It is not uncommon among Catholics that we look to Evangelicals and, though deeply concerned about some of the theological stances, we admire the vibrancy of their communities. Some of their “megachurches” attract tens of thousands of worshippers. We see them as having a tradition of strong preaching and a good stance on the moral issues of our day. These communities attract many former Catholics who claim the strong, biblical preaching and sense of community and joy was what they found lacking in the Catholic Church. We also see them as attracting many young adults, both single and married, a thing we are struggling in the Catholic Church to do. At least, these are the perceptions.
But every now and then I happen upon a video or article that sheds light some of the struggles the Evangelicals have as well. And, as we look to them with an ocassional sneaking admiration for what we see, some of them look back at us with some admiration as well. Last week an article appeared at the Patheos Website written by David French, an Evangelical author entitled: As Evangelicals Falter, Catholics and Mormons Lead. I want to share some excerpts of the full article (which you can read here: Evangelicals Falter?), and focus particularly on what he says regarding Catholics. As self-critical as we can sometimes be, it is helpful also to know how others see us as strong. Pray God we actually have these strengths and will continue to see them build. The text of the original article is in bold, italic, black text. My comments are in normal text red.
For years I’ve traveled the country, speaking to thousands of evangelical students, and find myself—even in front of “activist” organizations—virtually pleading for a sliver of courage or a trace of commitment in support of life or marriage. In response, I get encouragement, good words, and all too often nothing else.[But], on January 23, 2011, I stood, overwhelmed, in front of almost 2,000 pro-life students. I was overwhelmed by their energy, by their commitment to defending the defenseless, and by their gracious and Godly spirit….It was different. Instead of inspiring, I was inspired. Rather than exhorting others to greater levels of engagement, I was admonished for my own compromises…..And this audience was largely Catholic, and the Catholic Church for almost forty years has been the beating heart of the American pro-life movement. [What a great testimony to those young people with whom he met. It is a great tribute also to the Catholic Church to be described as the beating heart of the pro-life movement. To God be the Glory. While it is true that among us there are debates about whether we focus enough on abortion, and how we can better manifest an even stronger protest and and commitment to fight it, it is also true that others see us as great and prophetic leaders in the pro-life cause.
In the past 15 years we have gotten clearer and bolder. The faithful have insisted that priests and bishops be bolder and unqualified in this matter. And the focused battle has (paradoxically) been a source of renewal for us. God can make a way out of no way. We are not as strong as we should be, but we are strong, and God has anointed us to this task: to be the beating heart of the American pro-life movement. All the more that we should avoid “heart disease” and stay as strong as others see us and be as strong as we know we grow to be.
There are, to be sure, dissenters, but they are fewer, and it’s getting harder and harder to be seen as a true Catholic if you support legal abortion. The faithful are insisting that bishops and priests draw the line in terms of disciplining pro-choice legislators who vote to fund abortion. While the debate continues about the prudential way to do this, it is clear the direction in which the Church is headed. Whatever ambiguity we may have sadly had in the past, it is giving way daily to a clearer stand].
As devout Catholics and faithful Mormons step forward boldly, evangelical Protestants appear in cultural disarray. The most popular of the new generation of evangelical pastors—Rick Warren and Joel Osteen—stay out of the cultural fray. Evangelical youth may have orthodox opinions on marriage or life, but they’re increasingly reluctant to voice those opinions, lest they appear “divisive” or “intolerant.” In fact, at times it appears as if much of the evangelical world has retreated into a defensive crouch, eager to promote its universally-loved work for the poor while abjectly apologizing for the cultural battles of years past. [There seems to be an over-correction the Evangelicals may be experiencing. Rev Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and others often took strong and public stands on the moral issues of the day. As a Catholic, I admired them for this but at times I cringed when they were less nuanced than I wished, or failed to make some necessary distinctions. Further, they often strayed a little closer to politics than I would and often used Old Testament texts in a mechanistic way that did always respect how Jesus recast them.
Sure enough, their action caused a strong and often strident backlash from secularists and progressivist theologians. At some level the backlash was deserved for the reasons already stated and also the perception that some of their involvement in politics was too cozy. It would seem our author is noting that within Evangelicalism this took something of a toll. Some are weary and wary of the strident battles of the past and, it appears, have sought less controversial terrain. But the correction, according to French has gone too far].
Why are Catholics and Mormons increasingly bold when so many evangelicals are increasingly timid? Why are Catholics so often leading on life and Mormons so often leading on marriage? The answer, I think, is theological and cultural, two words that expose profound weaknesses in American evangelicalism. [I would like to say I think Catholics are also showing something of a lead on marriage issues, but in an incomplete way. It is clear we are against Gay “marriage.” But how well do we really uphold true marriage in our lives? Our doctrine is clear enough, but in practice we have high numbers of divorce and annulments. Whereas the Mormans have large, strong, and stable families, our witness in the actual way we live is sore comprimised. Hence, our author does not see us as the strong witnesses to marriage we ought to be].
