Leadership, Embarrassment and the ‘New Evangelization’
“Fifty years after the Second Vatican Council revolutionized life inside the Roman Catholic Church, hundreds of bishops from around the world are gathered in Rome to confront an external threat: a mounting tide of secularization,” begins a recent Religion News Service piece from Rome that details the upcoming Synod on the “New Evangelization.” Since Pope Benedict XVI’s now-famous declaration of concern for the so-called “dictatorship of relativism,” in 2005, Church leaders have ramped up their anti-secular and anti-releativism rhetoric in various ways.
Such, I presume, is the case with the Synod on the “New Evangelization.” On the one hand, there is something rather innocuous and even laudable about a campaign to (a) reinvigorate people’s faith lives in terms of religious affectivity, personal and communal practices, and liturgical engagement; and (b) use new technology to express and discuss the faith in our contemporary age. These, it would seem, are the presenting themes of this “movement.” The USCCB’s website introduces the “New Evangelization” this way:
The New Evangelization calls each of us to deepen our faith, believe in the Gospel message and go forth to proclaim the Gospel. The focus of the New Evangelization calls all Catholics to be evangelized and then go forth to evangelize. In a special way, the New Evangelization is focused on ‘re-proposing’ the Gospel to those who have experienced a crisis of faith.Pope Benedict XVI called for the re-proposing of the Gospel “to those regions awaiting the first evangelization and to those regions where the roots of Christianity are deep but who have experienced a serious crisis of faith due to secularization.” The New Evangelization invites each Catholic to renew their relationship with Jesus Christ and his Church.
Yet, on the other hand, the way that bishops like Washington’s Cardinal Wuerl have been talking about the Synod lately suggests something a little less optimistic and a lot more adversarial. The RNS article continues:
In a wide-ranging speech aimed at setting the tone for the bishops’ discussion, Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl called on Christians to “overcome the syndrome of embarrassment” about their faith with a more assertive offense against the “tsunami of secular influence” that is sweeping away “marriage, family, the concept of the common good and objective right and wrong.”
“Overcome the syndrome of embarrassment’ about their faith”? I don’t think so.
As a faithful member of the Church — as a member of a religious order and a priest, to boot — I can say that there is no sense of embarrassment about our faith on my end. The doctrine of the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the true sacramental presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the continued activity of the Holy Spirit in the world, and all of our Creedal and doctrinal claims — concerning these, I, for one, am not embarrassed by any aspect of our faith!
My sense of the matter is that most Catholics (and Christians more broadly) are not embarrassed by their faith. But instead, I and so many others might be embarrassed about other aspects of our faith community, particularly the actions and priorities of many of the faith community’s leaders. Another point of embarrassment might be the perceived atrophy of certain leaders’ notion of “faith” to such an extent that, at least in some places in the United States, “faith” is equated with “sexual moral issues;” For, far too often, these are the only subjects about which many leaders will speak in the public square.
It will be difficult, I suspect, to find a self-identified Catholic who is embarrassed by Christianity’s claim that Jesus Christ is homousious (one-in-being, or “consubstantial”) with God the Father. But it doesn’t take much imagination to think about a self-identified Catholic who is embarrassed by bishops in various States campaigning against the rights of some US Citizens, engaging in the most divisive partisan politics, and ostensibly criticizing women religious for their care for the poor, marginalized, and forgotten in our society.
If this Synod on the “New Evangelization” is indeed an opportunity for the Church’s leaders to learn more about how to “speak the language” of today in terms of technology and culture in order to live up to the Second Vatican Council’s call to be open to the world in the spirit of Gaudium et Spes, then awesome!
But, if this is yet another attempt to “batten down the hatches” and put up walls against “the world,” in rather clear opposition to the teachings of the great Council whose anniversary of opening we are soon celebrating, then I think we have a serious problem on our hands.
What leads me to be cautious about the “New Evangelization” as its being discussed in Rome this week that lead to news reports which, in part, read:
Catholic leaders in the U.S. and Europe are also worried about a perceived rise of “aggressive” secularism, which they say wants to curtail the church’s role in the public sphere and reduce faith to a private exercise.
Qualifications like “aggressive” suggests an adversarial disposition, which threatens to re-inscribe the divisive “us-vs.-them” mentality of the pre-Vatican II church.
I am cautiously looking forward to what will come out of this Synod by way of statements, documents, and proposed actions. Will this be a chance for Church leaders to redirect a rather poor understanding and engagement with the broader human family and international cultures toward a stance of openness and encounter? Or will this be a rally to support Catholic isolationism, ecclesial partisan division, and ‘tests’ of who is and who is not “authentically Catholic?”
It will be interesting to see what happens.
UPDATE: The XIII Ordinary Session of the Synod of Bishops will be held in Rome October 7-28 on the theme, “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.” The Emerging Theologians Network, in partnership with the International Catholic Movement for Intellectual and Cultural Affairs (ICMICA-Pax Romana), is collecting blog posts on the synod’s theme here.