Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Triumph of Evangelical Catholicism

This is a long article, but well worth the read:


History always cuts deeper than headlines, a point that clearly applies to recent Vatican moves to dust off the old Latin Mass and to declare Catholicism the one true church. Beneath the upheaval triggered by those decisions lies a profound shift in the church’s geological plates, and perhaps the best way of describing the resulting earthquake is as the triumph of evangelical Catholicism.

Beginning with the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978, Catholicism has become a steadily more evangelical church -- uncompromising and unabashedly itself. Evangelical Catholicism today dominates the church’s leadership class, and it feeds on the energy of a strong grass-roots minority.

Proposing a Catholic counterpart to evangelical Protestantism may seem the ultimate in apples-and-oranges comparison, especially since some evangelicals would view being lumped in with the pope as tantamount to fighting words. Yet in a secularized, pluralistic world in which Christianity is no longer the air people breathe, Protestants and Catholics face the same crucial question: Should the relationship between church and culture be a two-way street, as most liberals say, with the church adjusting teachings and structures in light of the signs of the times? Or is the problem not so much a crisis of structures but a crisis of nerve, as most evangelicals believe, with the antidote being bold proclamation of timeless truths?

Liberal Catholicism enjoyed a heyday from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, and it’s not about to die off, overeager prophecies in some circles notwithstanding. During the last quarter-century, however, the evangelicals have won most of the fights in terms of official Catholic policy. Whether that’s a rollback on reform or the emergence of a “new, sane modernity,” as Pope Benedict XVI claims, is a matter for debate, but there’s no mistaking which way the winds are blowing.

Robust assertions

Released over three days in early July, the Vatican’s twin blows for traditional Catholic identity have produced both consternation and delight. The first document, a motu proprio, meaning an exercise of the pope’s legal authority, allows priests to celebrate the Latin Mass from before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) without permission of the local bishop, either privately or in public whenever a “stable group” of Catholics asks for it. The second, a brief declaration from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, addresses a phrase from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) that the church of Christ “subsists in” Catholicism. Many people thought it meant the true church cannot be identified with institutional Catholicism, and it was understood as a gesture of ecumenical openness. Now, however, the Vatican has ruled that “subsists in” means the true church “endures” in Catholicism alone, without denying that “elements” of the church can be found in other Christian bodies.

Viewing such robust assertions of tradition as an evangelical impulse has been around a while, even if few commentators have yet connected the dots in terms of the broad direction of the church. Among those who have spotted the direction are David O’Brien of the College of the Holy Cross, Deacon Keith Fournier in his 1990 book Evangelical Catholics, and William Portier of the University of Dayton. It is also implied in Evangelicals and Catholics Together, a project of former Nixon aide and prominent evangelical Charles Colson and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic convert from Lutheranism.

The evangelical impulse isn’t exactly “conservative,” because there’s little cultural Catholicism these days left to conserve. Instead, it’s a way of pitching classical Catholic faith and practice in the context of pluralism, making it modern and traditional all at once.

David Bebbington, a leading specialist on Protestant evangelicalism, defines that movement in terms of four commitments: the Bible alone as the touchstone of faith, Christ’s death on the cross as atonement for sin, personal acceptance of Jesus as opposed to salvation through externals such as sacraments, and strong missionary energies premised on the idea that salvation comes only from Christ. Clearly, some of these commitments mark areas of disagreement with Catholics rather than convergence.

Yet if these points are restated in terms of their broad underlying concerns, the evangelical agenda Bebbington describes pivots on three major issues: authority, the centrality of key doctrines, and Christian exclusivity. If so, there’s little doubt that Catholicism under John Paul II and Benedict XVI has become ever more boldly evangelical.

Accenting authority

Defending church authority was a core concern of the John Paul II years, reflected in struggles to define the limits of theological exploration, to curb the authority of national bishops’ conferences and to assert Rome’s oversight of liturgical practice. That effort shows no sign of letting up under Benedict XVI, who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger helped define the evangelical thrust of John Paul’s papacy. For example, among the new pope’s early moves was to drop the title “Patriarch of the West” as a way of insisting that papal authority is not just a phenomenon of the Western church but, at least in principle, is universal.

