors motivated or justified by the beliefs.

Institutionalization is a matter of degrees, not absolute binaries – things can be more or less institutionalized.  But institutionalization, when it does occur, changes the nature of the realities in question” (What is a Person, 2010: 186).

At this point in time, I believe there is a “low” degree of institutionalization of the NE because, for one thing, most parishes do not have evangelization committees.  Secondly, although I have witnessed revivification of faith within the parishes with evangelization committees, I am hesitant to say that the majority of parishioners have a new sense of their Catholic identity because of the NE.  I argue, a la Robert Wuthnow, that evangelization committees are operating within parishes as “special purpose groups” (important, but only to those involved) rather than influencing all dimensions of parish life.  It is important to remember that only 22.2 percent of respondents at the parish level said they had even heard of the NE.

But at the archdiocesan level, a more robust institutionalization process appears to be underway, primarily with the Office of Evangelization being raised to the status of a Department in 2009.  Sacred Heart Major Seminary has matriculated at least a dozen new ecclesial leaders in the NE via their STL graduate degree program (and Master’s level concentration in the NE) and another 45 are currently enrolled.  Finally, the archbishop has asked all AOD departments to engage in their ministries with the NE in mind.  A good example of this would be the AOD updated Parish, Vicariate and Archdiocesan Councils Handbook (2011) which stated (in writing and in diagram form) that the NE is at the center of parish life, and, therefore, should infuse all parish structures and ministries.  In terms of Smith’s criteria for “institutionalization,” criterion B has certainly occurred but criterions A and C need further research.

Criterion B, mobilize sustaining material resources, has occurred in that a whole new Department of Evangelization has been created along with the needed professional staff to run the department.  The STL degree program at SHMS, outlined earlier, is another confirmation that criterion B is being met.

On the other hand, criterion “A”, influencing beliefs in people’s larger belief set, is likely occurring because professionals are now saying (more regularly and with greater conviction) that the NE is the essential mission of the church.  Nevertheless, it should be noted, this has not generally occurred at the parish level and has not been systematically studied.

Finally, in a future post, I will explore more closely Criterion C–has created patterns of human mental and bodily practices and behaviors motivated or justified by the belief. 

While the future of the NE movement in the Catholic Church remains an open question, I suggest that the NE may be emerging as the solution to the question raised by the sociologist Michelle Dillon (2007) of how the charisma of Pope John Paul II might come to be institutionalized within the Catholic Church.

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