Evangelical Catholicism Redux
John Allen, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, has a very interesting article on evangelical Catholicism, which you can link to in the title above. He points out that the last two popes, along with many of the bishops they have appointed, are evangelical in outlook. "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."
Back in April Sherry posted on the "Evangelical nature of Catholicism" [http://blog.siena.org/2007/04/evangelical-nature-of-catholicism.html] and that post generated many, many comments, some of which denied the possibility of using the word "evangelical," and implying that to use it was to separate Christ from the Church, or "protestantize" Catholicism. What Sherry was arguing was that the mission of the Church is both the worship of God and the spreading of the Gospel. Unfortunately, I believe most Catholics have focused almost exclusively on the first and forgotten the second since the Council.
Allen goes on to write, "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."
Allen's article is interesting, but he may be failing to appreciate, I believe, a characteristic of a truly evangelical Catholicism. While, as Bebbington points out, Protestant Evangelicals may believe in "personal acceptance of Jesus as opposed to salvation through externals such as sacraments," that is not the case for Catholics. The evangelical thrust he's observing in the emphasis on authority, doctrine and the uniqueness of Jesus' sacrifice for our redemption within the Church also includes, I believe, a powerful commitment to the person of Jesus and a lived relationship with him.
For example, Allen mentions Pope Benedict XVI's recent book "Jesus of Nazareth" as coming from a concern for traditional Christology. That may be the case, but the book also flows from the Pope's reflection on the Scriptures and his relationship with his Lord. It is a product of prayer, as well as intellectual study.
Some may look upon Allen's description of evangelical elements in Catholicism as simply the triumph of a conservative agenda within the Church - and among those some will be dismayed, while others will be delighted. But I believe a true evangelical Catholicism - one which transcends the conservative or liberal label - is one which embraces the personal relationship with Jesus AND the sacraments. It embraces the authority of Christ over one's life, and is grateful for the guidance of Christ acting through the Church's magisterium. It is grateful for the offer of love and salvation that is given uniquely in Christ, and is willing to share that belief joyfully, patiently, and humbly with others - and is willing to incarnate that love as an instrument of Jesus, the Lord.
Pope Benedict XVI said in his first homily as Pope, "There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know him and to speak to others of our friendship with him." This is the heart of a truly Catholic faith. It is a heart surprised by an unmerited love, and desirous to share that love with others. It is a love which claims an authority over the beloved, who will accept no substitute for the Lover. It is evangelical - "Good News."