First, theology. One cannot spend five minutes with thoughtful Catholics without understanding how the defense of life is a fundamental and integral part of the DNA of the church. Since the defense of life is theologically-grounded, it is functionally and practically independent of any secular ideology. Nuns who one day attend a sit-in for immigrant rights may the next day do sidewalk counseling outside of Planned Parenthood. Bishops, “progressive” or conservative, defend life in Catholic hospitals. Catholics who study church doctrine, who immerse themselves in the teachings of the church, understand that to defend life is to imitate Christ. Life is not just an “issue,” for a Catholic; it is at the core of the Gospel. [Well, I wish what he said here was wholly true. There are unfortunately some aspects of politics that separate Catholics out into two wings as we have discussed elsewhere on this blog. On one wing are Catholics who are pro-life and focused on the great moral issues of our time: Abortion, Euthanasia, Embryonic Stem cell research, sex education and so forth. On the other wing are Catholics focused on the social issues: poverty, immigrant rights, capital punishment, health care and so forth.
Our author’s picture of the nun sitting in for immigrant rights and protesting later in front of the PP “clinic” is beautiful but rarer than I would like. Not all Catholics easily stride back and forth between the two wings. I know many who do and would like to think I am one who does, but the truth is there ARE secular ideologies that negatively impact our ability to be truly prophetic. But pay attention fellow Catholics, someone sees us as strong in this area. Why don’t we strive to live up to the powerful image our Evangelical brother sees?
Thank God, too our theology IS very clear on life, seeing it not merely as an issue but as deeply rooted in the Gospel and the Tradition going all the way back to the Didache. Recall the strong reaction to Nancy Pelosi by ALL the bishops when she said it was something less than settled doctrine and only of recent origin. But it is long standing doctrine. Abortion is an intrinsic moral evil without exception (ex toto genere suo). The doors are quickly closing on any Catholic who would hold otherwise].
Next, culture. The Mormon church knows what it is like to live outside the mainstream…..the Mormon culture is inherently resilient in the face of cultural headwinds… Evangelicals, by contrast, are often shocked when co-workers turn on them, or when the country drifts from its heritage. Mormons aren’t so easily shaken. After all, the country wasn’t theirs to begin with. [Note that Mr. French does not include Catholics in his description of the culture of persecution and how it steels one against compromise. At one time he could have said this of Catholics, prior to the 1950s. But as Catholics have emerged from the Catholic Ghetto and had a desire to join the mainstream we have struggled to avoid many compromises. Too many Catholics have as a goal that everyone like them.
There was a time when Catholics were widely hated and feared. We were strong and cohesive in those days. Our parishes were full, our families intact, our schools filled. Slowly we must recover our ability to experience the world’s hatred.
And it IS returning. Little by little, anger at the Church for her stance on the moral issues is building. It’s going to take strong Catholics to endure and stay. We are going to be tested in the years ahead. Bring it on! It may well be what the Church needs to be more deeply reformed and become more prophetic. I think Mr. French is right, the Mormons have not lost this, but I add that I think most Catholics have. But the times are already here when we’re going to have very little choice about rediscovering persecution if we choose to keep the faith in an uncompromised way].
For all our many virtues (and there are many: American evangelicals are among the most generous and loving people in the world), we generally have no conception of—or particular loyalty to—”church teaching” and tend to see marriage and life as “issues” rather than integral parts of our core theology. Since we’re busy being spiritual entrepreneurs, revolutionizing the whole concept of church every 90 seconds, we don’t have the kind of (relative) theological stability that has marked almost 2,000 years of Catholic history, and we can’t come close to matching the (again, relative) uniformity of teaching that marks the Mormon experience….[Well said. There is an ephemeral (passing, or transitory) quality to evangelicalism that I think leads to a lack of depth and stability. Zeal and excitement have their place, but without roots, a mere wind carries one off to the next thing, and the next thing].
We’re more unified than we’ve been in the past, but we’re a collection of subcultures that comprise a shaky, larger whole. And we are often desperate for acceptance. We view the transient scorn of popular culture as a virtual cataclysm, and our distressingly common health and wealth gospels wrongly teach us that Christian faith carries with it measurable earthly pleasures. We lack a theology of suffering. [Without a Pope or even fundamental liturgy to unite them, Evangelicals are really a loose-knit confederation. The Bible alone can’t unite them or focus them as a group. Niche marketing has compartmentalized them in many ways.
Mr. French also has some very good insights as to the deep flaws of the prosperity gospel. If the point in life is to have God bless you with material things as a sign of favor, then it becomes hard to go up against the world. For everyone instinctively knows that to do so threatens the flow of the world’s blessings.
A clear theology of suffering IS a Catholic strength that well captures Christ’s fundamental demand that we take up our cross and follow him, that we endure the hatred of the world as he did. If we are looking to the world for blessings we are already compromised, and it is unlikely we will ever take the risk to be prophets, for we have too much to lose].
Simply put, we evangelicals are blown and tossed by the cultural winds. Right now, the winds are blowing against us, and our young people are reluctant to engage. But God is sovereign, and the fate of the nation is in His hands, not ours. And if we fail, there are others—some from an ancient tradition, some from a new one—who may very well carry out His work with more faith and courage than we ever could.
An excellent article by Mr. French that both encourages us as Catholics but also challenges us to live up the good goals and qualities that others see in us.
Paul Washer is an Evangelical who also has a lot to say about some of the trends in Evangelicalism: