It’s no secret that the Catholic Church in the Western world has experienced a tremendous drop in practicing members over the past 50 years. More troubling—and not unrelated—is the fact that the desire to gain more members via evangelization has declined even more tremendously. In the 60’s and 70’s, evangelization was ridiculed in many parts of the Church, and now we have the almost-empty, graying parishes to prove it.
In response to this sad situation, Pope John Paul II in the early 1980’s promoted what he called the “New Evangelization.” The late pope hoped to reinvigorate the Church with a missionary zeal. What made this evangelization “new” was the focus of this zeal, which would not be non-Christian territories, but rather fallen-away Catholics. It would be an attempt to evangelize the baptized—something that had never happened in the past, for it had never been needed.
Since that initial call, a myriad of activities and programs have popped up under the umbrella term “New Evangelization.” Essentially, any activity with the intention of bringing people back to the Church was tagged with the New Evangelization title, no matter how useful—or Catholic—it was. Some of these programs have been solidly Catholic, but many have simply aped non-Catholic programs behind a Catholic façade. Instead of referring to the target of our evangelization efforts, the “new” in “New Evangelization” has often meant “no longer Catholic.”
The Success of Evangelicals
While Catholics were fleeing for the exits in the 70’s and 80’s, those who remained noticed the success of many Evangelical Protestant groups in attracting members. What was it they were doing that Catholics weren’t? Why did many of the Evangelical churches appear to be resonating with a younger generation, while Catholic parishes continued to wither away? Perhaps, the thinking went, Catholics could learn something from our “separated brethren.”
I experienced the success of Protestant evangelization (which Protestants typically call “evangelism”) first-hand. When I studied at a large public university as an enthusiastic Evangelical Protestant, I noticed that many of the members of our Evangelical “parachurch” organization were formerly Catholic. The stories of their upbringing were similar: there was no enthusiasm for the faith, they didn’t really study the Bible, and no one ever called them to a commitment to Christ. Only when encountering Evangelical Protestantism did they witness a passion and love for Jesus; this passion attracted them and they “gave their lives to Christ”…while abandoning the Catholic Church.
As a Protestant, these stories gave me joy. After all, here were people who had made a commitment to follow the Lord. After growing up in a stale religion, they now knew and loved Jesus Christ. Now that I’m Catholic, these stories bring me sadness and anger. My anger isn’t directed at those students, however; it is directed at the culture within the Catholic Church that made so many believe that one had to leave the Church in order to draw closer to Christ.
Beginning in the 1990’s, experiences like these led many Catholic leaders to create “New Evangelization” programs that would imitate the methodology, and sometimes even the message, of Evangelical Protestant programs, while tacking on some uniquely Catholic teachings to give them the veneer of being Catholic. The thought was that Evangelicals were properly focused on preaching the Gospel, while Catholics got too bogged down in doctrine. The fact that doctrine had been mostly ignored in Catholic circles since the late 1960’s was apparently irrelevant.
Let me be clear about something here. These efforts I’m referring to are not why we are in the dire situation we are in today. It is not due to these types of programs that so many people have left the Catholic Church over the past few decades. I would argue instead that these were sincere attempts to close the floodgates of people leaving the Church after they had already been opened in the 60’s and 70’s. But these attempts to imitate Protestant tactics, while sincere, make a critical false assumption. That assumption is that Protestantism is essentially “Catholicism Lite,” or, from another perspective, Catholicism is “Protestantism Plus.”
Many Christians today see Protestantism and Catholicism as sharing the same essential teachings and doctrines, such as those on the Trinity, Jesus, salvation, etc. This is the “kerygma,” a Greek word meaning “preaching,” which is today used to represent the core proclamation of the Gospel that makes up evangelization. Beyond the kerygma, the thinking goes, Catholicism has additional doctrines, such as our teaching on the Blessed Mother, purgatory, and transubstantiation. These teachings are important, but not a core part of the kerygma.
This foundational flaw evident in many Catholic evangelization programs plays out in important, practical ways. Here’s a common “New Evangelization” methodology:
- Introduce someone to Jesus.
- Explain the basic message of salvation:
- You are a sinner
- Jesus died for our sins
- Give your life to Jesus
- Experience forgiveness
- Explain the basics of Christianity: The Trinity, the Bible, how to pray, etc.
- Ask the person to make Jesus Lord.
- Begin to teach the uniquely Catholic aspects of the Faith.
Note that there is no essential difference in Steps 1-4 for a Protestant or Catholic—that is supposedly just the kerygma being preached, which is shared by all Christians. Catholics merely add Step 5 at the end (and in actuality, a Protestant would include a Step 5, but he would simply teach his particular denomination’s unique teachings). In some circles, Steps 1-4 are termed “evangelization” proper, while Step 5 is “catechesis.” Under this thinking, the Protestant and Catholic evangelization message are essentially identical—the only difference comes later, in catechesis.
Case Study: Alpha for Catholics
One popular New Evangelization program that adopts this methodology is Alpha for Catholics. Many high-ranking Church officials have endorsed this program, including Cardinals Christoph Schönborn, Mark Ouellet, Raymundo Damasceno, Gérald Lacroix, and Kurt Koch. Significantly, it is also endorsed by Archbishop Rino Fisichella, the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization—the official conference in charge of evangelization for the worldwide Church.
As can perhaps be deduced from the name, Alpha for Catholics is an offshoot of an existing program, simply called Alpha. Alpha promotes itself as “the basic message of Jesus Christ.” It attempts to bring non-practicing Christians (including those who have no experience of Christianity) into the Christian Faith. It was founded by Reverend Charles Marnham, an Anglican priest. As the name suggests, it is meant to be a “beginning,” an introductory course in Christianity in a comfortable, non-threatening environment. It is intended, in other words, to preach the kerygma and leave “catechesis” for later.
