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The Challenge of Independent Christianity (part 10) PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Saturday, 05 May 2007 17:00
Posted for Sherry W.

See part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8, part 9.

Just a reminder for my readers: NONE of the staff or teachers of the Catherine of Siena Institute have ever been or are currently part of the “Independent Christian” movement! Nor have any of our posters on ID ever been part of it (as far as I know).

I am writing about this movement as a journalist, not an apologist. I am describing the second largest, fastest growing, and most missionary-minded Christian community in the world today because we have to recognize their existence in order to deal with them.

As a journalist, my job is to try and help you grasp the nature and significance of the movement. Since Independent Christianity is complicated to describe, I will spend most of my time describing and secondarily exploring some of the implications for the Catholic Church. I will not be spending my time in a detailed analysis and rebuttal of their many theological problems, not because I agree with their stance but because it would require another 20,000 words to do so and this is long enough as it is!

Ecumenical and Intra-Ecclesial Implications

We tend to regard the three basic “types” of Christianity - Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy - as essentially stable and fixed. Given the long histories and long memories of these faiths, it is only natural to think of religious affiliation as a deeply-rooted identity that changes only with difficulty and very slowly. We don’t expect to wake up tomorrow and find that Protestants have decided en masse that the Reformation was not a good idea or that the Orthodox have jettisoned their icons in favor of store-front missions. Our ecumenical dialogue is founded upon this presumed stability.

David Barrett, however, has a fascinating sidebar in his World Christian Encyclopedia indicating that a surprising amount of religious change is, in fact, the norm. As Barrett puts it, “Every year, millions of people are changing their religious profession or their Christian affiliation. Mass defections are occurring from stagnant majority religions to newer religions” (World Christian Encyclopedia, p. 5). It is imperative for us to understand that a significant part of this change is the result of personal choices, and not just natural birth and death. Evangelicals have a saying: “God has no grandchildren”. Although Catholics don’t usually think in these terms, the Church’s recent experience in the West should give us pause.


Christianity has experienced massive losses in the Western world over the last 60 years...every year, some 2,7655,100 church attenders in Europe and North America cease to be practicing Christians within the 12-month period, an average loss of 7,500 every day. At the global level, these losses from Christianity in the Western World slightly outweigh the gains in the Third world. (World Christian Encyclopedia, p. 5).

Most thoughtful Catholics are already aware of the grim situation of the Church in the West which, in part, spurred Pope John Paul II to call for a new evangelization.
On the other hand, Christianity has experienced massive gains across the Third World throughout the 20th century... The present net increase (in Africa) is 8.4 million new Christians a year (23,000 a day) of which 1.5 million are net new converts (converts minus defections or apostasies). Sizeable net conversions are also taking place in Asia (2.4 million/year). (World Christian Encyclopedia, p. 5).

Looking at the global scene as a whole, one must conclude that the mission ad gentes has been the great success story of the 20th century. It is the pastoral care and on-going evangelization of established Christian peoples – especially in historic European denominations - that has “collapsed”.

But there is another change, just as dramatic, which most Catholics have not yet noticed, even though it has occurred in our lifetime - in a single generation. The rise of the Independent movement is one consequence of the massive “pentacostalization” of those Christian communities who are the spiritual heirs of the Protestant Reformation.

Every day, 30,000 Christians around the world join the ranks of what Barrett calls the “renewalists”. Under the generic term renewalist, Barret would include all members of classic Pentecostal denominations (80 million); all charismatics within standard denominations including Catholics (186 million), and all “neo-charismatics” who are neither classic Pentecostals or within standard denominations (324 million). In mid 2005, there were approximately 590 million renewalist Christians in the world.

In 1970, only 16% of non Catholic, non-Orthodox Christians qualified as renewalists. By 2000, 60% of Reformation heritage Christians in the world were renewalists. And a significant percentage of the remaining 40%, who would not formally qualify as renewalists, have nonetheless absorbed some of their ideas and practices. The part of the world where Christianity is most obviously faltering, such as Europe, has the fewest number of renewalists while Latin America and Asia have the most. The United States is the western country with the largest number (31%). (A detailed look at the global growth of the renewal is available in the World Christian Encyclopedia, pages 19-21).

This is especially significant because cessationism - the theological conviction that the miracles of the apostolic age ceased when the full canon of Scripture become available as a source of revelation and guidance – is a Protestant idea. Cessationism never made much sense to Catholic or Orthodox Christians who continued to expect the saints to work miracles, but it was the norm among non-Pentecostal Protestants only a generation ago. As a baby Baptist in southern Mississippi, I was taught that things like speaking in tongues and miraculous healings were demonic manifestations. In the 80’s, many evangelical mission agencies still would not accept charismatic candidates.

Today, it is a rare American or Latin or Asian or African Protestant indeed who holds to strict cessationism. They aren’t necessarily going to be speaking in tongues anytime soon, but even the most cautious are usually open to the possibility of divine healing. This can’t help but strongly affect our ecumenical dialogue with our Reformed heritage brothers and sisters.

To understand the impact of charismatic spirituality on Catholics, we have to distinguish between actual magisterial teaching on charisms and the charismatic dimension of the Church, the Catholic charismatic renewal, and those who have simply absorbed charismatic beliefs or practices, whether via Catholic or Protestant sources.

