Pope seeks (somewhat like Southern Baptists) ‘renewed evangelization’
Pope Benedict XVI announced he is establishing a pontifical council for new evangelization to find ways “to re-propose the perennial truth of the Gospel” in regions where secularism is smothering church practice.
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“I have decided to create a new organism, in the form of a pontifical council, with the principal task of promoting a renewed evangelization in the countries where the first proclamation of faith has already resounded and where there are churches of ancient foundation present, but which are living through a progressive secularization of society and a kind of ‘eclipse of the sense of God,'” he said.
No church planting required, reversing secularization is only in part of matter of reversing or at least slowing the decline in church membership and attendance in countries like Austria, Belgium and Germany. Yet as Philip Jenkins recently pointed out in The Christian Century, it is a battle with many fronts, including replenishing the depleting ranks of the priesthood:
Particularly in Western Europe, Catholic countries have been becoming steadily more secular for at least a generation, quite independent of any claims of priestly deviance. In no sense is European religion dying — just witness the continuing popularity of pilgrimage and other popular devotions — but loyalty to the institutional church has weakened disastrously. Rates of mass attendance have declined steeply, as have the numbers of those admitting even notional adherence to the church. Today, fewer than half of French people claim a Catholic identity. The number of priestly vocations has been in free fall since the 1960s, leaving many seminaries perhaps a quarter as full as they were in the time of Pope John XXIII.
Failure of atavistic movements like the SBC’s GCR and the pope’s pontifical council for new evangelization is probably foreordained by the degree to which the secularization they attack is embedded in the cultures to which they speak. Again, as Jenkins observes regarding secularization and the Roman Catholic Church:
One gauge of transformed Catholic attitudes has been the sharp drop in fertility rates and family size. Since the 1970s women increasingly pursued careers and higher education, and the use of contraception spread rapidly, despite stern church disapproval. Fertility rates plummeted, such that Spain and Italy today have among the lowest fertility rates in the world, far below the level needed for population replacement. Catholic Germany stands about the same level. German sociologist Ulrich Beck notes wryly that in Western Europe today, the closer a woman lives to the pope, the fewer children she has. Ireland’s fertility rate today is less than half what it was in 1970.
There is no reason a couple with few or no children should not be fervently pious. But the trend away from large families reflects broader social changes. A society in which women have more economic autonomy is less likely to accept traditional church teachings on moral and sexual issues. The resulting conflicts have steadily pushed back the scope of church involvement in public life. Abortion became legal in Italy in 1978 and in Spain in 1985. The Irish church suffered a historic defeat in 1997 when a referendum narrowly allowed the possibility of divorce. Today, across Catholic Europe, same-sex marriage is the main moral battlefield—with Spain in the vanguard of radical secularism and sexual liberation. The Catholic Church struggles to present its views to a society suspicious of institutional and traditional authority of any kind and quite accustomed to ideas of gender equality, sexual freedom and sexual difference.
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