Alpha for Catholics is marketed as, well, Alpha for Catholics. However, the content is identical. Here is the structure of the course, both for the main (Protestant) version of Alpha, as well as for Alpha for Catholics:
- Is There More to Life Than This?
- Who is Jesus?
- Why Did Jesus Die?
- How Can We Have Faith?
- Why and How Do I Pray?
- Why and How Should I Read the Bible?
- How Does God Guide Us?
- Who is the Holy Spirit?
- What Does the Holy Spirit Do?
- How Can I Be Filled with the Holy Spirit?
- How Can I Make the Most of the Rest of My Life?
- How Can I Resist Evil?
- Why and How Should I Tell Others?
- Does God Heal Today?
- What About the Church?
From just a surface review of this list, it is apparent that at the very least a number of lessons would be radically different for a Catholic and for a Protestant. Take Lesson 6, “Why and How Should I Read the Bible?” Does anyone really think that Catholics and Protestants read the Bible in the same way? Or consider Lesson 15, “What About the Church?” There is perhaps no greater difference between Catholics and Protestants than ecclesiology; there is no way a Catholic and a Protestant could answer that question in a similar manner. Yet, again, the content of all these classes are identical for both regular Alpha and Alpha for Catholics.
Some might argue that Alpha for Catholics allows presenters to incorporate Catholic teachings in their presentations. This is true. There are two problems with this, however. First, the differences between Catholics and Protestants are so fundamental on certain teachings (such as the Bible and the Church) that there is no way to use Protestant content as a basis to teach Catholicism. Second, anyone with experience working with parish programs knows how woefully under-catechized most presenters are. They may be sincere, but they often don’t know even basic Catholicism. In fact, that’s the reason there are programs in the first place—to assist under-catechized presenters to know what to teach. Yet parishes who use Alpha for Catholics are giving these presenters Protestant content to present.
The Catholic Kerygma
Adapting Protestant programs for use by Catholics is doomed for failure, for Catholic evangelization is fundamentally unlike Protestant evangelism. Space does not permit this article to recount all the ways it must be different, so let’s focus on the role of the Sacraments, particularly the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. After all, these are two of the three “Sacraments of Initiation,” and what is evangelization if not initiation into the Christian life?
Consider first Baptism. In the New Testament, Baptism is proclaimed as the entry into the Christian faith, the entry into the Church. After St. Peter’s sermon at the first Pentecost, he is asked by his listeners, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). He responds, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). In other words, baptism is the essential “how” of evangelization: it is how we, according to St. Paul, enter into Christ’s death and resurrection (cf. Romans 6:1-4). And of course Jesus himself told Nicodemus, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God” (John 3:5).
Sacramental baptism, therefore, is not an “add-on” to the message of salvation; it is not extraneous to evangelization efforts. Yet for many Protestants, baptism is extraneous. That’s why you won’t find it on that 15-topic list. For Evangelical Protestants, if it is performed at all, Baptism is simply a “public profession” that does not change the believer. Sacramental Baptism is a core element of the kerygma, yet parishes that use Alpha for Catholics can only hope that the presenter will squeeze the topic into the existing program.
Consider also the Eucharist. Jesus plainly stated, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6: 53-54). There is little wiggle room here: in order to receive eternal life, one must receive the Eucharist. Further, receiving the Eucharist is exactly how we, as believers, enter into the mysteries of Calvary. During the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me…This chalice which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19-20). In other words, the Eucharist is the “mechanism” for receiving the graces poured out on the Cross; it is the means by which we are united to Christ’s salvific work.
Like sacramental Baptism, the Eucharist is not an “add-on” to the kerygma. It is central to it. Yet Alpha for Catholics—and other similar programs—present the message of salvation with no mention of the Eucharist, leaving it to presenters to mention it after the program is over if they wish.
After St. Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, Scripture tells us, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:41-42). Note the tight integration of evangelization with essential Catholic doctrine. These first converts were sacramentalized: they received baptism and participated in the “breaking of the bread” (i.e., the Eucharist). They were practicing members of the Church (“devoted to…fellowship”). They adhered to the magisterium, following “the apostles’ teaching.” This was all part of the process of evangelization, with no false separation between the proclamation of the kerygma and the teaching of doctrine.
If a program were to follow the example of the early Church, how would it look? It would have some overlap with the Alpha program, to be sure. But it would integrate teachings on the Sacraments throughout the program (for example, the questions “How Can We Have Faith?”, “How Can I Make the Most of the Rest of My Life?”, “How Can I Resist Evil?”, and “Does God Heal Today?” all touch on different aspects of sacramental living). A truly Catholic program would also include the importance of Sacred Tradition, as well as the need for a Magisterium (the “apostles’ teaching”) to rightly interpret both Scripture and Tradition. This isn’t just catechesis, it’s fundamental to becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ; it’s part of the kerygma.
Catholic evangelization is not simply Protestant evangelism with a Catholic twist. It cannot be reduced to leading people to a non-denominational Jesus, then later catechizing them on the tenets of Catholicism. The Catholic kerygma includes distinctively Catholic doctrines. After all, that is the very purpose of doctrine: to clarify how it is we are to be disciples of Christ. Doctrine is not the icing on the cake, it is the ingredients of the cake itself. Without these ingredients, we present an empty message that does nothing to fill the deepest desires of the human heart.
Eric Sammons, a former Evangelical, entered the Catholic Church in 1993 and has been involved in Catholic evangelization efforts for over two decades. He is the author of several books, including The Old Evangelization: How to Spread the Faith Like Jesus Did.
Eric Sammons is the Executive Director of Crisis Publications.