New Evangelization vs. Vatican II Rhetoric: A Response to New Research

Many thanks to Mike McCallion, Benjamin Bennet-Carpenter, and David Maines for their relevant research on the New Evangelization (NE).  The NE is a topic of special interest to me, having received much of my faith formation and education in the Archdiocese of Denver, an archdiocese that closely aligns itself with the NE mission.  This close alignment of missions is tangible throughout the diocese, most explicitly by the renaming of the center which houses the Archdiocese of Denver’s two seminaries and the majority of its offices to The John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization after the visit of the Pope John Paul II to Denver for World Youth Day in 1993.  The diocese’s website describes this center as being “on the frontlines of the Church’s modern ‘crusade’ for the ‘New Evangelization.”

In Denver, I interacted with several influential NE organizations, both formally, as an employee of one, and informally, through various archdiocesan events.  These organizations include the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) and the Augustine Institute, both founded and based in the archdiocese, as well as active communities representing many of the lay ecclesial movements which McCallion et al. describe as key NE agents, including the Neo-Catechumenal Way, Opus Dei, and Communion and Liberation.  To a large extent, my experience of the NE in Denver resonates with McCallion et al’s description that the “NE is a thoroughgoing effort to reconstitute the primary social dynamics both inside and outside the Catholic Church within global society.”  Yet when the authors present the conflicting rhetorics of NE and Vatican II ministry professionals in the Archdiocese of Detroit, much of my experience of NE professionals’ rhetoric differs.

McCallion et al. suggest that “both types of professionals are about renewing the Catholic Church, its members, and newcomers but from quite different perspectives: on the one hand, communal (the “Vatican II Catholic”) and, on the other hand, individualistic (the “NE Catholic”).  To be sure, I second the observation that NE Catholics see a critical link between sustainable evangelization and the individual’s experience of relationship with Jesus.  But when McCallion et al. identify such “distinctly evangelical Catholic rhetoric” as “a rhetoric that contrasts sharply with what is ordinarily thought of as traditional or cultural Catholicism,” insofar as it evinces similarities with contemporary Evangelical Protestant rhetoric, the authors seem to refer to the more recent Catholicism-communality, Protestantism-individualism stereotype in the American context.  Yet rhetoric emphasizing one’s “personal encounter with Christ” could be as much associated with (and many NE Catholics see their emphasis on such terms and concepts as) a retrieval of a longstanding and “traditional” emphasis on prayer and spirituality captured in Deus Caritas Est: “One doesn’t begin to be a Christian because of an ethical decision or a great idea, but rather because of an encounter with an event, with a Person, who gives new horizons to life, and with that, a decisive orientation.”  As I will note more later on, NE Catholics might add “because of an ethical decision or a great idea or a particular parish community” to the reasons one doesn’t “begin to be a Christian.”

In addition to questioning what McCallion et al. describe as “traditional” Catholicism, I found an essential set of phrases missing in their characterization of NE rhetoric.  The authors emphasize that the rhetoric of contemporary NE Catholics is primarily “evangelistic, intra-community, focused, personalistic, and retains sectarian overtones that highlight an individual’s relationship with “Jesus” rather than participation in society as “the People of God”” (295).  Yet just as often as I have detected personalistic rhetoric among NE professionals, I have heard them contextualize their ministry, the project of evangelization and their own faith commitments within “the Church.”  In my experience, NE Catholics’ reference to “the Church” is, in fact, even more ubiquitous than the use of personalistic language.

Is this term synonymous with Vatican II Catholics term “the People of God?”  I don’t think so.  In my experience, Vatican II Catholics use the term more often to describe smaller communities, such as the individual parish or diocese, rather than Catholics throughout the world under the guidance of the Pope and bishops, which NE use of the term “the Church” often denotes.  Nonetheless, much NE rhetoric evokes a sense of participation in the “life of the universal Church” and “fidelity to the Magisterium” in my experience.

