The phrase new evangelization has entered the Catholic lexicon within the past dozen years or so. Despite a good intention, it has no traction and will soon be discarded. Well, it might catch on overseas, but in the United States it is a non-starter.
The first difficulty is the word evangelization. All Christians are expected to evangelize and a renewed emphasis on that privilege is timely. But in the U.S. the word itself is associated with a particular expression of Christianity and at this late date it cannot cross over into U.S. Catholicism.
The first Protestant denominations on our shores were European imports. They plateaued by about 1790. The growth denominations thereafter were Methodist and Baptist because their structure and style of worship were better suited to the less formal U.S. character. Their members and their clergy (including women) were not required to be highly educated or overly formal. The churches could be anywhere, not just in city central. It was not necessary to learn the entire history of Christianity; an individual’s commitment was primary. This movement, called evangelical Christianity, eventually influenced other denominations and significantly grew, even outside denominational categories. Today there are several branches and many twigs on the evangelical tree.
Ordinary U.S. Catholics associate the word evangelical with this specific Protestant movement, even if their contact with evangelicals is minimum. Catholics in the U.S. can learn from evangelicals. But Catholics are not evangelical, for good reasons. A U.S. Catholic—the regular worshiper or the infrequent worshiper—instinctually knows that he or she appropriates God’s revelation differently than evangelicals. The difference has to do with the manner of using Scripture, of looking at social issues, of becoming a Christian, of praying with others, of growing in faith and even of “going” to heaven.
The second difficulty is the word new. What is its implied contrast? What was the old evangelization? Did it succeed or fail? What’s different this time around?
The thrust behind new evangelization is the relationship between faith and society. The backdrop is the Enlightenment of the 18th century or what today is called secularism. Today’s reality, according to many Catholic leaders, is a public square (culture, politics and economics) that ignores religious values or, in some cases, is hostile to them. A hyper-secular environment makes it hard for young adults to retain faith, these leaders conclude. The young adult default frame of reference is an unnourishing relativism. To a significant degree this analysis is correct. But it is not new.
The old evangelization occurred in Western Europe from about 1900 to 1965. The 2005 platform of Pope Benedict XVI was a final project of the old evangelization. Many Catholic leaders judge the old evangelization a failure because the rate of worship among Western European Catholics is shockingly low. The history, however, is complex and includes positives.
The old evangelization got stuck on the tension between Catholicism’s desire to influence the changing world and yet Catholicism’s rejection of the modern world. Church leaders wanted faith to make a difference in business, labor relations, public policy, young adult life and more. But their model was, let’s say, too influenced by Christendom. In looking outward at society, Church leaders also looked back with a desire to somehow recreate what they imagined happened before the Enlightenment.
Vatican II (1962-1965), a watershed moment in Catholicism, put aside nostalgia for a time when clergy had direct access to the centers of political and cultural power and for a time when lay people took specific direction from clergy about their conduct on boards of directors, in legislative halls, union meetings, hospital settings and more. Vatican II did not thereby say that all features or overtones of modern life are beyond criticism. But the old evangelization that looked like a church militant gives way to dialogue. According to the Vatican II model, faith relates to society when competent lay people—individually and collectively--go about their normal routines inside their normal settings, all the while allergic to injustice and disposed to mercy.
Admittedly, implementation of Vatican II depends on people who know their faith and sincerely try to live it. A 21st century effort in the U.S. could focus on educating and supporting such lay people. But the new evangelization campaign is not that effort. The phrase doesn’t communicate. The other obstacle, among those U.S. Catholics who have heard of new evangelization, is its association with conservative funding and conservative topics. This impression may not be entirely accurate or fair. Yet even if a better phrase is found, an effective evangelization among U.S. Catholics, especially among young adults, cannot so much as hint of returning to the glory years of yesterday.
Droel edits a newsletter on faith and work for National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)