Two other illustrations, drawn from a potentially long list, make the point.

When Brazilian Franciscan Fr. Leonardo Boff was censured in 1985, it was seen as a blow against liberation theology, the controversial movement that took hold in Latin America beginning in the late 1960s and sought to place the church on the side of the poor. Sometimes forgotten is that it wasn’t Boff’s entire oeuvre that got him into trouble, but one 1981 book: Church: Charism and Power. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, led by Ratzinger, objected that the book put too much stress on a “church from below,” undercutting the “church from above,” meaning the hierarchy.

Concern for authority was also behind one of John Paul II’s most controversial documents, Ad Tuendam Fidem, issued in July 1998. It created penalties for dissent from “definitive teachings,” meaning teachings not part of divine revelation but seen as linked to revealed doctrines by logical necessity, and which have been taught consistently by the church over the centuries. At the time, Ratzinger offered several examples: the ban on women priests, the ban on euthanasia, and the immorality of prostitution and fornication.

To be clear, evangelical Catholicism isn’t fundamentalism. Benedict, after all, recently jettisoned limbo -- understood as the eternal resting place of unbaptized babies -- as a theological hypothesis that had outlived its usefulness. Yet just as Protestant evangelicals stay closely tethered to the Bible, evangelical Catholics strongly affirm the magisterium, meaning the church’s teaching authority.

Patrolling doctrinal borders

The day before his election as pope, Ratzinger asserted that the core challenge for the church today is a “dictatorship of relativism” in Western culture. Like their Protestant counterparts, Catholic evangelicals see the frontlines of this battle in terms of defending traditional teachings about the person and the saving significance of Jesus Christ.

A Magna Carta of this conviction came with a September 2000 document from the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation titled Dominus Iesus. It insisted that apart from any parallels to other prophets or religious sages, Jesus is the unique and lone savior of the world. Non-Christians are, objectively speaking, in a “gravely deficient situation.”

Recent Vatican censures all have involved writers on Christology. Three were Jesuits prominent in theological circles: Frs. Jacques Dupuis, a Belgian who spent almost three decades in India; Roger Haight, an American; and Jon Sobrino, a Basque who lives and writes in El Salvador. In each case, the Vatican wanted to limit claims that Christ and the Holy Spirit are active in non-Christian religions, or that the proof of doctrines about Christ is their capacity to build a better world rather than coherence with traditional formula. Concern for traditional Christology was also the motive for Benedict XVI’s first book as pope, Jesus of Nazareth, released in April 2007.

Catholics have long held to the adage lex ordandi, lex credendi, or “the rule of worship is the rule of faith,” so it’s no surprise that concern for doctrine has also translated into concern for traditional ways of worship. The “liturgy wars” that erupted in the mid-1990s, leading to translations of texts closer to the Latin originals, are an expression of the impulse; so, too, is recent approval for wider use of the pre-Vatican II Mass.

In a pluralistic age, faith has to be preached because most people no longer imbibe it from neighborhoods, schools or even families. John Paul II said he wanted to be the successor of Paul, the evangelist par excellence, as well as Peter, and his 104 foreign trips were proof of the point. Benedict’s willingness to put his views in a mass market book is, in a sense, an equally evangelical act.

An exclusive path

While evangelical Catholics believe in dialogue, they insist it can’t come at the expense of strong Catholic identity. The bottom line is unambiguous assertion that the visible, institutional Catholic church alone possesses the fullness of the church willed by Christ. That’s why Protestant bodies are called “ecclesial communities” rather than churches, and why the Orthodox churches can be “sisters” of local Catholic churches, but not of the universal Catholic church as such.

The Vatican’s declaration on the church in early July is a classic expression of this conviction, and like other elements of the evangelical Catholic outlook, it didn’t just drop from the sky. Nor does it reflect merely the personal musings of the current pope. Rather, it’s the product of a long incubation of evangelical thinking.

