9. The New Evangelization at the 2012 Synod of Bishops

March 11th, 2011

A missional turn in the Roman Catholic Church?

The “New Evangelization” looks set to become a key catchphrase in RC circles in the future. The phrase was introduced and used extensively by John Paul II during his long pontificate as it was one of his ways of facing the effects of secularization in the Western World. Pope Benedict XVI has been consistently referring to the New Evangelization in his teaching, but in 2010 a new Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization was established as a way to formalize the emphasis he placed on it with the desire to spread it out long-term and world-wide.  John Paul II had the vision and provided the language (coining a new Hollywood-style Marian title: Mary the “Star of the New Evangelization”!) but Benedict XVI is spelling out what that means .

Further, Pope Benedict XVI has recently announced that the next Synod of Bishops will take place in October 2012 on the topic of the New Evangelization. That means that all RC bishops throughout the world will convene in Rome to discuss it. The following steps will be taken:

1. a preparatory document is set out (Lineamenta) calling for response and feedback;

2. Based on the bishops’ written answers a working tool will be prepared (Instrumentum Laboris) that will serve as official text for the Synod,

3. After the Synod (perhaps one or two years later) the Pope will issue a Post-Synodal Exhortation which will be part of his magisterium. So both Lineamenta and Instrumentum Laboris are preliminary and provisional documents, whereby the final Exhortation has magisterial value.

We are now in the Lineamenta phase. The 60-page text (in eight official languages) has been sent to Bishops and presented to the press. Its full official title is The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith. By November 2011 feedback will be gathered in order to draft the Instrumentum Laboris in time for the October 2012 Synod. What is the significance of the Lineamenta?  There is one in particular. .

What does “New” mean?

The phrase New Evangelization has been circulating for at least three decades in Popes’ speeches and documents. But in the Lineamenta, perhaps for the first time, the meaning of “new” is expounded, at least in part. The document argues that “Evangelization” has three main meanings:

1. The ordinary, on-going mission of the church;

2. The “first” evangelization to non-Christian people;

3. The “new” evangelization to the baptized, yet non-evangelized.

It is clear that, whilst always connected to the first two applications, the “new” evangelization is specifically addressed to the people who are registered in the RC Church’s books in that there were baptized and are counted as Roman Catholics in official statistics, yet they are practically un-churched, spiritually pagan, in need to be regained to the Church, though they are sacramentally part of it. They are RCs in the cultural sense, yet you would not find them at the Sunday mass and they would have naïve beliefs and embarrassing lifestyles if measured by the RC Catechism.

The New Evangelization is addressed to “nominal” Roman Catholics, though the word “nominal” is not used in the document. Recent global statistics say that the total number of Roman Catholics around the world is on the increase: in 2009 there were 1,181 billion people who have been baptized (1,3% more than 2008). Yet, these figures tell only half of the truth. The real concern for the RC Church is the increase of secularized Roman Catholics, especially in the Western World but also in parts of the Majority World. These people “belong” without “believing” (quite the opposite than in the Evangelical world where people may believe without belonging). The New Evangelization is the means by which they may belong and believe, being both quantitatively and qualitatively part of the RC Church. The other concern, especially in Latin America, is the loss of people who were baptized in the RC Church but are now affiliated to “sects” – a derogatory term that is also used to stigmatize Evangelicals. According to Lineamenta, the tools of the New Evangelization are two very traditional but well established patterns of spiritual formation: a renewed emphasis on catechism (i.e. transmitting the RC faith) and renewed efforts towards catechumenate (i.e. fostering discipleship).

The underlining ecclesiological crux

The New Evangelization is not primarily about mission to the unbelieving world. It is mainly addressed to reverse the tide within RC Christianity i.e. it is more of an internal affair, rather than a missional goal. Its task is to recapture to the Church those who have been baptized, perhaps christened, attend funerals and weddings, yet live lives which are alien to the standards of the RC Catechism.

The Lineamenta document sets the scene for the global discussion on the New Evangelization and raises many questions to which Bishops will respond. One big issue is missing though. While there is a frank realization of the problem, the awareness of the causes seems defective. Certainly, secularization explains much of present-day Western detachment from traditional Church’s rites and patterns. But one has to ask a deeper question which has to do with the ecclesiology emerged from Vatican II (1962-1965). The big question that Vatican II addressed was an ecclesiological one: what kind of church do we want? A church of the faithful, a confessing church, a church that matches faith and practice? Or a “catholic” church, the people’s church, whatever this means in terms of lack of faithfulness and integrity? A church that majors on conversion and discipleship or a church that wants to be all-embracing and all-inclusive? Ecclesiologically, the question was: do we want a church of the baptized ones (leaving aside what happens after infant baptism) or a church of disciples? Vatican II unequivocally answered: the former, while preserving the apparatus of the latter! That answer has serious consequences that are evident to all, RC hierarchy included.  Secularization is one explanation of the lack of spiritual depth in Western RC, but the other explanation lies in the Vatican II ecclesiology.  The Lineamenta document speaks much of secularization and skips over the tenets of RC present-day ecclesiology as if they were not part of the issue at stake. Here are some questions that should be addressed instead:

–       is it baptism (whatever the theology behind it) or conversion the turning point for Christian life?

–       Do the pagan-Christians need just to be aware of who they are already or do they need conversion from idols to God?

–       Is church discipline a qualifying mark of the church or is it an optional add-on?

We will see how the Synod responds. Will the New Evangelization be merely a pastoral initiative to bring people back, leaving everything else untouched, or will it be an opportunity to ask more fundamental questions about the church of Jesus Christ?

Leonardo De Chirico


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8. Overcoming the “sacred empire”?

