The Social Dimension of the New Evangelization

socialI would like to thank Sarah Moran for her insightful blogs (3 of them) on “The Social Dimensions of Evangelization,” even though I am late in responding.  Stressing the social dimensions of Pope Francis’ thought in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium is important and timely.  In stressing a social dimension Pope Francis is not diverging from the thought of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but, he is “emphasizing” something different than they.  And it is not just an emphasis on the poor that makes Francis different; it is his systematic treatment of the “social” dimension, particularly as it relates to the poor.  Paragraph 57 of his exhortation is shockingly “social” in my estimation in arguing that what you and I have (money) is already the poor’s, it is not like we are giving them something of ours:  “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood.  It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.”

If that is not an anti-American, anti-capitalistic thought, I don’t know what is.  I often point out to students that if you think the American value of individualism is hogwash, just ask yourself what you do with your money?  Most Americans do not have a familial collective economy, for example, let alone an understanding that the money they do have really belongs to the common good (except perhaps some ethnic groups like the Chaldeans).  I remember my dad telling me I had to give one dollar a week to the house when I received my first paper route.  Immediately, on the spot, I remember responding, “why, it’s my money.”  Individualism was deep in my blood and bones by 12 years of age – and not just my blood and bones.  Some have argued that even new immigrants that come from strong communal backgrounds often succumb to the lure of the value of individualism after only a few years in this country.  As the late Robert Bellah said, Americans lack a social realism.

I rejoice in Pope Francis’ social realism, therefore, not only because I am a Catholic but also because I am a sociologist.  Indeed, Pope Francis, I humbly submit, would do well to draw on the work of sociologists to boost his social argument.  From Durkheim to Mauss to Randall Collins to Anne Warfield Rawls and Christian Smith, sociologists have argued that the whole is larger than the sum of its parts.  I as well as others therefore have viewed the sacramental system of the Catholic Church as a countercultural force in America in that all seven sacraments are communal to the core.  As Fr. Robert Taft recently wrote in the journal Worship (2013: vol. 87(5), p.3) “Contrary to what people often think, Eucharistic communion does not mean ‘my communion with Jesus’ but our communion with one another in Jesus” (his italics).  Catholicism has a powerful social dimension to its ecclesiology, liturgy, and, as Pope Francis argues, evangelization.

In that emphasis, however, Pope Francis’ social message is countercultural to many Catholics – even though Catholicism, more so than Protestantism, has long emphasized the social and communal dimensions of the gospel.  My colleague Ben Bennett-Carpenter and I have argued, as Sarah Moran noted in her blogs, that some Catholics associated with the New Evangelization stress an individualistic–and Protestant (it could be argued)–emphasis when discussing and advocating evangelization within the Church.  Again, I am speaking about a matter of emphasis, an emphasis I believe that matters.  New Evangelizers tend to stress the individualistic and personal whereas other types of Catholics stress the communal and social.  These categorical emphases are not mutually exclusive but they matter and have consequences.  One example of why this emphasis matters might be observed in discussions of the theology of salvation.  I am not a theologian, but I hear a good deal about the issue of salvation in relation to the New Evangelization, and I would argue that I mostly hear about salvation as individualistic and personal.  True enough.  But when I read Pope Francis’ exhortation I heard something different:  salvation has a powerful communal and social dimension.   As Pope Francis wrote:

The kerygma has a clear social content: at the very heart of the Gospel is life in community and engagement with others. The content of the first proclamation has an immediate moral implication centred on charity (177).  Our redemption has a social dimension because “God, in Christ, redeems not only the individual person, but also the social relations existing between men”. To believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in everyone means realizing that he seeks to penetrate every human situation and all social bonds: . . . . The very mystery of the Trinity reminds us that we have been created in the image of that divine communion, and so we cannot achieve fulfillment or salvation purely by our own efforts (178).

Again, these emphases are not mutually exclusive, but the ordinary person on the street knows there is something different about this Pope, and I think it has something to do with the Pope’s sociological sensibilities.  So I commend Sarah for drawing out the Pope’s social dimensions of evangelization – an emphasis needing greater attention in an American individualistic context.  In the end, therefore, I wonder how we can balance a personal relationship with Jesus (PRWJ) with a communal relationship with Jesus (CRWJ)?

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