New Scholarship: Contested Rhetorics in the New Evangelization Movement

“Individualism and Community as Contested Rhetorics in the Catholic New Evangelization Movement” appeared this month in the Review of Religious Research.  Authored by one of our contributors, Mike McCallion, and Benjamin Bennett-Carpenter and David Maines, the paper explores growing tensions between “New Evangelization Catholics” and “Vatican II Catholics” in ministry leadership in the Archdiocese of Detroit (AOD). Below is my brief summary of the article:

McCallion et al. undertook a two-year project in the AOD to investigate the New Evangelization (NE), an intra-ecclesial movement that “seeks to bring about renewed commitment among Catholics toward their faith as well as encourage non-members to join the church.”  Field data was collected over two years at NE meetings, workshops, and classes at three AOD sites: the archdiocesan central services, the archdiocesan seminary, and two parishes (considered as one site).  The authors attended various functions at each of the three sites, such as NE workshops hosted by the archdiocesan central services, courses at Sacred Heart Seminary in their Licentiate in Sacred Theology program in the New Evangelization (NE STL degree), and activities with parish NE committees.

Analyzing rhetoric advanced formally, in AOD NE training materials, speeches and publications, and informally, in interviews with attendees and observation of “behind the scenes” talk among ministry professionals, palpable tensions surfaced whenever NE professionals disseminated their message.  While it found a receptive audience among some attendees, others responded with indifference or vehement opposition.  The authors explain these tensions by theorizing two competing, ideal ‘types’ of ministers in the AOD (and presumably in the wider Church):  “New Evangelization Catholics and “Vatican II Catholics.” Resistance to NE rhetoric tended to come from Vatican II Catholics, that is, pastors, DREs, professors, and lay leaders who received their theological orientation from the Second Vatican Council rather than from the NE movement.  Comparing the rhetoric of NE and Vatican II Catholics, the authors suggest that the competing rhetoric of NE and Vatican II ministry professionals offers a new, uniquely Catholic example of the long-standing American debate on the relative merits of individual versus community value priorities.

For the purpose of this summary, I will highlight just a few of the ideological contrasts which the authors identify, though the paper offers dozens of examples of NE and Vatican II rhetoric that revealed ideological differences. In general, NE rhetoric tended toward “evangelistic, intra-community focused, personalistic language,” with special emphasis on “having a personal relationship with Jesus” or “one’s individual encounter with Christ.”   Strongly influenced by the writings of Pope John Paul II, who articulated and inspired the NE movement in the early 1990s, NE Catholics consistently underscored the primary role of “individual conversion” in the life of faith, though through conversion “persons find themselves caught up in the divine life as found in the church’s sacraments and devotional prayers.”  Vatican II Catholics reacted negatively to this NE emphasis on “having a personal relationship with Jesus” and what they saw as the deemphasizing of the communal dimension of the Church as “the People of God.”  Vatican II Catholics frequently stressed the role of liturgy, the activity of the “Community of Believers,” and the Catholic social justice tradition and were wary of the NE prioritization of the religious and spiritual state of the individual over the activity of the parish community.

McCallion et al. describe that what is at stake in the AOD and elsewhere is not simply the supplanting of one type of rhetoric with another.  Insofar as the New Evangelization is “a thoroughgoing effort to reconstitute the primary social dynamics both inside and outside of the Catholic Church within global society, what is occurring is the distinguishing of who’s side one is on with reference to this effort. As the authors describe, one can “feel the battle lines being drawn.”  Vatican II types, once “key ecclesial agents of change” in the post-Vatican II era, are now being “edged out” of this role by NE types, and the contested rhetorics highlighted in this article are a key means of symbolic differentiation.  Nonetheless, the authors suggest that, like so many “intramural conflicts” in her history, this may “prove functional for the Catholic Church in creating new work, a new sense of purpose and mission, and new rhetorical devices through which activity and institutional conduct are given meaning.”


One thought on “New Scholarship: Contested Rhetorics in the New Evangelization Movement

  1. Spirituality is necessarily relational – relationship based. And all relationships that endure require at least implicit rules for conduct, expectations from the mutual parties, and hence, take on a religious hue or tone. You can’t have a religion-less spirituality or a spirituality-less religion.

    So with respect to the various groups of Catholics who identify themselves as either Pope John Paul II Catholics or “Vatican II” Catholics, one needs to probe into who it is that these people love and are in a relationship with?

    Do we love Jesus and all his friends (including the Pope, bishops, angels and saints, fellow believers…) or do we love some vague class of “folk like us”?

    Jesus and all his friends are specific, actionable realities. They have names, histories, specific doctrinal and inter-personal content that challenges our personal response.

    But a vague class allegiance to “folk like us” is necessarily nebulous and shifting as we ourselves – our tastes, fads, tendencies and proclivities are moving targets.

    If both sides focus on their love for Jesus then I trust they will eventually get over their differences with each other in light of this common love for the common person. But if instead their mutual core allegiance is not to the Person of Our Lord and the specific content of His Revelation but is rather to their mutual class camps of “folk like us” then how could they ever bridge their gaps?