“Specialized, Ecclesial Ideography: the “New Evangelization” in the Catholic Church” appeared this month in the Michigan Academician. Authored by one of our contributors, Mike McCallion, and Benjamin Bennett-Carpenter, the paper considers the “new evangelization” movement called for by recent Catholic papal authorities in light of recent sociological and rhetorical theory. A topic that has continued to spark lively discussion and debate on our blog, the “new evangelization” refers to efforts to revive religious belief among baptized Christians and non-Christians alike, particularly in Europe and North America, who have become alienated from religious faith.
Principally, Bennett-Carpenter and McCallion’s paper argue that the “new evangelization” operates as a kind of specialized, ecclesial “ideograph” specific to internal Catholic relations. But its analysis invites continued and extensive application for analyzing other ideographs in culture, they suggest. After providing some context for the ideograph as a concept, which Michael McGee defines as a summarizing term that galvanizes people in their discourse about certain courses of action, even when they have diverse or conflicting agendas, the authors consider international, national and diocesan sources of the “new evangelization.” Therein, they convincingly point to the term’s plasticity and ability to unify diverse clerical and lay leaders in the Catholic church, which they present as a “heterogeneous organization that responds in both progressive and conservative manners to various socio-political contexts.” In this way, the authors convince one that their ideographic analysis bears implications beyond Catholic, intra-ecclesial relations, and that “further work on ideographs could elaborate on differences within [specialized] contexts, perhaps drawing on ethnographic studies not only of ecclesial or other cultural contexts but also within professional and scientific contexts.”
Benjamin-Carpenter and McCallion’s continuing research on the New Evangelization (NE) is perceptive, as they continue to explore its impact through the disciplines of sociology, ethnographic studies, rhetorical theory and religious studies. For me, a key question emerging from this latest research stems from the authors suggestion that several, even contradictory, ethical formation models coexist in “new evangelization” discourse. Importantly, their previous research on “Contested Rhetorics in the Catholic New Evangelization Movement” highlights ways in which the rhetoric (and strategic position) of Catholic leaders animated by the Second Vatican Council, whom they refer to in shorthand as “Vatican II Catholics,” is being marginalized by the rise of “New Evangelization Catholics.” This begs the question: If NE rhetoric models differs sharply from a Vatican II Catholic rhetoric, and if the latter is closely linked with ethical formation models that are politically progressive, social justice-oriented, and draw heavily on Catholic social encyclicals and liberation theology, as in my experience they frequently are and do, are these ethical formation models being marginalized within current “new evangelization” planning and policy? In other words, can an ideographs such as “new evangelization” serve to sharply differentiate and even heighten polarization among some ideologically divergent groups (of “traditional” and “progressive” Catholics) even as it unites other seemingly groups (of “traditional” and “progressive” Catholics). Perhaps ideographic analysis both within and without the Catholic “new evangelization” context should include consideration of this secondary effect of ideographs, even in spite of their plasticity of meaning, namely, the marginalization of particular groups that fall outside such an identity-defining term, those whose convictions lie just beyond the threshold of “moderately conflicting ideas” which can be advanced under that rhetoric.
In sum, the authors of “Specialized, Ecclesial Ideography” spark needed dialogue and highlight the importance of ideographic analysis for the sociological study of religion and for theological and religious studies as well. Importantly, one must ask whether the “new evangelization” heightens or mediates ideological tensions and moral polarization among today’s Catholic communities, tensions considered in-depth in Mary Ellen Konieczny’s just-published comparative ethnographic analysis of two Catholic parishes entitled The Spirit’s Tether. Readers of the Catholic Conversation can expect further information about this new book in the coming weeks.