Is a New Evangelization Really Necessary? by Prof. Richard Rymarz

2008 Summer-Fall - 2008  - A peer-reviewed article from an Issue of the Academic Journal "Fidelitas" of The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars

Is a New Evangelization Really Necessary? 

Richard Rymarz

Richard Rymarz holds the Peter and Doris Kule Chair in Catholic Religious Education, St Joseph’s College, University of Alberta and Visiting Research Professor Australian Catholic University.
The key reference point for the new evangelization is the encyclical letter, Redemptoris Missio of Pope John Paul II.1 This encyclical occurs in an historical continuum starting with the conciliar decree on missionary activity Ad Gentes and Paul VI’s apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi. In this regard, it is an instance of an understanding of tradition as both conserving the essentials of the past and capable of responding to new realities and challenges.2
John Paul II identifies three elements in the Church’s commitment to evangelization.3 The third, intermediary element, is where, specifically, the new evangelization takes its meaning. On this point, the Pope writes:
Particularly in countries with ancient Christian roots, and occasionally in the younger Churches as well, where entire
(1 John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Redemptoris Missio, in J. Michael Miller (Ed) The Encyclicals of John Paul II, (Huntington, Indiana; Our Sunday Visitor Inc, 1996).
3 RM, 33.2.)
groups of the baptized have lost a sense of the faith, or even no longer consider them members of the Church, and live a life far removed from Christ and his gospel. In this case what is needed is a “new evangelization” or a “re-evangelization”.4
The new evangelization then seeks to reengage the large numbers of people in Western countries, who have lost a living sense of the gospel. This endeavor is, however, misguided and unnecessary if, as Greeley and others propose, levels of religious commitment are relatively stable and are indicative of a containing place for religion in the lives of many people. An alternate view is that in many Western countries, including the United States, the concerns that underpin the call for a new evangelization are well-founded. There is strong evidence that religious belief and practice, as determined by conventional measures are, in decline and these are reliable measures of religious vitality. Furthermore this decline cannot be compensated for by a resurgence in so- called spirituality.
Two Contrasting Views
The new evangelization rests on an assumption that the Church, in many Western countries, is in need of some type of revitalization.5 From this position a number of implications follow. Firstly, that the Church, is not at the moment, experiencing vigorous health – the new Pentecost anticipated
(4 RM, 33.3.5 Benedict XVI Address to Diocesan Clergy of Aosta: On Critical Issues in the Life of the Church ZE05081620 - 2005-08-16, Permalink:, obtained 9/12/2007.)
at the Council has not yet arrived. Secondly, that the Church needs to reach out to those of the periphery. These views are, however, overstated if the pulse of Catholic life is much stronger than assumed. This argument is perhaps best put by the prolific American sociologist, Andrew Greeley. He argues:
There is no evidence of a decline in American religious belief and practice or of the importance of religion for the rest of American life over the last half century with the exception of some severe jolts to Catholicism (caused by the birth control encyclical rather than the Vatican Council).6
In contrast, a large number of studies have shown a decline in religious belief and practice over time in a range of countries.7 To be sure, data for the rate of religious belief and practice amongst Americans is far higher then for other Western countries and this should be noted in any analysis.8 Even from an American perspective, however, Greeley’s argument
6 Andrew M. Greeley, Religion After 2000, obtained from, obtained 8th of May 2002.7 Michael Hill and Richard Bowman, ‘Religious Adherence and Religious Practice in Contemporary New Zealand’, Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions, 1985, 59, 91-112; Reginald W. Bibby, ‘Religionless Christianity: A Profile of Religion and Convergence the Canadian 80s’, Social Indicators Research, 198, 2, 169-181; Eva M. Hamberg, ‘On Stability and Change in Religious Beliefs, Practice and Attitudes: A Swedish Panel Study’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1991, 30, 63-80.8 Charlotte McCorquodale, Victoria Shepp and Leigh Sterten, National Study of Youth and Religion: Analysis of the Population of Catholic Teenagers and Their Parents, (Washington DC: National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, 2004), 15.
about the stability of religious commitment can be challenged.9 A key question becomes how important should reception of sacraments be in any discussion on the need for the new evangelization.10
As there is no single statistical definition of what constitutes Catholic practice it is not unreasonable to suggest that those practices which the tradition itself sees as of critical importance give an accurate guide to the vitality of the community.11 There can be no question that the Church regards sacraments such as Eucharist and Baptism as foundational.12 From a sociological perspective reception of the sacraments is also critical. Dobbelaere outlines a three dimensional model which describes a pattern of religious disengagement.13 The first is a decline in religious practice, typically in the ritual forms of a particular group. For Catholics this would include activities such as participation in and reception of the sacraments. Secondly, religious institutions become weaker and though they may still retain some type of nominal allegiance they lose their capacity to direct and influence both individuals and society at large. The final stage involves religion becoming interior and private, an
9 Mark Chaves, ‘Secularization and Religious Revival: Evidence from U.S. Church Attendance Rates’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1989, 28, 464-477.10 Michael Mason, Andrew Singleton and Ruth Webber, The Spirit of Generation Y: Young People's Spirituality in a Changing Australia (Melbourne: John Garrett Publishing, 2007), 319-327.
11 William V. D’Antonio, James V. Davidson, Dean R. Hoge and Mary Gautier, American Catholics Today: New Realities of Their Faith and Their Church, (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007).12 See, for example, Code of Canon Law 1983, 867, 868, 1247, obtained, 10/10/2007
13 13 Karel Dobbelaere, ‘Secularization: a Multi-Dimensional
Model’, Current Sociology, 1981, 29(2), 1-216. 115
affair which results in religious beliefs becoming highly personal and eclectic and religious practice private to the point of being almost hidden.14
Reception of the sacraments is, at the very least, a clear marker of Catholic identity. It does not tell the full story of the state of the Church and it would be a mistake to use these as the only guide. There is a point, however, when the reception rates reach a level where serious concern is justified. The Church in the immediate post conciliar era was emerging from a time of unprecedented expansion and growth. In that time indicators such as mass attendance rates were unusually high. Some downward readjustment could have been anticipated. This period would appear to be over. The alternative view that religious identity remains reasonably stable in the absence of strong connection with the faith community, as manifested by external practices, seems less plausible. Smith and Denton’s words should have a particular resonance for Catholics when they write:
If I were a religious leader, I would be troubled by the facts and figures currently describing the lives of young Americans, their involvement in congregations, and their spiritual practices.15
Other Measures of Religious Vitality
14 John H. Simpson, ‘Religion and the Churches’, in James Curtis and Lorne Tepperman (Eds), Understanding Canadian Society, (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1988), 57-94.
15 Robert Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers: How the Twenty-and Thirty- are Shaping the Future of American Religion, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007), 214.
It is sometimes, nonetheless, said that a better indicator of Catholic vitality are interior measures and how these translate into praxis. When externals, such as Mass attendance, are too heavily discounted concepts such as gospel values or the Catholic imagination become of pivotal importance. Adherence to these becomes the key marker of Catholic identity, the boundary between the Church and the world. The problem here is how to distinguish Catholics marked by certain values or type of imagination from others in the wider community. This difficulty seems to be particularly acute when dealing with Catholic youth and young adults.16
Catholics, taken as an undifferentiated whole, do not display different values than other groups once factors such as socioeconomic background have been controlled for.17 On a conceptual level it is hard to see why they should. The search for a set of values that distinguishes Catholics from others is also based on an assumption that these values define all Catholics. As Greeley himself has remarked though, “every generalization about values that begins with the word Catholic is likely to be misleading, if not erroneous, precisely because the generalization will mask substantial differences in values that exist among Catholic subpopulations”.18
16 Leslie J. Francis, ‘Catholic Schools and Catholic Values? A Study of Moral and Religious Values Among 13-15 Year Old Pupils Attending Non-Denominational and Catholic Schools in England and Wales’, International Journal of Education and Religion, 2002, 3(1), 69-81.
