Monday, March 27, 2006

Beacon No. 84: Protestant Eye for the Catholic Guy


The area where I grew up in New York’s Hudson Valley was heavily Catholic, to the extent that Protestants seemed a trickle next to the flood of second- and third-generation Irish, Italians and Poles flocking to Mass each Sunday. My 10-year-old reaction on discovering John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic U.S. president was, How had any Protestants gotten elected in the first place?

This area—Newburgh, New York—had Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans and a few Jews, but Catholicism was so dominant that its prime position seemed organic, at least to someone growing up Catholic. (This idea was reinforced by the younger, coked-up Don Imus, whose Billy Sol Hargis character on WNBC-AM epitomized New York stereotypes about Bible Belt holy rollers.)

The American Church that seemed so pervasive in my late 20th century has lost much ground. Catholics have become less devout and even been lured away by younger, more energetic Protestant denominations—especially Southern Baptists, considered a mere Southeastern fringe group prior to the Reagan administration. Protestant groups have mastered a brand of Christianity that appeals to Catholics seeking a more relevant form of worship, or who are fleeing the scandals surrounding many dioceses.

The American Church realizes its danger and has started to look for ways to compete in the marketplace of religious ideas. That’s not to say it’s changing its core philosophy to resemble Protestants’; but according to Gretchen Ruethling’s “Billy Graham Is the Role Model; Catholicism Is the Creed,” the Roman Catholic Church is taking marketing tips from Protestant megachurches:

"A good percentage of people who are in the megachurches are former Catholics," Father [Kenneth] Boyack [president of the Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association] said. "They're really attentive to try to connect to people exactly where they are. And the language they're using is not great theological language."

Megachurches, experts say, effectively use sermons that link Scripture with everyday problems. They also use pop music, social events, the Internet, informal settings and small-group fellowship to foster a sense of community.

"They're not leaving because they don't like the Catholic Church," said Tim Kruse, executive director of the Evangelical Catholic, a group in Madison, Wis., that helps campus ministries develop programs to foster evangelical life. "They're leaving because Protestant evangelicals have communicated the Gospel to them in a meaningful way."

"Protestant Eye for the Catholic Guy" is a workshop at the St. Paul's Institute of Evangelical Catholic Ministry next weekend in Madison that is expecting about 300 representatives from campus ministries, dioceses and parishes. In the workshop, an evangelical Protestant pastor will talk about how to make sermons more vibrant. In Iowa, the third annual Martha & Mary Women's Conference — aimed at filling a religious void among Catholic women — this year drew 450 women, almost three times the number it drew the first year.

In 2004, Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit became the first seminary in the world to offer a postgraduate degree on "new evangelization," said Ralph Martin, director of graduate theology programs in the new evangelization. New evangelization, an idea promoted by Pope John Paul II, is aimed at taking into account globalization and an increasingly secular culture when devising strategies to connect people to the Catholic faith.

Implications for the Western Hemisphere
If the Catholic Church can energize its own faithful and gain new converts in the U.S., this would have major implications elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, since American Protestant missionaries have made deep inroads in traditionally Catholic Latin America.

My last trip to South America in 1996-97 showed American-sponsored cracks in the facade of the powerful Roman Church. I rode a bus from Asuncion to western Paraguay beside a Protestant doctor/missionary from Augusta, Georgia who was helping to save Paraguayans’ sight in that underserved country. Later in the trip, the waiter I had in an Italian restaurant west of Sao Paulo, Brazil proudly announced himself a Mormon.

Observers give many of the same reasons for Protestant success in South America as in the U.S.: Missionaries who cater more effectively to Latin Americans’ rising individualism; dislike of the Catholic hierarchy’s autocratic style; major and minor scandals that have sapped Church authority.

On top of all this, the charismatic John Paul II, who could warm the entire edifice of Catholicism with his weary, confident smile, is gone. His replacement so far seems unlikely to win many new converts, or even hold ground against Protestant successes worldwide.

Just as in the U.S., the Church has been slow to respond in Latin America, and Protestants in South America are now a major political and cultural force. The Catholic slide may be irreversible; in a century, it may be just another sect in areas where its word was absolute for centuries.

But in the 1,700 or so years since Constantine Christianized the Roman Empire, the Church has shown itself the master of adapting and thriving under pressure. Perhaps the next Catholic Counter-Reformation will originate in the U.S. and spread south to Latin America, with major consequences for hemispheric politics.

The Chicago model of Ruethling’s story may be an early step in this adaptation. If success in a Western Hemisphere competition for souls with Protestants means turning Mass into something a little less grand and a little more like a rock concert, I have no doubt the Catholic Church will eventually rip out the pews to install a mosh pit and a day-care center.

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