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Faith Exchange: Advice for a church in transitionReuters

As cardinals gather to replace Pope Benedict XVI, many of their discussions will focus on the outgoing pontiff's efforts to attract people back to the Roman Catholic Church. The New Evangelization, as it has come to be known, is about reawakening the faith, particularly in parts of the world where it was on the wane, such as Europe.

Even for the world's largest Christian church, however, the struggle to reconcile ancient doctrine with the needs of a rapidly changing world is no small task. The Globe and Mail's monthly religion panel, Faith Exchange, has convened to weigh the challenges and consider some possible solutions.

  • Peter Stockland is publisher of Convivium magazine and director of media services for Cardus, a think tank that draws on 2,000 years of Christian social thought.
  • Cheridan Sanders hosts a new Salt + Light TV series for young people, The Church Alive, on the New Evangelization and faith and culture issues.
  • Father Paul Hansen is director of Biblical Justice Consultancy for the Redemptorist Order.
  • Chris Stedman is assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard University and author of Faitheist.
  • Lorna Dueck has been reporting on Christian practice in Canadian life for the past 20 years. She is an evangelical Christian and host of Context with Lorna Dueck , seen Sundays on Global and Vision TV.
  • Moderator Guy Nicholson is an editor in The Globe’s Comment section. He professes no religious beliefs.

Guy Nicholson: Thank you for joining us today, panelists – particularly those who are with us for the first time.

I'd like to start with a question about the very premise of a "New Evangelization." Catholicism isn't a consumer product – it's a community of people with strongly held common beliefs. Why is it important to "engage" people who are currently outside that community?

Lorna Dueck: I think there is more consumer product to Christianity than we realize, but the essence that is valuable is not a commercialized one. (Even though it can be spread by commercial means, that's a different debate.) If you think of a consumer product as something that has traction because it has been created for the benefit of a consumer, the doctrines of Christianity can fall into that. The Catholic branch of Christianity, like any Christianity, can feel comfortable being widely distributed. When Jesus launched what we know today as the Church, it was a challenge to his small group of believers to share, spread and evangelize. That's part of why you'll find Christianity constantly engaging the world.

Paul Hansen: The first question we have to ask ourselves is why are they outside the community. Recently, my father died. At the wake for the family, before all others, there were about 45 people gathered. All were raised Catholic, received all the sacraments of initiation and yet not one of those present in that funeral home at that time were parish affiliated. Why? These family members are not angry; they simply feel that the Church as institution is simply irrelevant to their lives. A few years ago, they would have argued with me politely about church matters. Today, we care deeply for one another, but such a conversation would be not desired.

I conducted a priests' retreat almost a year ago on the East Coast and, in preparation, discovered from the Pew Research Institute that 30 million – yes, 30 million – raised Catholics had left the institutional church in the U.S. in the previous 10 years. So, for me, the first question that needs to be asked is why!

Cheridan Sanders: The Church exists to proclaim Christ to those who have never heard of him, but we can't forget to re-evangelize, repropose Jesus Christ to those "who are nominally his friends but for whom that friendship has lost its pizzazz – that's the new evangelization." (I'm quoting Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.) So, in a sense, the New Evangelization is especially for those inside the Church. How can you profess something you don't really understand or know? And we can't transmit a reality we don't live ourselves. We know that holiness is attractive and, when people are exposed to it, they want to find out more.

Peter Stockland: I think the real question is why the onus is constantly put on the Church to adapt to the inconstancies of the age. How many of those who simply walk away from the Church do so after a genuine critical examination of what the Church teaches and promises, and their own temptation to deify consumerist choice?

Guy Nicholson: This is really at the heart of my question, Peter. I love to play golf, and I don't want golf to change to accommodate others with less stake in the game. I imagine there are many Catholics who feel this way.

Peter Stockland: As a fanatical golfer myself, I love the analogy, Guy. But it's not just a question of nostalgia or rules for rules' sake as if we were all a bunch of pukka colonels watching the sun set on the Empire. I play golf, badly, to respect the living game of golf. Likewise, I live the Church because it is alive. And, in my belief, Christ is alive. Christ is something that is happening to me. If Christ, if the Church, were just a series of ethical precepts, or a sepia historic memory of someone who died long ago, I would just go play even more golf than I already do. But it is not. As the old movie saying goes, it's alive.

I remember years ago when Helen Gurley Brown, the founder of Cosmo magazine, turned 80, I think, and some clever headline writer, mischievously tweaking the amount of plastic surgery she'd undergone, wrote, "Helen Gurley Brown, parts of whom are 80 years old …" Who would want a Church that headline writers would say, "The Catholic Church, parts of which are 2,000 years old …"? We don't want a Church that is a full of add-on plastic inserts. We want a Church that, in its essentials, is what it was because what it was and is remains very much intact, present and alive.

Chris Stedman: I understand and appreciate why the Roman Catholic Church would want to engage with the broader world – as our society becomes increasingly globalized, religious diversity is becoming less segregated. But I am skeptical that evangelizing is the most effective way to go about engaging difference. As a non-religious person, I am particularly aware of how such efforts are likely to be received by my own community. And this is a group that is growing quite rapidly in many parts of the world. In the United States, where I live and work, the number of people who don't affiliate with any religion is at an all-time high: Today, about one in five Americans claims no religion. And that number is even higher – about one in three – among U.S. citizens under the age of 30.

What is especially noteworthy about this population is that the vast majority of religiously unaffiliated Americans claim that they aren't actively seeking membership in a religious community. They're unaffiliated and likely to stay that way. So while I think that engagement between Catholics, people of different faiths and the non-religious is profoundly important, I suspect that evangelizing isn't the best way to go about it. Now is the time for a mutually enriching dialogue about our differences.

Paul Hansen: Thanks Chris, I appreciate your comments. This New Evangelization comes out of a direction in Catholic theology that has it roots in St. Augustine, who was a Platonist. Joseph Ratzinger studied and did his doctorate on Augustine and later Bonaventure, another St. Augustine follower. The New Evangelization was a suggestion of the founder of the Communion and Liberation movement. This is a world view that does not mesh at all with our world view of today. I note that the first day that Benedict was in his new home he was reading Hans Urs von Balthasar, who is also of this school. This approach to the Evangelization is not a good starting point for a dialogue with modernity, if not postmodernity.

Cheridan Sanders: We have to invite people to experience the beauty of Catholicism first; from there, people will want to conform their life to that reality. In a postmodern context, you cannot begin with finger-wagging or talk about this is right or that's wrong. Here I think of what attracted people to Jesus; it must have been his presence. How many people have been converted by the sheer presence of a saint? There's authority that comes from authenticity.

Peter Stockland: But, Chris, it strikes me that the problem there is with the definition of evangelization. If we think of that word as a synonym of hectoring and finger-wagging and a holier-than-thou attitude, I completely agree with you. But what if evangelization is itself a mutually enriching dialogue in which the promises of the Church (that is, of Christ) are put forward as proposals, as encounters, not as edicts? Then we are talking about the manner, not the fact, of evangelization, aren't we?

Chris Stedman: Indeed, Peter! I think you're absolutely right. This is a distinction I am hearing articulated more and more often by members of religious communities who see evangelizing as a cornerstone of their faith – and it's one I welcome with gratitude. Maintaining a general orientation toward encountering diversity with inquiry and empathy, rather than lecturing at it, can facilitate more productive dialogue. In that respect, I think it is important to recognize and grapple with the tendency to demonize an out-group in order to make our own case. In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI came under fire for warning against "aggressive secularism" and comparing a lack of belief in God with "Nazi tyranny."

A true and honest dialogue between people of varying commitments requires civility, mutual respect and a commitment to freedom of conscience. I know I join people of many different faiths, including many Catholics, in hoping for more of those kinds of conversations.

Lorna Dueck: About starting points on why so many have left the church: The acid suspicion of all authority that comes with postmodernity is pretty tough on papal infallibility. The nature of the Roman Catholic Church's authority, that the Pope's official pronouncement of doctrine is infallible on our life and practice, is just too hard to receive. Understanding why that is a valid stance for global teachings has a lot of barriers to overcome.

Guy Nicholson: Lorna, that brings me to another question for the group. Assuming that there are legitimate issues for the church to address that would serve the purpose of becoming more relevant, what is the single most important one? And what needs to be done to tackle it?

Chris Stedman: As an outsider, I'm a bit reluctant to make concrete recommendations. I recently asked a friend, a former nun, what she thinks the Church needs to wrestle with today. For starters, she said the leadership needs to really listen to all people in the Church; to open the Vatican up to a real dialogue, and not just the enforcement of doctrine. She also said that the role of women needs to be addressed. Women are leaving the Catholic Church at a rate higher than men are – this is unprecedented. As someone who has studied with nuns, I agree that there is a real need for a conversation about gender in the church.

