Give Me That Old-Time Evangelization

Recently, The World Over host, Raymond Arroyo, interviewed Cardinal Wuerl about the Synod on the Family and asked the cardinal, in various ways, whether the Synod was changing the Church’s teaching on reception of communion by divorced and remarried Catholics. Cardinal Wuerl identified the Synod as a manifestation of the “New Evangelization.” “We’re seeing different approaches” to this and other issues he said, “but isn’t that what the whole New Evangelization is about?” In this essay, I argue that the Synod on the Family is only the most recent example of the New Evangelization’s failure, a failure to appropriately utilize the Church’s scarce resources to form the faithful, especially their children.

Evangelization, Old and New
A—if not the—dominant trend in American Catholicism over the past generation has been the New Evangelization. John Paul the Great, building on the Second Vatican Council and his predecessors, famously articulated the call for a New Evangelization. During and since St. John Paul II’s long reign, Catholics of all walks of life and all stripes have embraced the New Evangelization.

However, there is no consensus on what the New Evangelization means. There are two commonly held conceptions. First, the New Evangelization is a newly-invigorated Church reaching out to the unchurched. According to the USCCB, “In a special way, the New Evangelization is focused on ‘re-proposing’ the Gospel to those who have experienced a crisis of faith.” This is the conception employed by Cardinal Wuerl and, according to him, the Synod fathers.

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The second conception is narrower. It is that the New Evangelization is the use of new tools, new forms of communication, new means, to evangelize. Catholic radio’s outstanding success is likely the best example of this form of the New Evangelization. Though these two versions of the New Evangelization are analytically distinct, they can and do overlap. For example, EWTN is a powerful—new—means for the unchurched to learn about the beauty of Catholicism. It is, at the same time, a tremendous resource for the faithful to enrich their lives. The focus of my essay is the first conception of the New Evangelization, reaching the unchurched.

Whatever the New Evangelization means, it must be something different, something distinct from what came before it. If not, then what’s new about the New Evangelization? I’ll call that came before the Old Evangelization. Whatever the Old Evangelization meant, it included (at least) primary focus on the formation of the Church’s young, and building up the families of the faithful.

The Old Evangelization, in the United States, resulted in a robust Catholic subculture. As described by long-time religion commentator Kenneth Woodward in the pages of First Things: “At mid-century … Catholics inhabited a parallel culture that, by virtue of their numbers, ethnic diversity, wide geographical distribution, and complex of institutions mirrored the outside ‘public’ culture yet was manifestly different.” The focus of that subculture was formation of the faithful’s children. Reminiscing on his own childhood, Woodward went on:

In the fifties half of all American Catholic kids attended parochial schools… First grade was more than just the beginning of formal education. It was above all an initiation into a vast parallel culture…. Catholic education was the key. Through its networks of schools and athletic leagues, the church provided age-related levels of religious formation, learning, and belonging that extended through high school and, for some of us, on into college. Church, therefore, always connoted more than just the local parish: kids experienced it anywhere, including schools, where the Mass was said. In this way, Catholicism engendered a powerful sense of community, not because it sheltered Catholic kids from the outside world, as sectarian subcultures try to do, but because it embraced our dating and mating and football playing within an ambient world of shared symbolism, faith, and worship. In my adolescent years, for example, St. Christopher’s transformed its basement on Saturday nights into the “R Canteen” where teenagers from all over Cleveland’s West Side danced to juke-box music; a muscular young priest from the parish roamed the premises to prevent fights and keep the drunks at bay. Yes, Catholics felt like hyphenated Americans, but nothing in human experience, we also came to feel, was foreign to the church.

The Church Should Un-Invest in the New Evangelization
Today’s emphasis on the New Evangelization has manifested itself in many—and many positive—ways. For example, now-Bishop Robert Baron’s Catholicism series portrays Catholicism’s beauty, which is the “hook” he uses to evangelize the unchurched. The New Evangelization, in its many manifestations, would be an unmitigated good, but for the fact that the manifestations of the New Evangelization involve a harmful misallocation of the Church’s resources, one that, at least in the United States, is threatening the Church’s long-term ability to … evangelize. My core claim is that the Church in the United States should allocate relatively more of its scarce resources toward the Old Evangelization—especially on forming the children of its faithful families—as opposed to the New Evangelization, i.e., evangelizing the unchurched.

If you are an intellectually engaged Catholic, this claim likely comes as a shock to you, and you’re incredulous. However, I think you’ll find that my argument’s premises are incontestable, and their application is sound. My three premises are: (1) the Church has limited resources; (2) virtue ethics is true; and (3), American popular culture is (A) attractive, and (B) hostile to Catholicism.

Firstly, anyone who has worked within the institutional Church knows all too well the limited resources at the Church’s disposal. And by “resources” I’m including, not only money and buildings, but also personnel, and especially the parish pastor’s time. I won’t belabor this point.

Secondly, virtue ethics are a core component of Catholicism. Virtues are good habits; facets of character that allow one to live life well. As Saint Thomas summarized, “Happiness is the reward of works of virtue.” Virtue ethics have deep roots in Scripture and tradition. From an early age, Catholicism embraced the pagan philosophers’ wisdom, and hitched it to the insights provided by Revelation. This dual inheritance found its synthesis in St. Thomas Aquinas’s work, which has carried forward to today.

Thirdly, American popular culture is attractive to Americans, including those Americans who identify as Catholic. Its attraction is facilitated by its pervasiveness. Take just one facet: the sexual objectification of women. In school, young kids are “sexting”; on the interstate highways, signs display women as wares; a hook-up culture has replaced dating on college campuses; on television, female characters go from guy to guy; and in music, sex sells.

