Engaging the Spirituals: The secular challenge to the New Evangelization

Three events recently awakened me to the weighty reality of our secular age and why the church's New Evangelization is both timely and crucial.

The first took place one Sunday afternoon as I watched “Higher Ground,” Vera Farmiga’s film about an evangelical woman’s struggle with faith. The reviews I read had praised the film for giving an honest view of contemporary faith. I kept waiting for the moment of revelation to come, but the epiphany that takes place in the last sequence is no revelation at all. We are left with Corinne Walker, Ms. Farmiga’s lead character, still aching for God to break into her life. If the reviewers are to be believed, the icon of faith for the people of our day is a woman beating on her car for God to break the silence. There are hints that “Higher Ground” wants to be about maturing in faith, but the story at best depicts the impossibility of finding a mature faith in the contemporary world.


The second event occurred the same evening, as I took in one of my guilty pleasures, an episode of “Inspector Lewis” on PBS’s Masterpiece Mysteries series. In these stories the title character, a world-weary widower, is paired with Detective Sergeant James Hathaway, an intellectual former Catholic seminarian. Like so much in cinema and on television, this series shows a certain fascination with Catholicism. In an unbelieving world, Catholic rites, Catholic family piety and individual Catholic belief are still talismans for a forgotten world of faith. The murders to be solved that evening took place at an Oxford friary, Saint Gerard’s. During the investigation, one of the suspects asks Lewis whether he believes. Lewis answers he used to, intimating that his faith died with his wife in a hit-and-run accident some years before.

Later, the murder solved, Lewis and Hathaway share a beer while contemplating a natural mystery, a Turneresque sunset. Lewis asks Hathaway why the setting sun is not enough for him, as it is for Lewis. Hathaway deflects the question by asking Lewis about his plans to retire. When Lewis replies that his retirement will open the way for a promotion for Hathaway, the younger detective responds that should Lewis retire, he will leave the police. The viewer understands Hathaway may be considering returning to the ministry or taking the junior lectureship in theology offered him in the course of the episode.

Yet Hathaway, the image of the mature, educated, even sophisticated postmodern believer, holds his faith a closely guarded secret. The series requires that he share theological trivia, translate Latin and Greek and insinuate himself into clerical circles. The most viewers know about him is that he left the seminary guilty over the orthodox but ultimately deadly advice he gave a gay friend about coping with his homosexuality. We see his occasional acts of devotion: he furtively lights a candle, stops to contemplate a Nativity scene in a chapel. But we have not a hint of what or why Sergeant Hathaway believes. His is a thoroughly private, unspoken faith.

The third event came the next morning. A culture report during a National Public Radio newscast reviewed a two-millennial-old classic, Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, “On the Nature of Things,” a first-century essay in cosmology best known for its speculation about the atomic nature of matter. What was the news? That De Rerum Natura is an atheistic text. As Stephen Greenblatt writes in his new novel, The Swerve, in Lucretius “there is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design.” Two millennia before Inspector Lewis, Lucretius found the complexity, diversity and beauty of nature enough for him. He did not ask, “Is that all there is?” This world was enough to delight him.

Lucretius was the reporter’s stand-in for Richard Dawkins and the scientific naturalists in the creationist-evolution debate. But in the radio report there was no debate, no philosophers or theologians to comment or put Lucretius in historical context; there was just Mr. Greenblatt celebrating his atheistic predecessor. Secular naturalism, it seems, is the currency of the culture.

One, two, three, things fell into place: Ours is a secular age: an evangelical woman confronting the silence of God, Detective Hathaway mute about his faith, atheists celebrating their idols without apology and without challenge. These are by no means the only signs of our times, but they are signs symptomatic of the culture in which the church undertakes the New Evangelization.

Top Priority

Pope Benedict XVI has made the challenge to secularism a major theme of his pontificate and singled it out as the number one problem facing the church in the Western world. To meet the challenge, he established the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization and appointed one of the rising stars of the curia, Archbishop Rino Fischella, to head it.

In a parallel move, the Pontifical Council for Culture is moving ahead with a new program for dialogue with secular thinkers, especially scientists, called The Court of the Gentiles, after the outer court of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. “There should be a dialogue,” Pope Benedict said, “with those for whom religion is something foreign, to whom God is unknown yet who do not wish to be left utterly without God, but rather to draw near to him, even as if to the Unknown.”

Last March in Paris the pope praised a mixed crowd of young believers and nonbelievers who had come together in a model court before the cathedral of Notre Dame “to discuss the great questions of existence.” He continued, “Those of you who are unbelievers challenge believers in a particular way to live in a way consistent with the faith they profess and [you challenge them] by your rejection of any distortion of religion which would make it unworthy of man. You who are believers,” he went on, “long to tell your friends that the treasure dwelling within you is meant to be shared....”

