Evangelical Catholicism: John L. Allen Jnr realises that you can have the same name for different things…

“You know that something is changing in society, in history, in culture, when you have to find a name for it,” Cadegan said. “Sometime within the last decade or so, a number of different people at more or less the same time realized they needed a name for things that were changing, especially among younger Catholics. … The name that came to be attached to this changing way of being Catholic at the beginning of the 21st century was ‘evangelical Catholicism.’ The ideas surrounding it are still taking shape, which makes it a powerful and interesting moment to start talking about it.”

So, according to our favourite journalist on “All Things Catholic”, Una Cadegan, director of the American Studies program at the University of Dayton, introduced a conversation between William Portier (Mary Ann Spearin Chair in Catholic Theology at the University of Dayton), David J. O’Brien, (Loyola Professor of Roman Catholic Studies at the College of the Holy Cross) and John L. Allen himself on the topic of “Evangelical Catholicism”.

Yes, I know that “Evangelical Catholic” Lutherans will say these guys stole their own preferred moniker for self-identification, but seriously, I haven’t come across anything that would indicate that Messers Allen, Portier and O’Brien have any idea that the term “evangelical catholic” is older than their own personal inventions.

Not that they are able to agree on what this “new” term for this “new” style of Catholicism actually means.

Allen reckons it has to do with the politics of identity, and describes it as “the most powerful current at the policy-setting level of the church”. Portier reckons it has to do with an “attraction” among the young to certainty amid a “maelstrom of pluralism”, yet they bend and blure the typical boundaries of the conservative/liberal dichotomy. O’Brien thinks it has to do with a grass roots personal relationship with Jesus and a contact with the Gospels.

Allen shows himself a real sport in citing yet one more dissenting voice, Fr Neuhaus, who wrote that so-called “Evangelical Catholicism” is “really just “Catholicism,” no more and no less”.

Yeah, maybe to all of this. Myself, I reckon that Allen is on the money with his claim that “evangelical catholicism” is a reality at the highest levels of “policy setting” in the Church. And I reckon that Portier is right when he says that the attitude of “evangelical catholicism” is about real conversion and the motto “You either evangelize, or you die.” O’Brien seems least on the ball for me, although he is right to stress the connection with Scripture and with the person of Jesus in particular.

Personally (and I know its easy to say this after the event) when I entered the life of the Catholic Church in Melbourne in 2001, I discovered a very strong subculture of “evangelical catholicism”–especially among the young veterans of World Youth Day, but also among many older Catholics who were drawn to the Catholic Charismatic Renewal community because of its emphasis on the “new evangelisation”, “Christocentricity” and loyalty to the magisterium but were not really “pentecostal” in the normal sense of the term. In other words, they were connected to CCR because there was no corresponding “ECR” movement. Perhaps Neuhaus is right. How can you have a movement within Catholicism to be simply what Catholicism is?

Well, actually perhaps that is just what we do need. My own opinion is that the definition of “evangelical Catholicism” is really much simpler than either Allen, Portier or O’Brien make it. It is simply that way of being Catholic today which is confident in its own identity (Allen is right), centred on Christ (O’Brien is right) and at the same time is, well, active in evangelisation (as Portier appears to be attempting to say). Evangelical Catholicism = Catholicism that Evangelises. That should be pretty simple. And yes, by its very nature, this is the sort of Catholicism which we will see growing in future decades…

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One Response to Evangelical Catholicism: John L. Allen Jnr realises that you can have the same name for different things…

  1. Jason Simon says:


    I read with interest your comments here. I like the way you merged Allen, Portier, and O’Brien’s definitions of evangelical Catholicism. As the director of an organization called “The Evangelical Catholic,” I enjoy following recent usages of the word. I think Allen strays too far from the etymological roots of the word “evangelical,” choosing instead to be informed only by its usage as a broad label of certain Protestants. This causes him to overly stress “authortity” as a common element for evangelicals – Scriptures for Protestants and the Magisterium for Catholics. I think this overemphasizes the role of the Magisterium in evangelical Catholic’s life and deemphasizes the commitment to the person of Christ in a life of intentional discipleship. This is, in my mind, the real commonality between evangelical Protestants and Catholics.

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