In sum, NE rhetoric is probably as peppered with discussion of “the Church” as Vatican II rhetoric is to references to “the People of God.”  While in most cases, “the Church” prioritizes a global denotation while “the People of God” emphasizes one’s local community, in some cases, these terms refer to the same reality, as they do in the mission statement of FOCUS: “to know Christ Jesus, and to fulfill His great commission by first living and then
 communicating the fullness of life within the family of God, the Church.”Here we see the reiteration of “family of God” and “the Church” as synonymous referents.  Moreover, in addition to the sense of unity with the Church leadership emphasized in NE use of “the Church,” the term also references the extensive social network of the NE organizations which McCallion et al. describe.  In this sense, ”the Church” reinforces the NE commitment to the wider Catholic community or “the People of God” throughout the world.  This commitment is evidenced not only in NE rhetoric, but in the increasingly international influence of the lay organizations which promote it and in the NE support of practices such as the visitation of Catholic pilgrimage sites, international gatherings such as World Youth Day, and participation in worldwide leitmotifs such as the Year of Faith.  Support of such events highlights the NE emphasis on the collaboration and community in “the Church.”

Ironically, in my experience, much of the tension between NE and Vatican II Catholics actually turns on precisely the reverse characterization of that described by McCallion et al.: Whereas NE Catholics prioritize community and conformity to “the Church’s” official teaching and norms of worship, Vatican II Catholics hold up individual “freedom of conscience,” Catholic social teaching’s emphasis on the dignity and rights of the person, and parish variability in establishing norms of worship.  Some NE Catholics express concern that the Vatican II emphasis on the parish as “the People of God” and progressive interpretations of liturgical renewal after Vatican II loses sight of “traditional” and catholic dimensions of “the Church.”   Another example of the NE self-association with communalism, rather than individualism, is the NE Catholics’ critique that Vatican II Catholics’ alternative views on issues such as homosexuality and women priesthood place the primacy of individual opinion over the teachings of “the Church.”

Finally, McCallion et al. suggest that Vatican II Catholics’ rhetoric placed more emphasis on the sacraments and communal aspects of parish life than NE Catholics.  The authors note one Vatican II Catholic’s frustrated questioning, “What happened to the Mass?,” when listening to an NE presentation.  My experience of NE Catholics has been that “the Eucharist” and “the Mass” are seen as critical to promoting the aforementioned universality of “the Church.”  Rather than personal relationship w/ Christ vs. the Mass, perhaps the distinction here, much like “the People of God” versus “the Church” distinction, is in the two types’ differing understandings of what is most central about the Mass.  On this point, McCallion et al.’s individual vs. communal characterization bears much weight.  For many NE Catholics, the celebration of the Eucharist hinges on partaking of the body and blood, or “True Presence,” of Christ, which then nourishes the individual for service of “the Church” and “the world.”  For Vatican II Catholics, the essential core of the Mass is its gathering together of the “Community of Believers” around a common Eucharistic Table, and perhaps only secondarily the partaking of the “True Presence.”

This research on NE vs. Vatican II rhetoric is both insightful and pertinent to a plethora of ongoing discussions of the contemporary Catholic landscape.  I look forward to hearing from Mike and his colleagues.

1Interestingly, Curtis Martin, president of FOCUS, is one of only two Americans recently appointed to the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, with the other being Ralph Martin, the director of NE graduate programs at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, one of the three Archdiocese of Detroit sites where McCallion et al. gathered field data.

One thought on “New Evangelization vs. Vatican II Rhetoric: A Response to New Research

  1. Sarah thank you for you thoughtful critique. I wonder however, prior to your critique, whether there is some truth to their claims regarding a split. Rather than look at their categorization of the issue (as individual vs community – because you can turn it around and find aspects of either on both sides) I wonder about “style”.

    A few years ago I had the fortune to watch Martin Sheen deliver a prepared speech in the crypt of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in DC. My parents are his age and while they are republicans, he is doggedly democratic. But in both of them I saw a style, a way of being in the world that was just different. I was born in ’84 and only know a little about the prior 30 years in America. What isn’t conveyed in books was conveyed that night. There was so much charisma, activism, “I can change the world spirit”. My father, tho differing in politics, has very much that same style.

    Now I look at the generations after my father and Sheen. And I ask what is their style? What is ours? What I have learned about the life of the Church is that you learn your style from the teachers you have. Ideology is veiled in style, in approach. Every Catholic has a teacher, or many, so it is importnat then to get to the fundamentals and ascertain what is a Catholic education? What is Catholic life?

    Looking at styles helps, I think, to draw out similarities and differences far better than imposing two categories, individual and community, on people of any generation who always exceed categorization.