Additionally, most people I know – Catholic and non-Catholic alike – wish to see greater transparency. The Roman Catholic Church is perceived by many as deeply hypocritical, and as covering up some terrible things. This will need to be acknowledged and dealt with.

I also think greater support for secularism, rather than casting it as an enemy, is important. Living in a pluralistic world means recognizing that others must be free to live their own lives. As a queer person, I can respect that some people believe differently than I do about the morality of homosexuality, but I should be able to decide how to live my own life.

Finally, as an atheist, I return to the idea that a respectful dialogue with all non-Catholics is imperative. In his resignation statement, Pope Benedict spoke of "today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith." In this sense, I think dialogue with non-believers and other non-Catholics will be essential. Acknowledging the legitimate doubts and questions of all people, within and outside of the Roman Catholic Church, is vital.

Lorna Dueck: At the risk of offending Peter, and fellow golfers out there who don't want the game changed, here's my humble opinion: The Roman Catholic insistence that the magisterium of the Church, its Pope, its bishops and cardinals, have a communion with God that gives them infallible authority to mediate salvation, has to be revisited. It could begin by accepting women into that level of authority, and opening the dialogue into a common level without losing the authority of Scripture.

Paul Hansen: Lorna, count me in on this one.

Peter Stockland: First of all, and I will happily defer to genuine experts on this, I think there is a great misunderstanding about infallibility. Infallibility actually encourages vigorous enquiry and debate because there is an understanding that, at some point, on matters directly affecting faith and morals, and only when the Holy Father speaks ex cathedra, differences and disputes can be clarified and settled. It's not called the College of Cardinals for nothing. It's collegial.

People think of the Church as this monolith, But I would happily put my last $5 on the amount of differing voices and debates being greater within the Catholic Church than in many other settings where, respectfully, when people lose a discussion, they just get mad and leave. As for opening up the Church to women, it already is. But the question of female ordination is not an open question. It has been studied, reflected upon, considered and reconsidered and Pope John Paul II said it was closed. We move on to carrying out our Christian mission to help the poor, or something equally important.

The New Evangelization, which is really the 2,000-year-old evangelization with a fresh spring in its step, has to be centred on the presence and friendship of Christ. It has to be founded in the reality that Christ is something happening to me. Happening: today, actively, in real time, in real presence. To me: to the I that I am. All the true, infallible truths of the Church are commentary on that fundamental truth.

Lorna Dueck: I completely agree that we must experience the reality of Christ in a presence and friendship with us, Peter. However, the "infallible truths of the Church" get in the way of that when those truths engage in basic human power. For example, if Church leadership blocks distribution of condoms or birth control, where is the love of Christ for neighbour in that?

Peter Stockland: The love of Christ there is in the love of life as understood by His church. It is in the love of openness to life and the proper use of human sexuality, again as understood by his church. If you read, for example, Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body, you begin to appreciate that this is a coherent understanding of human life, even if it's one you disagree with. It's not capricious. It's not dictatorial. It is based on conclusion following premise.

Guy Nicholson: An outsider like me might get the impression that the Vatican considers Catholicism a baseline for Christianity – a sort of historical and moral starting point. Is this a fair assumption? And if so, is this part of why there is resistance to moving away from traditional teaching toward a different – some might call it modern or inclusive – kind of church?

Lorna Dueck: In the past 50 years, we've seen enormous change on what's considered a baseline for Christianity as it was debated between the two biggest defenders of the faith, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The starting point was agreed, that the core truth of salvation is belief in the grace of Jesus Christ. Then the two branches divide on what is the nature of the Church.

Guy Nicholson: Is grassroots change possible in the Catholic Church?

Lorna Dueck: In suburbia, where I live, the Catholic churches are overflowing. Two-thirds of the Roman Catholic Church are worshipping outside of North America and it, too, is burgeoning in enthusiasm and community. They are many evidences that grassroots followers of Jesus who are Roman Catholic are in deep renewal of their lives. They are robust in a faith that believes in experiencing the daily comfort and guide of the Holy Spirit, and are fully engaged in acts of service. I think this eventually is going to chip away at Rome's hierachy; places are going to be found for this enthusiasm. Somehow, these congregants are able to balance love for their church despite its weakness.

Cheridan Sanders: Grassroots renewal is possible in the Church. You only have to look at communities like Focolare, or events such as World Youth Day, to know this. Whether we want to change or should change is another question. The Church does not desire change for its own sake. It desires to be faithful to teachings that have been handed down and clarified over centuries.