The whole issue of charisms - how common and widely they are given, and how they are related to baptism and the apostolate of the laity - was specifically discussed in October, 1965 during the debates on the Decree on the Laity at the Second Vatican Council. Welcoming and discerning the charisms was already formal Church teaching at the highest level when what is now known as the charismatic renewal broke out in 1967 at a student retreat at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh:

It is not only through the sacraments and the ministries of the Church that the Holy Spirit sanctifies and leads the People of God and enriches it with virtues, but, "allotting his gifts to everyone according as he wills (1 Cor 12:11), he distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank. By these gifts he makes them fit and ready to undertake the various tasks and offices which contribute toward the renewal and building up of the Church, according to the words of the Apostle: "The manifestation of the Spirit is given to everyone for profit" (1 Cor 12:7).

These charisms, whether they be the more outstanding or the more simple and widely diffused, are to be received with thanksgiving and consolation, for they are perfectly suited to and useful for the needs of the Church. Extraordinary gifts are not to be sought after, nor are the fruits of apostolic labor to be presumptuously expected from their use, but judgment as to their genuinity and proper use belongs to those who are appointed leaders in the Church, to whose special competence it belongs, not indeed to extinguish the Spirit, but to test all things and hold fast to that which is good (cf. 1 Thes 5:12; 19-21). (Dogmatic Constititution on the Church, 12)

Formal involvement in the charismatic renewal is a minority experience among Catholics – especially in the West. As of 2000, about 120 million (11.3%) Catholics in the world had been involved in the charismatic renewal at some point. It is much rarer among the Orthodox - only 1.5%. (Sherry’s note: in any other communion, 120 million would be a massive majority. Remember that the entire world-wide Anglican communion is only 86 million strong.)

However, the numbers of Catholics around the world who have adapted “renewalist” ideas or practices is much larger. Consider Latin America. Brazil is not only the largest Catholic country in the world; it is also the home of the largest number of denominational Pentecostals (24 million) and the largest number of charismatics (35 million) – most of whom are Catholic. A recent survey conducted by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found, for example, that “more than half of Brazilian Catholics have embraced important elements of spirit-filled or renewalist Christianity, including a highly animated worship style and such practices as speaking in tongues and divine healing.”

And the same phenomenon is changing the face of the American Catholic Church. To explore the complex nature of religion among Latinos in the US, who already make up 39% of Catholics, the Pew Hispanic Center and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life collaborated on a series of surveys that totaled more than 4,600 interviews, constituting one of the largest data collection efforts conducted on this subject.

They found that, in the US,
more than half of Hispanic Catholics identify themselves as charismatics, compared with only an eighth of non-Hispanic Catholics. While remaining committed to the church and its traditional teachings, many of these Latino Catholics say they have witnessed or experienced occurrences typical of spirit-filled or renewalist movements, including divine healing and direct revelations from God. Even many Latino Catholics who do not identify themselves as renewalists appear deeply influenced by spirit-filled forms of Christianity.


This gap between those who are consciously open to charismatic phenomena and those who are not is rapidly becoming the new global divide between Christians. Most importantly for the US, it is opening a nearly unbridgeable chasm of experience and imagination between the enlightenment-influenced, Anglo Catholic elite (conservative, liberal, and traditionalist) and their charismatic Protestant and Catholic brothers and sisters.

(Sherry’s note: In my experience, the fear and loathing with which some intellectually inclined Catholics regard charismatics isn’t about charisms at all. The loathing is really directed toward a particular style of emotionally demonstrative worship and the fear is that the intellect and its fruit will cease to be valued. They don’t know that there are very real, supernatural charisms of the intellect.

I have had many conversations around the world with traditionalist and intellectual Christians who would shudder at the prospect of darkening the door of a charismatic prayer meeting but were clearly manifesting charisms. I’ve talked to people in dioceses so adverse to the renewal that charismatic prayer groups are literally underground. I have listened to priests who are clearly manifesting charisms of healing (and talking about it in whispers!) in the most traditionalist dioceses on earth. When I point that out to them and show them how their experience corresponds to magisterial teaching, they rejoice – but would still shudder if asked to raise their hands and sing praise songs.

In magisterial teaching, the charisms are one of the normative fruits of baptism, given for the sake of others and the mission of the Church; hence the urgency that they be discerned. If we simply regard the charisms in themselves, the whole charismatic/non-charismatic tension – which is really about something else - just dissolves.)

There is more at stake in all this than openness to the miraculous.

Protestantism, as a whole, is undergoing the biggest changes in ecclesiology, pastoral practice, and spirituality seen since the Reformation. Mainline and evangelical Protestant strategists in the west are starting all kinds of alternate congregations and movements aimed at post-modern seekers. They are called by various names: “emergent church”, “missional church”, or “simple church”. They may or may not be part of the New Apostolic Reformation but they share many similar convictions.
We believe the missional genius of the church can only be unleashed when there are foundational changes made to the church's very DNA, and this means addressing core issues like ecclesiology, spirituality, and leadership. It means a complete shift away from Christendom thinking, which is attractional, dualistic, and hierarchical. (The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church, by Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost, 2003)

Cardinal George of Chicago has famously observed that U.S. citizens "are culturally Calvinist, even those who profess the Catholic faith." Ordinary American Catholics will inevitably be deeply affected, even if they never leave the Church, when Protestantism, which so dominates our religious imagination and culture as a nation, undergoes a dramatic transformation. The fact that Latinos, with their very different cultural and charismatic sensibilities, will probably soon constitute a majority of American Catholics, is only going to reinforce this trend.

More on implications for Catholics tomorrow.
 

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