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Why do Catholics become Evangelicals? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Michael Fones   
Monday, 08 January 2007 09:38
When I first arrived in Colorado Springs, Sherry told me it is sometimes referred to as "the Evangelical Vatican." Driving around town, I couldn't help notice all the churches on streetcorners and malls. They range in size from megachurches like "New Life" with 15,000 members to tiny ma and pa housechurches that might become megachurches in 20 years.

I even went on a fieldtrip to New Life one Sunday after Mass with Sherry to see what it was like (that might be another blog post someday!) Apparently, many of the members of these churches are former Catholics and Catholics who "double-dip," going to Mass sometimes and to the Evangelical church on other weekends.

In the December 2006 issue of Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Fr. Gerald Mendoza, OP, of the Southern U.S. Dominican Province has an article entitled, "Why do Catholics become Evangelicals?" that I'd like to comment upon. But first, a brief synopsis of his points.

Fr. Mendoza comments on the millions of Hispanic Catholics who are leaving Catholicism for Evangelical Protestantism in Latin America. According to Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo of Managua, Nicaragua, the number of Protestants in Latin America has grown from 4 million in 1967 to 30 million in 1985. Only 15% of Latin American Catholics actively practice their faith, and if the trend present between 1960 – 1985 hold, fully one third of Latin America will be Protestant (mostly Evangelical) by 2010. In our own country, anecdotal evidence indicates that 30% of the 35 million Evangelicals are former Catholics. Sherry has told me of "seeker-friendly" megachurches like Bill Hybel's Willow Creek in Chicago that have special classes aimed at fallen away Catholics, who make up the vast majority of former Catholics who become Evangelicals.

The mission of the early Church, Mendoze writes was "unapologetically missionary and evangelical. It would seem that the almost exclusive purpose and mission of the twelve apostles, as well as the many other disciples that accompanied Jesus…was, ostensibly, an on-the-job-training program meant to disseminate the Good News or evangelion, so that God, in his indefatigable love and desire for a personal relationship with his creation, might reconcile it to himself." Mendoza moves through a quick overview of the medieval and post-reformation attitudes towards evangelization, Paul VI's Apostolic Exhortation on Evangelization in the Modern World, and concludes with a quote from a homily of Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the Vatican household, on the tendency in our contemporary situation to preach a "new gospel" focusing on "self-knowledge, self-expression, self-acceptance, self-justification, self-realization, in other words, self-fulfillment instead of the self-denial and self-forgetfulness that lies at the heart of Christianity."

But why do Catholics leave? Mendoza outlines four reasons

1) lack of active participation in Mass.
2) lack of scriptural and theological understanding (in part, because of 1).
3) lack of appropriate and effective Catholic catechesis, due to the emphasis on sacramental preparation of children, leading to theological sophistication at the elementary or junior high school level.
4) anemic parishes that are often large and impersonal, and poor preaching.

These may, in fact, be reasons why Catholics leave the Church, but I find these to be no more than symptoms of an underlying problem, which Cantalamessa addresses in a December 2 Advent Homily to the Papal household ( that Sherry quoted in her January 4 post. I'll requote a portion of it, but the final sentence is the one that touches upon an answer to the question of this post.

"The Churches with a strong dogmatic and theological tradition (as the Catholic Church is par excellence), run the risk of finding themselves at a disadvantage if underneath the immense patrimony of doctrine, laws and institutions, they do not find that primordial nucleus capable of awakening faith by itself…This is one of the reasons why in some parts of the world many Catholics leave the Catholic Church for other Christian realities; they are attracted by a simple and effective announcement that puts them in direct contact with Christ and makes them experience the power of his Spirit."

