I have an awkward confession to make. When I hear American Catholics cheerlead the New Evangelization, I’m sorry to say, I become very skeptical very quickly. As they unpack their bold vision for evangelical reform, I start feeling a lot like Mugatu, who, in an exasperated breakdown at the end of the 2001 film Zoolander, famously exclaimed, “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!”
This is not to say that I am opposed to the New Evangelization as suchquite the contrary! I completely agree with Bishop Emeritus of Rome Benedict XVI that we must find ways of re-proposing the Gospel to an increasingly post-Christian Western world, “never being satisfied with the fact that from the grain of mustard seed, the great tree of the Universal Church grew[.]” What concerns me is simply the typical American unpacking of the New Evangelization programme.
The reason for my skepticismwhich, in my limited experience, I have found that most faithful Catholics my age shareis that the errors the New Evangelization is presented as addressing here in America seem to be precisely the opposite of the errors that the American Church is most at risk of giving into today.
Of course, no orthodox Catholic thinks the Church should be holed up within herself or reducible to rules or bureaucratized to the point of evangelical uselessness, just as no one thinks the Church should be neglectful of institutional upkeep or reducible to pop psychology or acculturated to the point of existential irrelevance. But the question we are left with is: Which side of the dialectic ought we to emphasize, given the probable abuses of the day?
Naturally, the correct answer here will be highly relative to specific times and places, and I can imagine few tasks more difficult than offering guidance to the universal Church on issues as particularized as these. But in interpreting and applying Evangelii Gaudium, for example, I wonder whether we American Catholics have not inadvertently misappropriated the right reactions for certain other peoples to our unanalogous situation at home, thereby fanning the flames of our own errors in the name of stamping out fires that are actually burning half a world away.
The history and present-day conditions of the Church in Latin America, for example, give our Holy Father good reason to caution those Christians against becoming “self-referential” and ritualistic. Friends in that part of the world assure me that, in their context, it is important for Pope Francis to remind priests that “the confessional must not be a torture chamber but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy which spurs us on to do our best.” However, in many respects our American hazards seem to lie at the other end of the spectrum. Our priests are far more likely to mistake their confessional for a shrink’s couch than a sadist’s dungeon.
From my admittedly limited vantage point, the gravest dangers for us seem to be not legalism but antinomianism, not intellectualism but sentimentalism, not scrupulosity but laxity, not despair but presumption, not all-out retreat but all-out assimilation, not pharisaic ritualism but anti-liturgical iconoclasm, not missionary timidity but evangelical over-hastiness, not self-referentialism but self-forgetfulness (and not the good kind), not stifling uniformity but disjointed miscellany, not clericalism but, for lack of a better word, laicism.
Unfortunately, the New Evangelization here in the United States is often presented in contrast only to the first half of each of these dichotomies, set off against those errors that I am arguing are least relevant to our own cultural circumstances. We hear that the Church is not just some monolithic administration but is rather a home for loving personal relationships. That is absolutely true, and no doubt we sometimes need the reminder. But from where I’m standing, it looks like the Church in America is actually doing pretty well when it comes to individual relationships of love and care. Where we seem far less secure is in tending to our common institutional foundations. Our characteristic error is not that of idolizing structure, but of overstressing emotion.
A similar pattern plays out in our interactions with those outside the Church. In contrast to the New Evangelizers’ emphasis, ours would seem to be not so much a failure to reach out to potential converts, as it would a failure to have cultivated any meaningful place to invite them into. We have more external missionary zeal than we know what to do with, but next to no internal monastic discipline. Most ardent Catholics I know devote far more time trying to convert the masses via Facebook debates, for example, than they devote plugging into the day-to-day lives of their parishes. This imbalance does not mean we should give up on outreachjust that we would do well to reread St. Matthew’s beam-splinter warning, first putting on our own mask before offering assistance.
In the same vein, it seems to me that we are doing far better at apologetics right now than at catechesis. Strikingly, our catechists these days often just use apologetics tracts as their textbooks for catechism class, giving the faithful mere leftovers of what was actually prepared for others who do not yet share our faith. It is as if we contemporary American Catholics take the patrimony for granted, forgetting that it must be constantly shored up against the erosion of history. Leaving the ninety-nine to search for the one is Biblical and laudable. But spending a lifetime playing hide-and-go-seek with the one while leaving the ninety-nine to their own devices? Not so much.
Needless to say, all of the above-mentioned errors on every side are present in the Church’s presentation to some degree, even close to home. And no doubt we are all to blame for some of these distortionsmyself very much included. But if the key question is where our greatest threat comes from today, then my contention is that many advocates for the New Evangelization in America have fatally misplaced their concern. I am afraid that too much of the rhetoric in the United States surrounding the New Evangelization has become a catering to the excesses of our day and place, under the pretenses of battling non-existent bad guys.
We live in an increasingly post-Christian Western world, which presents exceptional challenges for evangelization. Naturally, we must confront those challenges head-on, in order to fulfill our commission to go and make disciples of all nations. I am not second-guessing the New Evangelization because I want to dissuade enthusiastic proclaimers of the Gospel, but rather because I hope that, by taking a more careful look at our own obstacles and charting our course accordingly, we can make our evangelization that much more effective. What we need is not the abolition of the New Evangelization, but a recalibration. What we’re after, here as elsewhere, is an evangelization ever ancient, ever new.
Michael W. Hannon lives in New York City. He is in preparation to enter religious life with the Norbertines of St. Michael’s Abbey.