March 4th, 2011

Cardinal Kurt Koch and some prospects of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

Kurt Koch is a name that perhaps does not mean much to most people. A few months ago, though, Benedict XVI appointed him as cardinal and gave him the responsibility to preside over the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, which is the Vatican institution devoted to ecumenical dialogue. Former bishop of Basel (Switzerland), and himself a Swiss (b. 1950), Koch took over the post at the Pontifical Council from another “prince” of the RC church, cardinal Walter Kasper, who resigned after reaching his 75th birthday, as Canon law prescribes.

Koch has been involved in RC ecumenism since his ordination to priesthood. His doctoral thesis obtained in Luzern was on the theology of history in Wolfhart Pannenberg. Knowledge of Protestant German theology has been his daily bread, theologically speaking. He seems conversant with D. Bonhoeffer, J. Moltmann and E. Jüngel (and also H. Küng). Much less prominent on his horizon is Evangelical theology. Moreover, his Episcopal experience in central Europe has meant that the relationship with non-RC Christians has always been central in his views and practice.

Opportunities and Challenges for European Christians

It is too early to say how cardinal Koch will develop the multifaceted action and strategy of the Pontifical Council. There is a way, however, to gain at least a flavor of what his main concerns will be, especially concerning the situation of Christianity in Europe. His previous writings provide a taste of what his thinking and ethos are regarding ecumenical matters and more general issues that are at stake for Christian witness. He is not a theologian of the caliber of Walter Kasper, but he is a thinker that deserves attention.

One particular book of Koch’s is worth mentioning, for a number of reasons. First, it was published in German (Kirche ohne Zukunft?, 1993), in French (Chrétiens en Europe, 2004) and in Italian (Quale futuro per i cristiani?, 2010), thus projecting Koch in international conversations on European Christianity. Second, the book contains a series of lectures that Koch delivered in Poland after the fall of the Berlin Wall on the prospects of the Christian faith in a pluralist society. The fall of communist regimes has been a watershed event that continues to have implications for Christian witness and Koch explores some of the scenarios for us. Third, ecumenism is right at the core of what Koch has to say in arguing that Christianity indeed has a future in Europe. He thinks that the challenges before Christians demand a way forward in terms of unity.

Backward to the “sacred empire” or forward to an “open house”?

Cardinal Koch agrees with many observers that secularization as a sociological process and secularism as an ideological framework represent the European cultural climate. Any type of Christian spirituality, therefore, needs to come to terms with it. In secular society religious concerns are widespread, yet they are not lived out in traditional patterns and within ecclesiastical institutions. How should Christians respond? Churches, Koch argues, have the tendency to reclaim their traditional status and power when they are challenged by secular trends. For him it is a wrong move. Instead of defending the privileges inherited from the past, churches need to be self-critical and willing to lose the unnecessary benefits that are unjust and unfair in democratic and pluralistic societies. In doing so Christians have to resist the direction of marginalization in which secular society wants to push them. Secularism has a place for churches only if they are institutions for “free-time” (i.e. not for the whole of life), and if they deal with the destitute, which always makes an affluent society nervous. In a telling comment, Koch argues that the church must learn to accept pluralism without reservations, even if pluralism diminishes her status (p. 29, Italian edition). Rather than aspiring to re-building the “sacred empire”, the church should wish to become an “open house” (p. 35), which acknowledges her provisional nature.

The “New Evangelization”

Churches will make a gross mistake if they get entangled in preserving past settlements of church-society relationships. Their role should be to engage Europe in the “new evangelization”. In a rather narrow historical perspective, Koch says that the word “evangelization” began to circulate at Vatican II (1962-1965). Perhaps this is true as far as RC circles are concerned, but it is also true that the word had been part of the Evangelical language for centuries. For Koch evangelization does not mean to rally a new crusade to claim back the past dominion, but instead to live out the Gospel in spiritual terms. Real Christian life is the “fifth gospel” for modern man (p. 62), and that speaks more powerfully to him. In other words, the mood of evangelization should not be dogmatic but mystagogical, i.e. more concerned with mystical realities than theological definition. In this respect the church needs to be semper evangelizanda (always in the process of self-evangelizing). In evangelizing others, she should evangelize herself. In doing so evangelization will not be “confessionalist” (i.e. reproducing past schemes and divisions) but “ecumenical” (i.e. promoting unity).

Where do we go from here?

The combination of the acceptance of pluralism and an emphasis on mysticism (others would instead speak of “spirituality”) seems to be Cardinal Koch’s direction in Europe. In a sense, his views are not very different from those of Protestant ecumenicals. Rather different tones and perspectives are found in John Paul II’s 2003 Exhortation Ecclesia in Europa (The Church in Europe), and in Joseph Ratzinger’s writings on Europe (e.g. A Turning Point for Europe? The Church in the Modern World, 1994). In these writings there is no hint of the willingness by the RC Church to renounce her privileges, especially when they imply political and economic benefits. There is no evidence of the practical viability of Koch’s arguments. The main theological justification of a RC “sacred empire”, i.e. a Church having a state (the Vatican), is left totally unquestioned even by progressive voices. The Gordian knot of the settlement is carefully protected and possibly extended, rather than cut or even untied. Cardinal Koch must work out what he means by overcoming the “sacred empire” towards an “open house”, not just in the safety of a lecture room, but inside the Vatican establishment itself.

The meaning of “evangelization” then needs to be spelled out more clearly, both theologically and practically. Appealing to postmodern mysticism can resonate with some European maîtres-à-penser, but what does it mean in terms of gospel faithfulness and a call to conversion to Jesus Christ? Again, giving a lecture is one thing, doing evangelism and seeing it happen can be quite another. From Basel to Rome, from bishopric in Central Europe to the Vatican curia, from the lectern to a more complex reality, Kurt Koch will surely have opportunities to test the weight of his views on Europe.

Leonardo De Chirico


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