Pope Benedict not only respects unbelievers but also appreciates them in ways that should confound self-appointed watchdogs of orthodoxy. He understands, for example, that many among them would like to discuss “the great questions of existence.” He senses “the immortal longings” that make them restless, and he perceives their justified antipathy to the hypocrisy of lax Christians and how their rejection of “the distortions of religion” contributes to the purification of the church. In this he is a son of the Second Vatican Council, which confessed, “Indeed the Church admits she has greatly profited and still profits from the antagonism of those who oppose or persecute her” (“Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” No. 44).

Emergence of the Spirituals

In the last decade a major development in the religious demography of the United States has been the growth of a segment of the population whom the pollsters call “the spirituals.” Many people, especially young people, report themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” In general, that means they are unchurched, not necessarily formally uninitiated but often disaffected from the church. Eventually the spirituals may find themselves in a congregation of their own choosing. Their standard for belonging, however, is not the religious authority of any church as a repository of revelation but rather the satisfaction of their own often inarticulate searching.

The subjective, unaffiliated character of the spirituals’ choices does not mean they are shallow. Many regularly carry out disciplined spiritual practices: meditating daily, fasting at special times, serving the hungry in soup kitchens, doing spiritual reading, seeking out spiritual guides. What they reject is conformity in a rules-bound institution. They do not understand why they need to marry in a church building rather than under the vault of heaven. They resist the reinforcement of ritual distinctions between the ordinary faithful and the ordained. They want to explore the world of faith and plumb the depths of the spirit in the company of like-minded people. They welcome the company of the officially religious who can help them but balk at rigid orthodoxies, imagined or prescribed in the name of tradition. They want to converse with men and women of other denominations, and with those of other faiths, like Muslims and Buddhists, and to learn from them.

I think of St. Francis of Assisi in conversation with the Sultan Malik al-Kamil. The seekers and the saints find one another; they understand one another; they grow together and spur one another on in the quest for God.

Consider the lay movement Focolare. Its charism of unity inspires an extraordinary inclusiveness that embraces people of many faiths and no faith at all. All are drawn by the alluring power of the movement’s charity. Where the self-appointed inquisitors of the day seek to put distance between Catholics and non-Catholics and even between themselves and some Catholics who are insufficiently orthodox by some narrow sectarian standard, Focolare’s genius is to invite everyone to the table, just as Jesus did. The Focolarini are a community that lives Pope Benedict’s maxim in “Deus Caritas Est,” “A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak” (No. 31).

The Mustard Tree Church

Pope Benedict XVI, in his book Without Roots (2006), showed appreciation for spiritual kinships beyond formal church structures. Drawing on the parable of the mustard seed (Mt 13:31-32), he argued that the big church (my term), one larger than the organizational boundaries we routinely set for it, is like the great tree grown from the mustard seed, in which all the birds of the air find their home. The alliances that then-Cardinal Ratzinger was proposing were ties with Italian secularists who affirmed the Christian roots of Europe and took the side of the church on human life and other social issues. But his capacious image of the big tree is patient of expanding to include Catholics’ engagement with “the spirituals” too.

Commenting last year on the parable of the two sons, Pope Benedict offered this paraphrase: “Agnostics who are constantly exercised by the question of God, those who long for a pure heart but suffer on account of our sin...are closer to the Kingdom of God than believers whose life of faith is ‘routine’ and who regard the Church merely as an institution, without letting their hearts be touched by faith.”

So the New Evangelization is not just about rebutting aggressive European secularists but more about engaging the spirituals among them, even as Catholics are called to a new, fully conscious, self-appropriated faith.

The first challenge for U.S. Catholics in the New Evangelization is to engage the spirituals, to befriend them. They are not “low-hanging fruit” for proselytizing nor erring sheep to be brought back to the fold. Those who are serious challenge us as to the degree of our own spiritual discipline. Those who may appear to be no more than spiritual vagabonds test our willingness and ability to express and share our faith with them. We cannot afford to be mute about what we believe.

But spirituals will not be interested in hearing correct answers hedged about with all sorts of protective cautions. Rather, they want to hear us speak from the heart about “the hope that is within [us]” (1 Pt 3:15). Careful answers are the residue of history. The spirituals are not interested in answers to past controversies. They want to know what men and women they respect believe, to learn why they believe it and to discuss with them what difference it makes in their lives and for our common life together.

Rev. Brendan Leahy talks about Focolare and other lay movements.

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7 years ago

Good article, thank you.  Thanks for recognizing that one size does NOT fit all.  Certainly structure is necessary, but so is flexibility.  The church needs to be elastic enough to stretch out and envelope all the different ways human beings can find that help them to relate to God in real, tangible, concrete and not artificial ways.  Otherwise it’s not a universal church. 

