Monday, January 25, 2010
Last week Amy kicked off our discussion of John Allen's important new book, The Future Church, with Allen's first trend ("A World Church"), and this week I'm going to continue the conversation by focusing on his second trend: "Evangelical Catholicism." I'll lay out the basics of Allen's thesis, then raise some questions about what the trend could mean for Catholic legal education.
Allen explains evangelicalism by contrasting it with Mainline liberalism and Pentecostalism. Liberals "want to reach a detente with modernity; evangelicals want to convert it; and Pentecostals want to set it on fire." These three responses to modernity have defined Protestantism over the past hundred years, and "all three instincts have clear analogues inside Catholicism." While Catholic liberalism enjoyed a heyday from the late 60s to the mid-80s, beginning with John Paul II's election, "Catholicism has become steadily more evangelical -- uncompromising and unabasedly itself, more interested in evangelizing culture than accommodating it." The defining featues of evangelical Catholicism, according to Allen, are: 1) an embrace of traditional Catholic thought, speech, and practice; 2) eagerness to proclaim Catholic identity to the world, emphasizing its implications for culture, society, and politics; and 3) a view of faith as a matter of personal choice more than cultural inheritance.
The evangelical push is being felt in many areas of Catholic life, most notably: "the liturgy wars," "priestly identity," theology (especially Christology and ecclesiology), and Catholic education. All of these areas merit extended discussion, but given the MoJ mission, I'd like to focus on education. Allen does not break a lot of new ground here (discussing Ex corde, the Vagina Monologues, and Obama at the Notre Dame commencement), but some of evangelical Catholicism's likely consequences for the Church, at least as seen by Allen, raise intriguing questions for Catholic education (including Catholic law schools), though Allen does not connect them explicitly.
He identifies "new energy and (perhaps) growth" as a "near-certain consequence" for the Church given that "the religious movements that have grown most dramatically over the last half-century are those with clear boundaries between themselves and the prevailing culture." Sociologists of religion find that "high-tension groups" tend to "screen out members with low levels of commitment," which drives "more effective recruiting and retention." Will this sociological fact hold true in legal education? That is, will a Catholic law school flourish over the long term if it defines itself in sharp contrast with the prevailing culture? My wishy-washy answer: It depends. I believe that Catholic law schools can attract students by presenting a more holistic education, allowing students to connect their convictions and commitments with their professional roles. There are limits, though. I do not think that most students want a law school experience that is totally disconnected from, or appears to be hostile toward, the prevailing legal culture. Catholic law schools straddle the (often overstated) boundary between faith community and public square, and that dual identity presumes the possibility of collaboration and coherence, not just tension and demarcation. For law schools, being a "high-tension group" will not invariably lead to new energy and growth. In terms of faculty hiring, student admissions, and recognized student groups, my guess is that the increasing visibility and acceptance of gays and lesbians in our society will be one key area where this plays out.
Relatedly, Allen sees evangelical Catholicism as increasing the perception going forward of Catholicism as "far-right." Given the way "sex sells," if the Church "wishes its stances on other matters to be heard, it will have to find ever more creative ways to get them across." Allen is undoubtedly correct that this is attributable in part to the fact that "sex sells." It also is worth pointing out that tthe surrounding culture (at least the political/legal culture) is sliding further from traditional Church teaching on these issues, which makes the gap starker. But isn't this trend also due to the fact that, as Robby and others have emphasized, the bishops enter murky areas when they try to speak about health care reform; pronouncements on abortion and same-sex marriage are much more straightfoward. If a Catholic law school wants to hire for mission, using abortion or same-sex marriage as litmus tests is relatively simple (but not costless); hiring someone with a "Catholic" view on health care is not only trickier, but sends a less clear signal of Catholic identity. Will "seriously" Catholic law schools also be increasingly perceived as "far right?"
There is much else that could be discussed in this chapter. You should read it. Comments are open.