07 November 2009

John Allen and the Capuchins

Most usually I emote a sort of amused abivalence towards the National Catholic Reporter.  Typically, I can divide its material into three categories: 1) interesting; 2) uninteresting; 3) absurd.  I'll attempt to plow through category one, glance over category three and only get back to category two if I have the time.  Surely its politics aren't always in line with mine, but that's not the reason I read things.  Disagree or agree, I ask the author to make me think.

John Allen's "All Things Catholic" in NCR is, thusly, always a must read.  In his latest offering, he addresses his relationship with the Capuchins. 

Take it away, John:

I was in Spain this week, speaking at an international symposium organized by the Capuchins on the subject of "What Does Europe Believe In?" with the subtitle, "The Capuchins between Secularization and the Return of Religious Life."

(Regular readers know of my "preferential option" for the Capuchins, the order that educated and formed me all the way through high school and beyond. I went to Madrid largely to pay off that old debt -- though as I said, whether my connection with the Capuchins is to their credit, or their eternal shame, is a matter for others to judge!)

One point I tried to make is that while secularism is a real and present danger, there's an equal-and-opposite risk of becoming so bewitched by secularism that we misdiagnose reality. Especially in light of this week's ruling from the European Court of Human Rights, it may be worth reproducing here the relevant section from my lecture on Wednesday evening:

"Seen exclusively through a European prism, it could perhaps seem as if secularism is the chief, if not the only, pastoral and cultural challenge facing the faith. The truth, however, is that Europe is really the only zone of the world where secularism has an especially large sociological footprint. In the United States, there are influential pockets of secularism among our cultural elites -- in the faculty lounges of our universities, for example, and on our newspaper editorial boards -- but at the grassroots we remain an intensely religious society. Outside the West, one has to look long and hard to find real secularists."

"In most of the rest of the world, the primary pastoral challenge facing Catholicism isn't secularism but the competitive dynamics of a bustling religious marketplace. In Africa, Asia and Latin America, the main competitors to Catholicism are Christian Pentecostalism, or Islam, or revived forms of indigenous religion. As a result, to craft future strategies for Catholicism based largely on defending ourselves against secularization risks misreading the social situation. Most people in the world, most of the time, aren't seriously tempted by secular agnosticism, but rather by one or another option on the contemporary spiritual smorgasbord -- and that smorgasbord is, therefore, where at least some share of your energy and imagination ought to be directed, not just pondering secularism."

"Let me offer one practical implication. To the extent we define secularism as our main problem, Catholicism inevitably ends up looking defensive, forever building walls around a tradition we believe to be under assault. When the term of comparison is no longer secularism, however, but rather some forms of Pentecostalism or Islam, or quasi-magical currents in indigenous belief, that change of context positions Catholicism differently, as an alternative to religious movements that at times veer toward fundamentalism, extremism, or thaumaturgy. The capacity of Catholicism to integrate reason and faith, to uphold tradition while at the same time engaging modernity, emerges with greater clarity."

"In other words, given what's actually on offer in today's religious marketplace, Catholicism often seems a balanced, moderate, and sophisticated option. For the record, this is how most people on the planet right now actually see the Catholic church, in light of what else they see around them."

"That realization ought to have consequences not only for our missionary and pastoral strategies, but also for our own attitudes about the church."

Click here for the entire column. It's worth a visit, Allen discusses Benedict and secularism earlier in the article.

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