I’m not sure why you take issue with the Hathaway character.  I haven’t seen the series, but from your description he sounds like a typical Old School, pre-Vat Catholic.  We’ve always been very private about our faith.  We were brought up that way.  It wasn’t something you wore on your sleeve.  The character isn’t in the story to represent or speak for the Catholic Church, he’s there to simply be a character, and the character happens to be a certain kind of Catholic.  The character seems to me to be a very plausible one. 

And I also appreciated the quotes showing the openness of the Pope to a sincere dialogue and exchange with non-believers, and with how much credit he gives them for actually caring enough to engage in the dialogue.  It helps to see that so we don’t so easily stereotype the Pope or the hierarchy like we tend to do.  The hierarchy isn’t the bad guy all the time, just some of the time…like us!  :)  

But I think the best quote was the one about how sometimes we just have to shut up and love.  If we actually did that, no one would be able to stereotype us so unfavorably.  Love made real by giving ourselves to others is far more powerful than anything the left side of the brain will ever produce…

Thanks for the article.

Des Farrell
7 years ago
What a brilliant, inspiring and hopeful article. I can't find a sentence to disagree with, however, I'll reread it slower this time! 

Many of the arguments of atheists and anti-theists are very strong, I wonder if contributors could recommend what book has most inspired them as part of this new evangelization? I've lost count of the number of times I've mentioned Pierre Teilhard de Chardin every time the book of Genesis is brought up.
Thanks again, des 
7 years ago
#1 Steve I love your comments.
Lisa Weber
7 years ago
The problem for the Church in evangelizing is conveying an adult message - one that is mature and thoughtful.  The messages are there, particularly in papal documents, but those messages are seldom heard in the parish.
Des Farrell
7 years ago
Either everyone has gone shy or is recovering from St Patrick's day but I find that my request above goes unanswered. I was wondering what books really grasp the nettle of explaining faith in a secular world? I have a dozen titles on a table beside me which are outstanding but I was hoping to stimulate a little dialogue. 
By the way, the last two paragraphs of this article, on a second and third reading, remain inspired. 
So, if a lapsed Catholic or searching agnostic was to ask you for your favourite 3 books on growing that mustard tree what would they be? 
ed gleason
7 years ago
Des, St Francis by Chesterson got me on the Way many many years ago. Your question will get me to read it again.
7 years ago
Here's a few books about having faith in a secular world and on what is called the "Emergent Church", i.e. the way the Christian church today is evolving and changing.  Here's a few:

"A Generous Orthodoxy" by Brian McClaren
"The Great Emergence" by Phyllis Tickle
"A Search for What is Real" by Brian McClaren
"A Search for What Makes Sense" by Brian McClaren
"Jesus Wants to Save Christians, A Manifesto for the Church in Exile" by Rob Bell

These are all from a non-Catholic perspective, but it's interesting to see that Christian unrest with traditional Christianity exist on both sides of the Catholic/non-Catholic divide...What is refreshing about this movement is that it seems very open to what other traditions bring to the table.  The non-Catholic side of this sees that there is a lot of value in the Catholic churches that shouldn't be rejected simply becuase they're Catholic.  Everyone brings something to the table.  

I don't know of any books on the Catholic side of this.  But then, would you expect there to be?

Des Farrell
7 years ago
Great to get a couple of responses, yes Ed, Chesterton was recommended to me by William J O'Malley, whose own book 'the Wow factor' is a beautiful book, a real page turner. 
Steve, thanks for the contributions, none of these titles are familiar to me, so that's great, new territory to travel. I agree that ecumenical antagonisms are the quickest way to alienate searching souls. Compared to the experiences of the apostles, not to mention their boss, the petty squabbling between Christian churches can be soul destroying.

Last night I was at a talk about a new book 'Stepping stones to other Religions ' by Dermot Lane which is quite an academic book but deals specifically with the presence of the Holy Spirit in other faiths, as formulated in Vatican II. This is quite an exciting subject, one perhaps that frightens many Christians since the time of the genius Matteo Ricci.

Specifically I am looking for titles that one could recommend to a friend who says to you 'ok, you have my attention, what is Christianity really all about'. In other words nothing too academic or pious, but also a book that's not afraid to talk about the supernatural.

Having been an agnostic student of religions for many years I was stopped in my tracks by a simple question asked by the preacher Rick Warren who asked, in a TED talk, 'what experience happened to the apostles after the death of Jesus to turn them from frightened men into preachers willing to give their lives to tell their story?'.

You mention St Francis, what is it with Saints and shipwrecks?! What they are feeling in that salty moment is the theme of the books that I'm looking for.

Thanks for your replies!
7 years ago
Hi Des,

I'd say those two McClaren books, "A Search for What's Real" and "A Search for What Makes Sense" are  not academic or pious.   I think they are aimed mostly at young searchers.  I think one is intended for people who are thinkers, and the other is intended for people who are more experienctial.  they are published by Zondervan, an evangelical publishing house.  

