Reform rollback or emerging ‘sane modernity’ – Evangelical Catholicism triumphant, Vatican watcher states
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (National Catholic Reporter) – 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.
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 Father 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.
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, ...
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