17 Robert Dixon, The Catholic Community in Australia, (Adelaide; Open Book Publishers, 2005).18 Andrew Greeley, The American Catholic: A Social Portrait, (New York: Basic Books), 252.
In his analysis of the American situation Greeley is aware of sharp declines in both Mass attendance and personal prayer.19He does not see these as relatively significant and places much value on what he terms the ongoing strength of the Catholic imagination, which he argues is qualitatively different from a Protestant imagination.20 A detailed study of Catholic imagination is beyond the scope of this article, sufficed to make one point. A key question about the Catholic imagination is its durability. Is it somehow more resilient than Catholic beliefs and practices? Greeley states, “theuniquely Catholic heritage, views of God, their world, and the relationship between the two continue to be durable – unchanged and probably unchangeable”.21 Imagination, however, can only be passed on and cultivated if it is nurtured and exercised.22
A number of American researchers have provided a different perspective on the vitality of the Church in the United States. D’Antonio and his colleagues commenting on the generational differences amongst American Catholics have noted much less commitment amongst the millennial
19 Andrew Greeley, The Communal Catholic: A Personal Manifesto, (New York: Seabury Press, 1976),1.20 Andrew Greeley, The Catholic Imagination, New Wine, Old Wineskins, and the Second Vatican Council, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), esp. 1-77. See also Thomas P. Rausch, Being Catholic in a Culture of Choice, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2006), 34. Greeley bases his concept of the Catholic imagination on the work of the theologian David Tacey, see David Tacey, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism, (New York: Crossroads, 1986).21 Greeley, Imagination, 186.22 Greeley does acknowledge the need for the cultivation of the Catholic imagination, see Greeley, Imagination, 131-137. This leaves open the question of whether the imagination is unchangeable.
generation, they comment, “if a sizeable number of young adults do not understand their faith well enough to explain it to their own children, they have a problem, and so does the Church” 23 They go on to provide this example of the direction of the trend of religious affiliation amongst Catholics.24 They report comparisons between generational cohorts of Catholics. The table below shows the decline in commitment to the Church especially amongst younger American Catholics.
High Commitment %
Medium Commitment %
Low Commitment %
Pre Vatican II (born 1940 or earlier
Vatican II (born 1941- 1960
Post Vatican II (born 1961- 1978)
Millennials (born between 1979-1987)
All Catholics
Table 1: Level of Commitment in Demographic Categories of US Catholics, 2005.25
23 D’Antonio, W., Davidson, J., Hoge, D., and Gautier, M. American Catholics Today: New Realities of Their Faith and Their Church, (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007), 83.24 D’Antonio et al, American, 38-42.
25 D’Antonio et al, American, 41.
Other work also shows a trend to less commitment and greater disaffiliation becoming established. Smith and Denton, for example, concentrating on youth noted the religious laxity of American Catholic teenagers. They offer a variety of explanations for this but none of these are indicative of a community that is not facing significant challenges.26 They conclude:
Compared both to official Church norms of faithfulness and to other types of Christian teens in the United States, contemporary U.S. Catholic teens are faring rather badly. On most measures of religious faith, belief, experience, and practice, Catholic teens as a whole show up as fairly weak.27
In the light of this argumentation the new evangelization cannot be described as unnecessary, even in the United States. The urgency of the task may vary but the basic premise is sound
The spirituality revolution?
In a similar vein some may argue that the new evangelization is not required as what is replacing religious belief and commitment is a general spiritual awareness.28 In this view the oft heard refrain “I’m spiritual not religious” may not be acause for concern but of reassurance. Bellah and his
26 Christian Smith, and Melinda Lindquist Denton, M. Soul searching: The Religious and Spiritual lives of American Teenagers. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 193-217.27 Smith and Denton , Soul, 216.
