Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Ideology of the Middle: Suffocating the New Evangelization

The New Evangelization faces external obstacles such as secularism, atheism, and just plain indifference.  But, it also faces internal opposition.  Almost every day, I check out various Catholic blogs that represent two ends of the ideological spectrum.  One of those blogs daily bemoans the fact that the Catholic Church is still . . . well . . . Catholic.  The other one bemoans the fact that the Catholic Church is no longer Catholic. 

Neither of these, however, is the greatest threat to the New Evangelization.  Conservative and liberal ideologies certainly attempt to hijack the gospel for their own purposes, but these won't amount to much.  The greatest threat is not from the extremes, but from the middle.  Approaching the gospel as  "coming from the middle," is still to think of the gospel in an ideological way.  The "middle" is just a third ideology that exists between the two extremes.  But, in this instance, the virtue is not found in between the extremes.  When it comes to the gospel, the virtue is found in its full, unhindered, zealous proclamation.  The gospel is not located on an ideological spectrum.

Unfortunately, so many who have been entrusted with the gospel feel as though the right thing to do is to live in the middle.  It's a way of governing and exercising pastoral care that doesn't consider the good of souls, but rather the good of appearance.  The New Evangelization, if it is to be effective, needs to be unchained from the prison of the "middle."  But, there are those who have been lifelong adherents to the "middle theory," and it is difficult to break their stranglehold on the New Evangelization.

One can see why in the Book of Revelation, Jesus condemns the lukewarm and says, "How I wish you were either hot or cold."  At least the extremes have a fire in the belly.  The middle is always about trying to make Catholicism saccharine and nondescript.  The middle ideology is the, "let's make Christianity bland" approach.  It fears the new movements in the Church because those seem to have too particular a vision and are not bland enough.  It fears the "new peoples," because they are too different and their devotional life seems too old fashioned.  It fears evangelical preaching because it sounds too decisive.  To the middle ideology, everything is "too" something.

Recently, George Weigel wrote a book (which I've been reading) entitled, "Evangelical Catholicism."  In the book, Weigel speaks at length about what is happening in the Church and how this "Evangelical Catholicism" is the path of the future.  Thus far, however, (I'm only halfway through the book) Weigel has not addressed the reality that this Evangelical Catholicism is going to meet with tremendous opposition from the proponents of a middle of the road, lukewarm, nondescript Catholicism.  To them, the New Evangelization is not primarily about a renewed, joyful, and forceful preaching of the person of Jesus Christ and friendship with him.  No, for them, the New Evangelization is often about having greeters at the entrance to the church and making sure that the bulletin tells new arrivals where the bathroom in the church is located.  Are those things helpful? Sure, but the middle tends to make these things central.

In going after the middle ideology here, I am not endorsing the conservative or liberal ideologies either.  They are all the wrong starting point for the New Evangelization.  The New Evangelization has to be about Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ who told Matthew to get up and follow him.  Jesus Christ who told the rich young man to go and sell everything, give it to the poor, and follow him.  Jesus Christ who suffered and died for our sins and who rose from the dead.  The New Evangelization is about friendship with that Jesus Christ, a friendship that is engaging, demanding, and joyful.

We always think of ideologies as being from the left and from the right.  But, this middle ideology is like a sleeper cell in the life of the Church because it appears to be in the place where we often think that virtue lives--in the middle.  But, this middle is a prison for the Gospel.  I'm willing to bet that the parishes that are dying off the fastest are those who pride themselves on being in this middle.  In the middle, the goal is to make everyone comfortable.  Eventually, people figure out that they don't need to go to church to feel comfortable. They can stay at home and be comfortable. 

Those who live out of the ideology on the right want to freeze the Church back in the 1940's.  Those on the left want to lead the Church right out of Christianity.  But, I think it is this middle that is the most dangerous.  This ideology would have had no room for an Ignatius, a Catherine of Sienna, or a St. Francis of Assisi.  They would have all been far too radical for bland Catholicism.  It isn't just about the demands of Christianity that the middle finds unappealing.  Anything that seems too lofty or beautiful gets jettisoned too.

It is easy to define the right and the left as ideologies, but very few would ever admit that the middle is also an ideology.  And, a great many people who exercise power in the life of the Church probably find themselves in the middle.  The middle is the place where the New Evangelization will meet its strongest opposition.  While the left and the right would likely slay their opponents outright, the middle doesn't work that way.  The middle will simply attempt to suffocate the New Evangelization.  Unlike the ideologues on the left and the right who usually arrive scowling and dressed for battle, the ideologues in the middle usually show up smiling and dressed in neutral colors.  In their mind, they are not ideologues. They think of themselves as the anti-ideologues.  But, as long as they are dwelling on that plain, they are ideologues.

The New Evangelization is about extricating us from that "conservative, middle, liberal" plain so that we can announce the Gospel in all of its beauty and magnificence.  But, as great as I think the New Evangelization is, I think opposition to it is going to be fierce.  Christianity is always a radical choice.  The last thing the middle wants is for anybody to be faced with a radical choice.  That is just . . . too . . . radical. The middle wants Christianity to be nondescript and bland.  I think that they are probably all good people who really think that they are performing a great service when they kill with kindness.

In large part, in many dioceses, parishes, and institutions, the proponents of the bland, nondescript, lukewarm Catholicism wield a lot of power.  So, large scale victory for the New Evangelization is unlikely in the short-term.  The agents of the New Evangelization will have to focus their energies on smaller communities and on one on one evangelization.  This method may seem underwhelming and disappointing to those who are afire with the desire to evangelize, but this is how it began with the apostles.  For today, we might have to give up on the dreams of widespread New Evangelization successes and instead settle for individual conversions and small pockets of victory.


  1. Father Barnes!! This is John Dugan from so many years ago. I was at your ordination. It is wonderful to know that you are in such love with the priesthood. God bless you!

  2. You probably won't publish this, Father Barnes. but I don't really care. Technically speaking, a blog is really supposed to be running commentaries where people can disagree, even with the pastor. it just has to be done respectfully. I think extremes whether it be in religion or politics or any other institutions we partake in, are unhealthy. If someones rules don't make sense and it becomes "the rules" before humanity then there is no room for Jesus. Religion is always man-made, God and the bible are not. We as people are not meant to truly grasp the Infinite with Finite minds. Evangelization is only successful if it is led by the Holy Spirit, otherwise it is contrived and manipulation and people can always see right through that. I do enjoy your blog, however. I delight in your acumen.

  3. Hello Anonymous,
    I cannot detect by your response whether you are catholic or not. As catholics we do believe our faith comes to us from Christ and is moved and guided by the Holy Spirit.
    Would you mind defining extremes in religion? And also,define rules (Christ had many, the beatitudes for example),I am not certain I understand your intention and would like to have a better feeling for what you mean if you wouldn't mind. I had a much different take on Fr. Barnes' post? I was thinking more along the line of; Revelation 3:15-16.....
    God bless

  4. Fr. Barnes is correct in this prediction.

    If he is wrong, and the half-way gospel is a success, things are much worse.

    At that point we are getting into the "Will the Son of Man find faith when he returns" environment.