The "Stepping Stones" book you referred to sounds similar to one I am reading, although it not the least bit overly academic.  It's "God is not One, the 'eight Rival religions that run the world and why thier differences matter", by Stephen Prothero, a religion prof at Boston College.  The premises of the book are that 1)  you're not religiously literate if you know nothing about religions other than your own, and 2) you cannot understand the news in various parts of the world if you don't know anything about the religions in those parts of the world.

I've just started it, and have discovered that if I were a Muslim, I'd be a Sufi. So I guess that makes me a Sufi Christian, because I have the same attitude toward my Christian religion that a Sufi has toward his Muslim one.    :)

Hope you find what you're looking for in the books, Des...Take care. 
7 years ago
Awwww....Thanks, Norma!
Des Farrell
7 years ago
Steve, I'll take my time to investigate the titles mentioned in your posts, thanks very much for going to such trouble.
desfarrell at hotmail.com 
C Walter Mattingly
7 years ago
A fine, balanced article on a subject difficult to balance. Thanks, Fr Christiansen.
Greenblatt himself, however, claims he is not an atheist. Likely he infers that he, like Lucretius, is a deist, and that God, such as he is, is a sort of guppy god who deposits his mechanistic rules for the universe and departs, no more interested in his children, read us, than a guppy is of his spawn.
Lucretius, and Epictetus and the Ionian philosophers and Stoics from whom they derive, basically conclude that we are complex collections of atoms and will simply be no more. Therefore, the famous quote of Lucretius, "Death is nothing to us," as we simply will be no more. This may have worked well enough for Lucretius, yet to many this is a sort of cowardly evasion of that mystery of what has intrigued men since they first buried their dead on an east-west axis, as we are of the species Homo Sapiens Sapiens and desire to know more of the mysterious beginnings and ends of things that Lucretius, admitting only sensational information, ignores as irrelevant. And Nietszche picks it up as well, saying we should simply ignore death.
The two books, from a Catholic perspective along the house of many mansions, inclusive approach, I have valued are Ronald Rolheiser's The Holy Longing, which presents a very broad definition of spirituality, and, although it is heavy lifting, Karl Rahner's Foundations of the Christian Faith, his response to the demands of Vatican II.  
Des Farrell
7 years ago
Good writing seems to be contagious on this site! My apologies to America for using their comments section as a local bookshop! Walter some interesting points, I'm a big fan of Fr Ron's but will probably hold off on the Rahner title. My critical faculties were shot to hell in a driveby MA years ago and now I can only read books with large print! Actually I'm in the middle of a great new book by an Irish writer Donal Harrington called 'Christianity at its best' which is a page turner. I suppose the kind of knowledge I'm looking for is experiential, anyway my sisters very worried now that I've replaced binge drinking for binge reading! Thanks again for the replies, if anyone has a particular title they want to recommend feel free to email me at desfarrell at hotmail dot com.
Charles Lewis
7 years ago
I think many adult Catholics do not really talk about their faith because they don't know how. If surveys are to believed about half of adult American Catholics don't understand the real presence. That's not an extreme example because the Eucharist is at he heart of everything. For others there is a sense of embarrassment because they're not sure they're going to be received by their friends and colleagues. We have the most beautiful faith but it's also the hardest to grasp. I hope the New Evangelization does reach out to atheists, agnostics and other Christians. But I really hope it touches Catholics first. From there, everything will follow.
Nichole Flores
6 years 12 months ago
I am a teaching assistant for an undergraduate religion course that explores interfaith dialogue between Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam.  Many of my students are among the Spirituals - "recovering Catholics" who are skeptical of various aspects of Catholic teaching and practice, but still affirm a "higher power" that connects everything in the universe to everything else.  They are exploring world reigions as a source for understanding their own spirituality as they try to make sense of their Catholic upbringings and their spiritual futures.  As a "recovering-recovering Catholic," a former "spiritual," I understand some of their frustration.  It is not that the church is SAYING the wrong things or not speaking from the heart.  If anything, my students find Church teachings reasonable, even if some doctrine is "behind the times."  The real problem is that Christians do not always "practice what we preach."  We teach a compelling vision of socia justice and view of the human person, but then some of us hoard our possessions and earnings and mistreat "the least of these." (Mt. 25)  I can't speak for all the spirituals, but I think that my students want to see the Catholic Church "put our money where out mouth is" - not just when it comes to advocating for unborn people, but for the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the imprisioned.  Lives of fidelity, justice, and service will renew the church.  I think this is the real challenge before us today. 
Nichole Flores
6 years 12 months ago
Also, I forgot to mention, I love the article and I plan on sharing it with my class.  I think it will provke a rich discussion.  Bravo! 


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