Evangelical Catholics: The Future of the Church

The indefatigable John Allen’s latest column examines the trend of “evangelical Catholicism” in the Church. He makes a number of points about this movement, which he describes as “a strong reassertion of traditional Catholic identity coupled with an impulse to express that identity in the public realm.”

Perhaps most notably, and counter to the prevailing narrative, he points out that

there’s a tendency in some circles to see evangelical Catholicism, with its strong emphasis on hierarchical authority and traditional doctrine, as a “top-down” project intended to bolster the sagging power of the clerical caste. No doubt, such political calculations can be part of the picture, but sociologists such as Roy confirm that the evangelical wave has much deeper roots in widespread social forces, and is thus a “bottom-up” force too. The hunger for a “thick” sense of Catholic distinctiveness among some Catholic young people these days, basically unsolicited by anyone in authority (and at times seen by church authorities with ambivalence), makes the point.

I’m surprised that this would surprise anyone. While I know a number of younger priests who fit the definition of “evangelical Catholic,” I see them as largely having arisen from the movement as opposed to instigating it. Just this week I was talking to a priest who grew up as a Baptist. One of the things he was looking for when he (re-)joined the Church was a solid foundation on which to base his faith — something he didn’t think his Baptist church, which often fragmented when a new pastor was hired, afforded him.

That this should be true for the laity — even absent any prodding from the clergy — really shouldn’t surprise us. When I have conversations with other catechetical leaders the talk often turns to the so-called “lost generations” who received incomplete catechesis in their parishes. It is only natural that, lacking a solid foundation of understanding in their faith, they should be drawn to a more robust and (to borrow a phrase) “caffeinated” Christianity.

The challenge for the Church, I believe, is to welcome evangelical Catholics and create space for their energy to act as leaven in the Church. They are the heir-apparent of the Boomers and the future movers and shakers in the Church (indeed, they are already making their presence known in many organizations). Coupled with their deft use of social media and other communication technologies, anyone who dismisses their efforts will soon find themselves left in the dust as evangelical Catholics create their own structures to carry out their work in the Church.