colleagues captured this sentiment well when they quote the classic self description given by "Sheila Larson", a young nurse in their study:
I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith carries me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice... It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think He would want us to take care of each other.29
Spirituality can be conceived of in a number of ways. In an excellent discussion of this issue Mason and his colleagues point out that importance of clear definitions of spirituality so that dialogue can be purposeful.30 This is especially important in a discussion about the relationship between spirituality and religious commitment. If we take spirituality to mean a highly privatized, personal and idiosyncratic of beliefs that does not have a clear derivation from a faith tradition, is not expressed in some type of communal and ritualistic way and does not have a strong impact of one’s way of life then the rise of this type of spirituality should pose a serious concern to Catholic leaders. Described in this way spirituality seems to have a number of parallels to the loose afflation of many Catholics today. To point out that large numbers of Catholics have this type of spirituality is merely to restate the problem of low commitment in a different manner. It leaves the question of
29 Robert N. Bellah., Richard Madsen, William H. Sullivan, Ann Swindler, and Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, (New York: Harper Row, 1986), 221.30 Mason et al, Gen Y, 33-42.
page 121
how to respond unanswered. If we take spirituality in its more classical sense of an intense personal encounter with the divine leading to a transformation and life and all of this being closely connected with a great tradition then spirituality is almost the natural ally of those who are trying to promote stronger religious commitment. Mason and his colleagues note, however, that it is the first type of spirituality that appears to be on the ascent amongst many young people today even though they themselves find it hard to articulate.31
To recapitulate if large numbers of Catholics see themselves as spiritual in the first sense of the term then the problems that face the Church are twofold. Firstly this type of spirituality runs counter to the whole Catholic metaphysic which sees the individual in communion with God through the Church. To suggest as Tacey does that a way forward for Catholics is a “personal and mystical encounter” between the believer and God is to undermine not just the ecclesiology of communion but also any sense of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ.32 The basis of the Christian life is the ongoing fellowship with God and with others expressed most perfectly in the celebration of the Eucharist. This is communio ecclesiology in its essence. If a person claims to be a Catholic but rejects this communal understanding of faith in favor of a private, personal and eclectic set of begin beliefs and practices then there is a serious rupture with the views of the individual and the tradition. Gaurdini puts one implication of this view well when he writes:
31 Mason et al, Gen Y , 38.32 David Tacey, The Spirituality Revolution: The Emergence of Contemporary Spirituality, (New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2004),169.

The way to the truth then cannot be to “seek God” as we like to say merely through our own experiences and our own thought. For if the seeker pictures God in this way and establishes a relationship with him, he really remains with himself – only in a more subtle and more closed binding manner than if he declared openly, “I do not want anything to do with God; I am sufficient for myself”. 33
On a more sociological footing to recast many Catholics today as spiritual does nothing to address a rationale for the new evangelization, namely that any organization or group which does not have a critical mass of individuals who are able to participate fully in its life and work faces serious challenges. Many Catholics agencies face a problematic future if their ranks are filled with those who express this diffuse type of spirituality. It requires very little of the adherents, giving them a wide range of choices, allowing them to retain existing social networks, freeing then them from an existential void and giving some small degree of fellowship with many others like them. They are allowed to be religious but in a very limited secular sense where this is restricted to the private sphere. Religion becomes vicarious and provides a safety in times of need or crisis.
The need for the new evangelization arises out of a sense that the Church in many Western countries faces important (33 Romano Guardini, The Church of the Lord, (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1966), 60-61.)

challenges that call for a proportionate response. Even if we take into account the unusual nature of the immediate pre- conciliar period then the vigor of the Church, measured in terms of levels of commitment amongst Catholics, is not robust. This is a realistic assessment, which is a much better descriptor then terms such as optimistic or pessimistic. What is called for here is discernment and a vision for a way forward. Certainly not all proposals will be meritorious but what the new evangelization allows for is a discussion of some new ways of engaging the world and also how the Church initiates pastoral outreach. This is an active program and as such will not always be fruitful or uncontentious. As an alternative, a more passive stance would probably lead to less reaction but at the risk of not engaging the wider culture or recognizing the historic circumstances the Church finds itself in. The new evangelization is rooted in the Christian hope, that the Church is incarnational, existing in time and space, and that it can respond to changing circumstances and be true to it calling make Christ known throughout the world.