In 2005, German Jesuit Fr. Karl Becker, an influential consulter to the doctrinal congregation, published a front-page article in L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper. It argued that the phrase “subsists in” was intended “to reiterate that the church of Christ, with the fullness of the means instituted by Christ, perdures [continues, remains] forever in the Catholic church,” anticipating almost word-for-word the Vatican’s conclusion two years later.

Becker is an intellectual architect of the evangelical Catholic school, and his article drew on a dissertation written under him at Rome’s Gregorian University by a young German scholar named Alexandra von Teuffenbach, one of the first to draw on the diaries of Jesuit Fr. Sebastian Tromp, a theological expert at Vatican II. Tromp helped pioneer the term “subsists in.”
None of this means the Vatican is claiming that only Catholics can be saved. The congregation stated that other Christian bodies can be “instruments of salvation,” and there’s nothing in the document to roll back Vatican II’s teaching that non-Christians can also be saved “in ways known only to God.” Yet evangelical Catholics reject suggestions that all religions are equally valid; ultimately, they insist, salvation comes from Christ, and the church is the primary mediator of this salvation. This belief remains the basic motivation for missionary work.

The evangelical footprint

Thirty years of bishops’ appointments by John Paul II and Benedict XVI have ensured that a broadly evangelical outlook is shared by much of the church’s leadership. In a 2005 interview with NCR, Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, former president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, said that his generation accented Gaudium et Spes, the Vatican II document that called for Catholicism to embrace the “joys and hopes” of the modern world. Today, Fiorenza said, more bishops are drawn to Dei Verbum, the document on revelation, with emphasis on maintaining Catholic identity.

In the United States, evangelical Catholics may be a minority, but an undeniably dynamic one. Sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke published research in the mid-1990s suggesting that dioceses with a strong emphasis on traditional Catholic identity generate more priests. Comparing 10 dioceses identified by a cross section of experts as either “traditional” or “progressive,” they found that traditional dioceses outperformed progressive ones in terms of ordinations by a factor of about 3 to 1.

Anecdotally, one could cite multiple eruptions of evangelical Catholic energy, from the Communion and Liberation meetings in Rimini, Italy, which annually draw more than 700,000 Catholics committed to challenging secularism, to World Youth Day, an international Catholic youth festival centered on the pope that routinely draws crowds in excess of a million and is one part liturgy and one part rock ’n’ roll. The expansion of evangelical-tinged Catholic media and an ever-growing host of Catholic blogs reflect this trend, as does the proliferation of Catholic schools and colleges marked by evangelical fervor. Former Domino’s pizza magnate Tom Monaghan is building an entire Florida town, Ave Maria, that might be described as the world’s first planned evangelical Catholic community. In a 2004 Communio piece, Portier argued that a disproportionate share of undergraduate and graduate theology students and parish ministers are drawn from the evangelical camp.

Evangelicals may not drive other views out of the church anytime soon, but the impulse is clearly more than a top-down phenomenon radiating out from Rome.

With this one-two punch of grass-roots ferment and official support, the Vatican’s latest expressions of evangelical Catholicism feel less like the dying ripples of a wave that has already crested and more like harbingers of things to come.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, August 31, 2007 (


  1. Dear Father,

    **... strong emphasis on traditional Catholic identity generate more priests. Comparing 10 dioceses identified by a cross section of experts as either “traditional” or “progressive,” they found that traditional dioceses outperformed progressive ones in terms of ordinations by a factor of about 3 to 1.**

    Exactly! My beautiful old parish church is 1 block away. I love it for daily Mass but I drive 10 miles to get a Traditional Mass on Sunday as do tens of others.

    I'm moving to CT. and one of the places I had seriously considered was New Milford until I saw your Church. I was crushed when I saw it - it looked so Protestant the only way I could tell it was Catholic was by the name. Sad.



    PS: I've read a number of your postings but have yet to get an opinion. I'm guessing it's progressive as national catholic is anything but orthodox.

  2. >>PS: I've read a number of your postings but have yet to get an opinion. I'm guessing it's progressive as national catholic is anything but orthodox.

    Why the need to label me?