The issue at the heart of an Evangelical Catholic movement is not about whether Catholics believe their faith is "good news." Of course they do! The issue is their willingness, or lack of willingness, to share it. Those of us who have belonged at one time or another to a brand of Evangelical Protestantism know first hand that the disposition to share the faith, to witness, is considered an explicit obligation within that community. In other words, an Evangelical is someone who looks for and takes the opportunity to talk to others about the Christian faith in terms of morality, salvation, and final judgment. The long list of Catholics and Catholic institutions I listed earlier, held in common a commitment to give witness to their Catholic faith.
WASHINGTON,DC (Catholic Online) - George Weigel recently published a book extolling the need for Evangelical Catholicism. The fact is, however, that the movement he calls for has been evident in America for nearly a half century. Indeed, most of the new growth in the Church in these fifty states can be traced to various apostolates that have combined into a virtual coalition of Catholics who speak of their faith with a zeal markedly different from mainstream practicing Catholics.
As I chronicled in my 2008 book, Onward Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals (Simon and Schuster), a virtual coalition of Evangelical Catholics, or perhaps better called Catholics who evangelize, came into existence due to the leadership of John Cardinal O'Connor and John Paul II; the growth of the Catholic pro-life movement; the rise of Catholic homeschoolers; the amazing success of EWTN, led by Mother Angelica; the important Ignatius Press, founded by Rev. Joseph Fessio S.J., in 1978; the philanthropy of Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino's Pizza and who founded Legatus, a national network of Catholic business leaders; and the vitality of colleges like Christendom, founded in 1977 by Warren H. Carroll; Franciscan University, since 1978 under Rev. Mike Scanlan, TOR; St. Thomas Aquinas, founded in 1968 by Dr. Ronald McArthur; and the college and law school, both named Ave Maria, founded by Tom Monaghan.
These seeds of success were planted in previous decades by a large cast of characters and institutions, starting with Archbishop Fulton Sheen who was on TV for 14 years in the 50s and 60s. During that period, the University of Dallas was founded in 1956; L. Lyman Stebbins founded Catholics United for the Faith in 1968; this influence steadily rose to create publications like The Wanderer, Triumph, and the National Catholic Register. We saw stellar leadership from Catholic intellectuals, charismatics, activists, and Evangelicals like L. Brent Bozell, Rev. Paul Marx, Dr. John Willke, Phyllis Schlafly, Paul Weyrich, Patrick Frawley, Prof. Frederick Wilhelmsen, Prof. Dietrich von Hildebrand, Ralph Martin, and Deacon Keith Fournier, among others.
Deacon Fournier, the editor of Catholic Online, published a book in l990 entitled Evangelical Catholics, urging Catholics to embrace a form of "Christian Cooperation to penetrate the Darkness with the Light of the Gospel." Deacon Fournier had already been deeply involved with evangelical and charismatic Catholics for years, and as he has related to me, he got mixed reactions when he used the phrase Evangelical Catholic. He argues the adjective should characterize all Christians who have a living relationship with the Lord who is the Evangel, the Good News. They should desire to share that living faith in the Lord with others. However, Deacon Fournier told me that in spite of being Evangelical Catholics at the time, many of them rejected the use of the term.
Perhaps Weigel's book will help to make the notion of Catholics being "evangelical" more widely accepted and properly understood. We can only hope so because until now, as I discussed in an earlier column, calling yourself evangelical is one thing, and being effective is another.
The term "evangelical," of course, has a generic, theological meaning derived from Scripture, but it's the meaning attached to the figure of TV evangelists with well-worn Bibles raised aloft that has made Catholics wary of the word. The four gospel writers are known as the "Four Evangelists" based on the Greek term euangelion and the Latin Evangelium, both meaning one who brings, or literally proclaims, "good news."
But the issue at the heart of an Evangelical Catholic movement is not about whether Catholics believe their faith is "good news." Of course they do! The issue is their willingness, or lack of willingness, to share it. Those of us who have belonged at one time or another to a brand of Evangelical Protestantism know first hand that the disposition to share the faith, to witness, is considered an explicit obligation within that community. In other words, an Evangelical is someone who looks for and takes the opportunity to talk to others about the Christian faith in terms of morality, salvation, and final judgment. The long list of Catholics and Catholic institutions I listed earlier, held in common a commitment to give witness to their Catholic faith.
What makes witnessing so important to the Evangelical is that the "good news" is not merely a "better" way to live, to view the world, to understand politics, but rather demarcates those who live knowing the Truth about human existence and those who do not. Even more, knowing the Truth through faith unites a person with God in such a way that it bestows the power of Grace in this life and opens the gates to eternal happiness in heaven.
Even a casual observer of Catholic behavior will conclude that these attitudes, if held by Catholics, are rarely manifested and, if so, only in a fashion that copies Evangelicals. An authentically Catholic evangelical style has not been widely promulgated. Personally challenging the unchurched and unbelievers with the opportunity of belief is not a habit of mainstream Catholics.
For example, the average Catholic parish does nothing to welcome visitors, much less go to any lengths to check the spiritual temperature of its members. If there is any diocesan or parish version of systematic training in "sharing your faith," I am not familiar with it. Yes, there has been an valuable effort to mount a program calling inactive Catholics to "come home," but the evangelical attitude implicit in this message has yet to take root anywhere it did not already exist.
Most Catholics, I would venture, look upon their faith as something handed down from parents and grandparents, as a kind of patrimony or heritage, rather than a personal choice involving a commitment to the Absolute. Of course, the sacrament of confirmation is supposed to be that moment when "the whole man submits himself to Truth, in the judgment of his understanding, in the submission of his will, and in the consecration of his whole power of love..." From this perspective, the lukewarmness we observe in Catholic practice does not reflect well on the way this sacrament has been administered in the past fifty years.
Catholics become Evangelicals when they are convicted with the belief that everything depends upon it -- from the earthly happiness of themselves, their family, community, and nation, to the eternal destiny of themselves and others. All those individuals, organizations, and institutions I mentioned above, representing Evangelical Catholicism in the United States, view their faith as a matter of life and death. As such, it is not something that can go unmentioned or concealed, which would be tantamount to withholding the greatest gift one person can give to another. Until more Catholics are "converted" to view their faith not simply as a heritage, but as the Truth about human existence, Evangelical Catholicism will remain a small, though influential movement within the Church, and the culture will continue to lack a Catholic voice.
1. There is a historical thread of effective Catholic evangelization starting with Archbishop Fulton Sheen in the 50s through the creation of EWTN, the St. Ignatius Press, Legatus, and the founding, or revival, of various Catholic colleges and universities.
2. Those who call for a renewed evangelization among Catholics should study the success of the leaders and institutions who have spread the faith over the past 50 years.
3. In line with the experience of Deacon Keith Fournier, Catholics are wary of the term "Evangelical," and it may be that the best evangelization is done without calling it by name.
© Deal W. Hudson, Ph.D
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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