In the preaching, catechesis, sacramental preparation, service projects, and community-building events that take place in our parishes, perhaps we've forgotten or obscured the "primordial nucleus" of the Gospel message that awakens faith. It is the transforming power of a personal relationship with Jesus, made possible by his grace and the hearing of the basic message of the Gospel, that sets hearts on fire with faith and love. It is intentional discipleship that compels people to desire to encounter Christ in the Mass and other sacraments and to rely on that encounter to continue as his disciples. It is intentional discipleship kept alive by a daily reliance on grace that fuels the Catholic Christian's desire to learn more about Christ in the Scriptures, and to seek the teaching of the Church as a guide for daily life. Dare I say it - it is intentional discipleship in our clergy that leads to inspiring, challenging, creative, passionate, orthodox homilies.

Fr. Mendoza suggests that we can learn something from how evangelicals evangelize, but when it comes to his solutions for how we can stem the tide of Catholics becoming Evangelicals, he offers the "same old, same old."
1) Prioritize the evangelical mission of the Church, including "a new, special consistory…to strategize and establish a new office in the curia to assist with Catholic evangelistic efforts or to reform the existing Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples." Offer moral and financial support for lay evangelistic movements and organizations (the Institute could use some of that support!). And where our expertise is deficient because we've ignored evangelization, he suggests drawing upon successful Evangelical programs.
2) Establish an international movement to bring home lapsed Catholics with a national plan for each country established by each national conference of bishops with the support of the Vatican and mandated participation by each diocese.
3) Establish diocesan and parish offices of adult education and catechesis to foster mid-week adult religious and scriptural educational programs.

None of these solutions seem very promising to me. The typical Catholic response to problems is to create a program. That worked in this country when many Catholics were poor immigrants who lived in Catholic cultural ghettos. Unless we heed Fr. Cantalmessa's observation of the need for preaching the heart of the Gospel and inviting people into a lived relationship with Christ, these programs won't be as successful as they could be. Unless we identify our intentional disciples in our midst, support them, hold them up as the norm for Christian living, and give them tools with which to evangelize others, we will continue to see the seed of faith planted in the hearts of baptized Catholics bloom in Evangelical churches.

Intentional disciples who live and speak about their faith have a much greater potential for successful evangelization than a program. For one thing, they encounter people who are fallen away. By definition, fallen away Catholics aren't present in our parish churches when we advertise our programs in the bulletin! Furthermore, successful evangelization begins with a trusting relationship – either with an individual Christian, or with the Scriptures, or with an institution like the Church. This is perhaps one reason why our frequent commenter, Gina, is soured on the idea of talking about her faith. She's been accosted with questions about her relationship with Jesus by strangers whom she does not trust.

For the same reason, catechetical programs won't be successful until we begin to develop a culture of intentional discipleship. Every campus ministry I was involved with had over 1500 registered parishioners made up of students, university faculty, staff, administrators, plus local folks. Every year because of the tremendous turnover due to graduations, drop outs, transfers, incoming freshmen and graduate students and the general mobility of well-educated Americans, we re-registered every parishioner. Every year we invited people to express what offerings they'd be interested in. Usually a good percentage of people would say they were interested in Bible study, but when we offered bible studies, only a handful – often less than fifteen people - showed up. I don't think my experience is unusual. People who remain uncatechized in spite of the offerings that already exist may well do so because faith is not the highest or even a high priority for them. That's not the case for intentional disciples.

Relying upon the bishops to come up with a plan of evangelization may not be a great idea unless they collaborate with those who are involved already in direct evangelization. The bishops have a lot to teach about the principles of evangelization, but few have experience in the field. With how many unbelievers and fallen away Catholics does the average bishop get to meet and establish a relationship? I certainly didn't meet many as a pastor.

I am grateful Fr. Mendoza is asking the question, "Why do Catholics become Evangelicals?" Too often we ignore that it is happening at all. And while their faith and their relationship with Jesus might be awakened in the megachurches that are popping up everywhere, Catholics who leave the Church are missing the supernatural supports of that faith and relationship: the Sacraments, the wisdom of 2,000 years of Christian experience and teaching, and the communion of saints - that cloud of witnesses living and deceased who support us with their prayers, example, and love. Their ongoing journey of faith may be more rocky than it need be.

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