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Posted November 28, 2005

Commenting on a Conversation with John Allen
in the National Catholic Reporter

Below, John Allen, briefly converses on three topics of great importance to the future of the Catholic Church Evangelization, the gay issue among seminarians and the Common Ground Initiative of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin.

In light of this conversation, one wonders what is happening in the area of Catholic evangelization and the new evangelization that Pope John Paul II, and for that matter, the follow up of Evangelii Nunciandi of Pope Paul VI? Are Catholics mirroring Protestants in regard to practicing a united evangelizational effort? Is the gay issue and the Common Ground Initiative splitting Catholics to the point we are becoming a church of sects?

There will always be differences of opinion in the Catholic Church, but is it mirroring our culture, and especially our government, in which we are experiencing divisions of major portions? Have we entered an era in which the issues are of such great proportion that we cannot but have divisions of great proportions? The following conversation of John Allen seems to smack upon a new era in which the little unity that once was experienced is diminishing even more. The big question is whether this is healthy or unhealthy for religion?

I was in Chicago on Tuesday to deliver the Bernardin Lecture at the Catholic Theological Union that evening. Among other things, the stop afforded me the chance to visit with Fr. Andrew Greeley, an indefatigable observer of religious sociology.

Greeley brought me up to speed on a new book project on which he's collaborating with Professor Michael Hout of Cal-Berkeley, which, among other points, profiles "conservative Christians" in the United States, including those Protestants usually referred to as "evangelicals."

Evangelicals, Greeley said, represent roughly one-quarter of white Protestants and as many as one-third of African-American Protestants. In the abstract, those numbers can suggest a rising fundamentalist tide in American religion. Yet Greeley said that when one asks how many of those evangelicals hold beliefs generally associated with their most prominent activists and spokespersons -- such as opposition to legal abortion and homosexuality in all circumstances, and insistence on reading the Bible as the word-for-word, literal dictates of God -- the numbers are much lower. In fact, he said, evangelicals are not that much different than Catholics in terms of percentages of members who differ from "official" teaching on at least some points.

"They're not all in lockstep," Greeley said. "But in a large and complex society, who is in lockstep?"

We also spoke about the phenomenon of the "sects," aggressively missionary Pentecostal and evangelical movements that have made serious inroads into traditional Catholic populations in various parts of the world in recent decades, above all Latin America.

Like many observers, Greeley attributed their growth to their commitment to mission, and their success in giving people a strong sense of personal morality. He said that their biggest growth has come among "aspirational" Latin Americans, meaning white collar groups not yet among the social elites but hoping to move up.

One interesting point Greeley made is that at least in Brazil, the evangelicals don't generally consolidate their gains among the second generation. The children of evangelical converts, he said, are more likely to end up spread out among many of the esoteric and syncretistic religious movements on the Brazilian landscape.

I also asked Greeley what his instincts tell him about likely American reaction to the forthcoming Vatican instruction on the admission of homosexuals to Catholic seminaries.

In essence, Greeley said that liberal Catholics sympathetic to homosexuals will be angry, and in some secular circles of opinion it will be taken as further evidence of hostility towards homosexuals on the part of the Catholic church. Anti-gay Catholics will also be disappointed, because the document seems unlikely to be the blanket policy for which many had hoped. Secular news outlets, he said, will likely accent one of these reactions or the other, rather than reporting the mixed bag the document is actually likely to represent.

In the end, Greeley said, he's skeptical that the document will change much in terms of actual seminary practice in the United States. Seminaries and houses of formation that want to take a strict anti-gay stance will do so, but those with a more flexible, case-by-case approach will be able to cite the document to justify that stance as well.

Just before my lecture that evening, a group of 2006 "Bernardin Scholars" was presented to the audience by Sheila McLaughlin of the Catholic Theological Union, who was also my host. Msgr. Kenneth Velo, Bernardin's closest aide and today the senior executive of the Office of Catholic Collaboration at DePaul University, addressed the group.

Velo told the young scholars, who are pursuing master's and doctoral studies in various ecclesiastical disciplines, that they bear a "serious responsibility" as inheritors of Bernardin's legacy and vision. He particularly accented Bernardin's "Common Ground" project, an effort to foster dialogue within the Catholic Church.

"He was one of the greatest churchmen of our time, and perhaps in the entire history of the church in the United States," Velo said.