Here Come the Evangelical Catholics

06.29.2005 | CatholicThe two words together may not look right to some, but the phrase 'evangelical Catholics' may soon be mainstream as more young people in the Catholic Church exhibit the traits usually associated with evangelicals.

The counterintuitive term identifies Roman Catholics who embrace much of the public-witness style of evangelical Protestants. William Portier, the Mary Ann Spearin Chair of Catholic Theology and a religious studies professor at the University of Dayton, calls it a 'new phenomenon' and wrote about it in the essay, "Here Come the Evangelical Catholics," which just received the 2005 best article award from the College Theology Society. Portier estimates the number at 10 to 20 percent of Catholics who are under the age of 40.

"It's a relatively small group, but a very significant one," Portier said, "because these are the people most interested in the church and most likely to work in the church."

In his essay, Portier writes, "By the 1990s a new breed of student started turning up in my theology classes. Far from a majority, their small number often includes the most intellectually gifted. These students are interested in Catholic-specific issues. They want meat. They love the Pope. They are pro-life. They do service trips during breaks and gravitate toward 'service' upon graduation."

Portier, 59, said these young Catholics are what most people would call conservative, "which surprises some people my age and disturbs them. There are all these young kids at our noon Mass wearing Jesus T-shirts-I never had a Jesus T-shirt." Portier continued, "I was trying to figure out how to understand these students, which seemed like a throwback to the 1950s. But I lived in the 50s, and this seemed very different to me, and I thought it was more forward than backward looking."

As Portier conducted his research, he found three key themes that started to develop:

* Much of his essay offered a plea to his own generation to not dismiss this significant portion of young people by labeling them as conservatives.

* The views of these young Catholics don't come from the internal dynamics of the church and arguments between liberals and conservatives, but are influenced instead by the dynamics of pluralism in American society.

* Central to understanding these young people is what Portier calls the 'dissolution of the immigrant Catholic subculture.'

"In other words, people my age and older who were formed in this very well-defined and relatively well-bounded subculture went to Catholic schools, which were feeder schools for Catholic colleges," Portier said "Today, young Catholics don't live in this subculture. They live in pluralism. Those people I have in my classes who have a closer connection to the church and want to be 'intentional Catholics,' I see them as a part of the dynamics of pluralism."

According to Portier, cultural and ethnic factors that contributed to a strong Catholic identity in the past have not been replaced, which may leave evangelical Catholics with a sense of Catholic boundaries that are "diffused and ambiguous." Portier believes that because many young Catholics may view their Catholicism as accidental and incidental to their relationship with Christ, it says something about the church as a whole.

"I think it says that mainstream Catholicism is not feeding these kids what they need spiritually and religiously, so they're looking for it in adoration, daily Mass, the rosary," Portier said. "This creates great tension for people like campus ministers and pastors because most kids aren't like this, but significant numbers are, so they have to figure out how they're going to deal with both groups simultaneously."
Portier also sees this movement as a sign of what lies ahead for the Catholic Church.

"Depending on how this evangelical style develops, there could be pretty difficult relations between the generational groups within the church," Portier said. "The role of people my age is to try to educate and form these young people in the tradition and not to give up on them and dismiss them."

For more information or to schedule an interview, contact Linda Robertson at (937) 229-3257.