Lorna Dueck: That's the happy side of the grassroots. Reality also contains a sentiment that Bishop Brian Dunn of Antigonish recently shared with the National Catholic Reporter about the New Evangelization. Reflecting on his diocese's shattering over sexual abuse in its clerical ranks, he saw their outrage as a call for change in church structures, saying the church needs "a profound change of mentality, attitude and heart in our ways of working with laypeople." That's a bishop acknowledging a grassroots wakeup call to the fallibility of the priesthood.

Cheridan Sanders: Sure, there's a desperate need for renewal and a change of mentality when it comes to working with laypeople. He's essentially echoing something already addressed in Vatican II. But as I read it, he is not asking us to change the priesthood; rather, he's asking that we adopt a stance of humility in all things.

Peter Stockland: But Lorna, Cardinal Thomas Collins, the Archbishop of Toronto, who I know you know as a loving and humble man, is part of that hierarchy. Neither he nor the hierarchy constitutes some faceless assemblage. It's human beings living out their call to feed Christ's sheep.

Paul Hansen: Given the present structures, grassroots change is not possible. We have to return to the vision and the life example of Jesus of Nazareth and, in a very real sense, try to start anew, otherwise we will very quickly become a museum piece in this northern hemisphere of our world. That is why those 30 million who left the institution in the U.S. still call themselves Catholic but are finding ways to live that conviction outside the institutional structures in ways that reflect their lives and their sense of the workings of the Holy Spirit.

Cheridan Sanders: The problem with that is that Christ calls us to be a community. It's impossible to be a Christian and not be a part of the Church. We are not called to set ourselves apart; we are called to struggle through this together.

Guy Nicholson: One of Pope Benedict's most remarked upon moves was to register a Twitter account – symbolically significant and essentially free. Are there other examples of "low-hanging fruit" the Church could pluck?

Chris Stedman: Certainly, the Roman Catholic Church should be engaging with the world in a variety of ways, including Twitter. But I think that the question about grassroots renewal gets at where engagement is most transformative: in the immediate, the intimate, the interpersonal. In order to overcome some of the ways in which the Church is perceived by some as being out of touch, and as standing on the side of injustice rather than justice, there will need to be more dialogue and co-operation on the community level.

When it comes to my interactions with Catholicism, I'm personally much more interested in the relational than I am in the institutional. I have been significantly influenced by my relationships with members of the Catholic faith who have committed their lives toward directly serving humanity, and their grassroots activism has challenged my own thinking on Catholicism.

Lorna Dueck: The way Pope Benedict used Twitter to send pithy missives about what was essential was brilliant. The powers shouldn't have scrubbed his last tweet, "May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the center of your lives." Tradition held, and like the papal ring, the account was smashed – too bad.

Other low-hanging fruit: Easier access to marriage. Easier access to divorce recovery.

Peter Stockland: Did Christ actually teach "easier access to divorce recovery"? With respect, I don't think Scripture supports easy access to divorce or recovery from it.

Lorna Dueck: This is such a wounded ground, Peter; it is "low-hanging fruit" for the grace of Christ. I think we saw it first in Jesus where he spoke to the woman caught in adultery, or the woman at the well who had had several husbands.

Peter Stockland: Who would want a church that invests itself in the lowest-hanging fruit? Isn't the whole message of the Gospel doing the hard thing when it's the right thing, that is when it is Christ happening to me?

Guy Nicholson: One final question: Who do you think will be the next pope?

Lorna Dueck: It's very exciting to watch this, and foolish of me to speculate; there's a verse in the Bible that frustrated prophets have vented: "Who knows?" My heart was warmed by the wonderful piece the CBC did on Cardinal Ouellet's family and roots in Quebec, and how his understandings of Quebec blended into his approach to the world; I hope Cardinal Ouellet gets the big job. I suspect, though, that the Archbiship of Milan, Angelo Scola, is the front-runner. At 71, he's lively with a pastoral and missionary touch that has experienced the world as his parish.

Peter Stockland: I totally agree, Lorna. Cardinal Scola seems the front-runner. But, ultimately, only the Holy Spirit knows and, right now, isn't saying.

Paul Hansen: I hope for the 55-year-old from Manila.

Cheridan Sanders: Yes, the wildcard candidate is Cardinal Tagle of Manila; he's a man who exudes love for Christ and the Church. But if I were a betting woman, it's Cardinal Ouellet.

Chris Stedman: Here, I'll defer to the Catholics in the conversation. But I, and surely many other non-Catholics, will be watching with interest and optimism.

Guy Nicholson: Best and thanks to you all.