Application of the Three Premises
Here is the application of my three premises. First, every Church resource-allocation decision involves trade-offs. Money, time, and space allocated to reaching the unchurched mean less money, less time, and less space for facilitating the churched. For instance, a parish that puts resources toward a soup kitchen, has less for a virtues program for its schoolchildren. Or, a pastor who spends part of his day at an ecumenical prayer service, cannot spend that time at his parish school discussing Catholic theology with the children, or leading them in Adoration at the parish church. Of course, my claim is not that soup kitchens and ecumenism are wicked. They are good activities. At this point in my essay, my only claim is that every (good) activity involves a trade-off with other foregone good activities.

Second, virtue ethics teach that virtues (and vices) are habits acquired over time. For example, most humans are not born temperate. We have to work over a period of years toward temperance, and, for many, there remain activities that are life-long challenges. As Aristotle described, “A state [of virtue] arises from [the repetition of] similar activities.”

An implication of virtue ethics is that, while young, humans are relatively open to formation in virtue, but, as we age, we become hardened, set in our ways, whether virtuous or vicious. Saint Thomas summarized this, noting that “the young  … are more capable of being trained.” This conclusion follows from the concept of habit itself: the young have yet to form habits, but, once formed, the habits become entrenched dispositions for virtue or vice.

Tying together the first and second points: the Church should make resource allocations that take into account the relative openness of humans at their different stages of life. If the goal is to persuade individuals of Catholicism’s truth, of the happiness gained through relationship with Jesus, then Americans are generally more open earlier in life, rather than later.

Third, most adult Americans, and, unfortunately, most adult American Catholics, have been (de)formed by American culture. For instance, non-procreative sex is ubiquitous in American culture, and nearly all self-identified American Catholics, and many of those who regularly attend Mass, approve of it. This entails that adult American Catholics have deeply-formed habits—including in those central facets of life, like marriage—at odds with Jesus’s message. These habits, formed and lived over a life, are incredibly hard to change.

To make matters even more challenging, the vast majority of Americans live relatively well, materially speaking. Unlike the pagans in the ancient world, who frequently lived short and hard lives, many Americans’ major concern is how to maximize consumption, not whether to consume. My claim is not that the Good News never reaches comfortable Americans. It clearly happens, though the relative paucity of conversions, compared to the high number of unchurched Americans, bears witness to the difficulty.

Bringing these three points together: resource allocations that target American adults with entrenched habits at odds with Jesus’s message will face stiff resistance rooted in the individuals’ own characters, while allocations that focus on forming virtuous habits in the young will meet openness. Therefore, the Church should allocate relatively more resources on forming the young, and fewer resources on converting the already formed.

This conclusion, however, is directly contrary to (the first conception of) the New Evangelization, which I described above. The New Evangelization commits the Church’s resources—again, broadly conceived—to trying to reach people callused by life lived in American culture. This is not an impossible project, but it is likely to succeed much less frequently than the Old Evangelization.

Give Me That Old-Time Evangelization
What would the Old Evangelization look like in practice? On the parish level, it would mean the bulk of a parish’s resources go to facilitating families rearing their children in the Faith. The goal of the Old Evangelization was to form young Catholics’ characters in the virtues to prepare them for a happy life within the Church, and, at the same time, immunize them from the allures of American popular culture. There are many ways parishes do and can do this.

Most importantly, parishes can offer liturgies attractive to young people being raised in the faith: beautiful, reverent, and substantive—no felt banners, no puppets, no platitudes. Following closely, parishes can sponsor, financially support, and oversee the educational program of a school. Robustly Catholic schools will tie their educational programs to their students’ development by utilizing the Trivium’s stages of learning. These schools will not parrot secular education, because it has been negatively affected by American culture. Most importantly, the school’s faculty will be living the Church’s Faith. There are many other means that parishes can utilize to support faithful families—both children and parents—in forming faithful young people.

The Old Evangelization was the American Catholic Church’s strategy of success until the mid-1960s. And, by every measure, it was successful, or at least more successful than what came after it. As Russell Shaw recently concluded after surveying American Catholicism’s decline during that period, “the larger picture of American Catholicism is dismal. This is a picture of institutional and human collapse.”

However—by hypothesis—the Old Evangelization does not offer immediate, tangible returns on the Church’s investment of resources. The Old Evangelization is a long-term strategy; it is not glamorous, it is not glitzy. It takes—literally—generations of parents and pastors investing in their children, forming them, to (re)build the Catholic subculture that enabled our forbearers to flourish.

Once that is accomplished, Catholics will once again be able to witness from a position of strength, beauty, and stability. The Old Evangelization offers the chance to show an increasingly impoverished American popular culture how good life really can be, because well-formed Catholics will be living it in a distinctive, though beautiful, culture.

Not Mutually Exclusive
The New and the Old Evangelization are not mutually exclusive. First, the second conception of the New Evangelization—that of new tools to spread the Good News—can and does frequently contribute to the flourishing of faithful families. Catholic radio is a great example, because it enriches the faithful through its programming and its contribution to the vibrant Catholic subculture needed for the Old Evangelization. Second, many of the activities employed to advance the first conception of the New Evangelization, in practice, end up benefitting faithful families. Father Barron’s Catholicism series, for example, has enriched many.

The American Catholic Church’s commitment to the New Evangelization has hurt the Church’s long-term vibrancy because it has failed to recognize a crucial facet of human nature: that young people are relatively more open to the Gospel message than older people. The Church should redirect its resources to the Old Evangelization and, once again, focus on building up the families of the faithful.

Editor’s note: The photo above pictures a second grade reading class at Blessed Sacrament school in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1962.


  • Lee J. Strang

    Lee J. Strang is Visiting Scholar at the Georgetown Center for the Constitution and the John W. Stoepler Professor of Law & Values at the University of Toledo College of Law.

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