Presented with a strong challenge to one’s deepest convictions, three basic psychological possibilities present themselves: rejecting the challenge through a tenacious defense of those convictions; recognizing the merits of the challenge, and adjusting one’s ideas and behavior as a result; recognizing the merits of the challenge, and rearticulating one’s convictions in an effort to demonstrate that they satisfy the aspirations of the challenger better than the proposed alternatives.
Applied to the collision between Catholicism and modernity, one could say in extremely broad strokes that the first possibility dominated most of the 19th and early 20th centuries, with the Syllabus of Errors and the anti-modernist campaigns. It was a largely defensive reaction against secularism that still has echoes in influential circles of Catholic thought. The second possibility carried the day at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and has defined the project of Catholic liberalism ever since: the drive to reform the church to better reflect some of the core values of modernity, such as tolerance, pluralism, and democracy.
Much of church politics in the post-Vatican II era, again painting with a very broad brush, can be understood as a clash between these two impulses. To some extent, the third possibility has remained a path not taken, which is what makes the emerging outlines of Benedict’s magisterium especially intriguing.
– John L. Allen, “2007’s neglected story: Benedict XVI and ‘Affirmative Orthodoxy'” (January 3, 2008)
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.
There are worse ways to mark the passing of Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ, than by taking to heart these words from an unpublished interview by John Allen:
I began by explaining the gist of my project, which is to identify the most important forces shaping the future of the Catholic church over the next 100 years. Dulles did not hesitate to offer his candidate: “The internal solidification of Catholicism,” he said, a project that Dulles said began under Pope John Paul II and continues under Pope Benedict XVI.
I pressed Dulles to explain what he meant.
“Restoring clarity where there had been confusion in the period following the Second Vatican Council,” Dulles said. “Rebuilding a strong sense of Catholic identity, including a clear repudiation of the notion that church history can be divided into a ‘before’ and ‘after’ Vatican II. You can see this working itself out today in theology, in liturgy, in religious life ¦ both popes have emphasized the organic connection between the ‘now’ of the church and what came before.”
Read the whole interview. It is, as you would expect, very insightful.
The phrase was originally coined by John Allen to describe the particular theological trajectory of Pope Benedict XVI:
By “affirmative orthodoxy,” I mean a tenacious defense of the core elements of classic Catholic doctrine, but presented in a relentlessly positive key. Benedict appears convinced that the gap between the faith and contemporary secular culture, which Paul VI called “the drama of our time,” has its roots in Europe dating from the Reformation, the Wars of Religion, and the Enlightenment, with a resulting tendency to see Christianity as a largely negative system of prohibitions and controls. In effect, Benedict’s project is to reintroduce Christianity from the ground up, in terms of what it’s for rather than what it’s against.
This spirit of “affirmative orthodoxy” was clear in Benedict’s first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est, in which the pope laid out a philosophical and spiritual basis for the church’s teaching on human love. His encouragement for the International Theological Commission to set aside the hypothesis of limbo offers another example. Without softening the traditional teaching that Christ’s grace, normally mediated through baptism, remains essential for salvation, Benedict nevertheless put the accent on hope.
In the Holy Father’s own words:
Christianity, Catholicism, isn’t a collection of prohibitions: it’s a positive option. It’s very important that we look at it again because this idea has almost completely disappeared today. We’ve heard so much about what is not allowed that now it’s time to say: we have a positive idea to offer, that man and woman are made for each other, that the scale of sexuality, eros, agape, indicates the level of love and it’s in this way that marriage develops, first of all, as a joyful and blessing-filled encounter between a man and a woman, and then the family, that guarantees continuity among generations and through which generations are reconciled to each other and even cultures can meet. So, firstly it’s important to stress what we want. Secondly, we can also see why we don’t want something. I believe we need to see and reflect on the fact that it’s not a Catholic invention that man and woman are made for each other, so that humanity can go on living: all cultures know this. As far as abortion is concerned, it’s part of the fifth, not the sixth, commandment: “Thou shalt not kill!” We have to presume this is obvious and always stress that the human person begins in the mother’s womb and remains a human person until his or her last breath. The human person must always be respected as a human person. But all this is clearer if you say it first in a positive way.
Affirmative orthodoxy, then, is a particular way of approaching the Christian faith. Rather than being defensive or defining itself by what it isn’t, AO proposes that which is true and invites others to follow that truth in their lives. This starts with a recognition that this invitation is open to all — including (especially!) those who already follow Christ — in order that they may be made perfect, “just as [our] heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). In this way AO is connected to the New Evangelism preached by Pope John Paul II, which called for a renewed emphasis on transforming both individuals and cultures through the preaching of the Gospel.