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Culture, Its Delights and Distractions: Looking at Catholic Culture From the Parking Lot

By Deal W. Hudson
January 16th, 2014
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Since John Paul II there has been much discussion of "evangelizing the culture" and for Catholics to become more "evangelical" in their witness to the world.  Those Catholics who describe themselves as evangelical or are doing evangelism, often look and sound to my ears anyway, like Protestant Evangelicals with a slightly different vocabulary. To my eyes and ears, there have been few examples of a genuine integration of evangelical zeal with Catholic piety; rather, Southern Evangelicalism has been laid over the Catholic faith like peanut butter over stale bread.  That's not enough!

WASHINGTON,DC (Catholic Online) - Since John Paul II there has been much discussion of "evangelizing the culture" and for Catholics to become more "evangelical" in their witness to the world.  Those Catholics who describe themselves as evangelical or are doing evangelism, often look and sound to my ears anyway, like Protestant Evangelicals with a slightly different vocabulary. To my eyes and ears, there have been few examples of a genuine integration of evangelical zeal with Catholic piety; rather, Southern Evangelicalism has been laid over the Catholic faith like peanut butter over stale bread.  That's not enough!

I don't mean to say that Catholics have failed the culture without exception. My initial impressions of Pope Francis suggest he may become our exemplary Cath-olic evangelist! But until we see Catholics develop their own evangelical message and style - think of what Archbishop Fulton Sheen did for his generation - Catholics will never have the impact on the culture proportionate to their numbers. By comparison to our Evangelical brethren, the Catholic presence in today's culture falls far short of its potential.

I've been a Catholic thirty years, since 1983. During that time I've tried to serve the Church in a variety of ways, from teaching and writing, to magazine publishing, radio, television, and political participation. The experience of doing this work has been rewarding but also disappointing.  In my conversion memoir, An American Conversion: One Man's Search for Truth and Beauty in a Time of Crisis (Crossroad 2003),  I described the freedom I had discovered in becoming a Catholic, that is, the encouragement I felt to use my gifts to engage the totality of the culture.

A small but fairly recent example -- a weekly radio show of mine on the Guadalupe Radio Network (1160 AM WMET) was canceled for including "inappropriate content," pages that I had read verbatim from my conversion memoir. The objectionable passage was about the great French Catholic writer Julian Green who I identified as a homosexual. As a result, I was then accused of promoting my own homosexual desire on Catholic radio. My wife and friends got quite a belly laugh over that one! But it's an example of a pervasive attitude among some of those who consider themselves to be Evangelical Catholics: They are on the defensive against the culture, rather than evangelizing through it.

Where does this defensiveness come from, this deep fear of being "infected" by anything that is not clearly branded "Catholic" and "orthodox?" Does the pervasive culture deserve this? Yes, but in the same way all cultures going back to Moses and the Golden Calf need to be scrutinized critically. If you read history closely you will find that the evils of our age - particularly abortion - are equaled, and usually surpassed, by the dominant cultures of earlier ages. Think of the days, not so long ago actually, when the Catholics and Protestants of Europe used their theological differences as an excuse to loot, plunder, rape, burn, torture, and kill each other for hundreds of years.

One factor creating these defensive and fearful attitudes is a lack of education, not merely of history, but of the rich traditions of Catholic art, music, literature, philosophy, and other works of reason and of the imagination. As I have said before, apologetics is not enough, we need cultural apologetics to be taught as well.

Along with the fearful defensiveness of some Evangelical Catholics, is something you will never meet in a Protestant Evangelical, grim dutifulness. This lack of vitality pervades our parish life, though there are many notable exceptions (so don't write to me about yours)!

What I mean is this: If you went back and forth between Evangelical Protestant and Catholic communities, as I often do as part of my work, one thing stands out in stark contrast -- the individual Evangelical Protestant church is more dynamic, more unified, more committed to sharing its faith, more hopeful about impacting the culture by its witness.

You don't see Evangelicals backing into parking spaces to make a quick getaway after Mass; you don't see them quick-stepping, head down into the church or ignoring everyone around them; you don't see them leaving as quickly as possible after their "obligation" has been fulfilled.  You see a community; you see friends who have gotten to know each other through the church, many of whom are making plans to spend time together outside church services.

My wife, Theresa, who is also a convert, has commented to me many times, "Catholics make it so difficult to be Catholic."  She was referring to the deadness of the liturgies, the lack of welcome, expressions of gratitude, the underlying attitude of "you're required to come to Mass or you're in mortal sin and consigned to hell." (Let me emphasize, once again, there are exceptions).

I've had this discussion with Catholic lay leaders and clergy many times in different parts of the country.  Never have I encountered more than a mild protest -- most of the time there is general agreement with the need for parish life to undergo a change in kind, not in degree. In other words, a fundamental conversion that will involve the bishop, chancery staff, clergy, religious, and most of all, the laity.

An example of someone who has integrated his Catholic faith with Evangelicalism is the prolific Matthew Kelly whose books and appearances have deservedly gained a national following. An Australian, and an excellent golfer by the way, Kelly is the kind of model of Catholic evangelization that is both distinctive and effective. But this needs to find its way into the parishes and take root there.

I will return to this theme often as we make our way through the integration and interconnections of our Church and the culture. I hope that one outcome of this series will be a richer and more effective form of Catholic evangelism, one that does not begin in a defensive posture but a posture based upon these words of our Lord, "Come unto me all ye who are weak and heavy laden, I and will give you rest."

Summary

1. The impact of Evangelicals on American culture, especially in politics, appears far greater than that of Catholics who far outnumber them.

2. Some Evangelical Catholics often sound like Protestant Evangelicals, both in tone and diction -- few Catholics evangelize in a distinctively Catholic manner.

3. If Catholics want to evangelize they should start with the parishes, with the vitality and beauty of the liturgy.

Deal W. Hudson, Ph.D

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Deal W. Hudson is president of the Morley Institute of Church and Culture, Senior Editor at Catholic Online, and former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.This column and subsequent contributions are an excerpt from a forthcoming book. Dr. Hudson's new radio show, Church and Culture, will begin broadcasting in February on the Ave Maria Radio Network.

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