The Emerging Church in the Roman Catholic Church?

10:17 pm | Emergent Church

About a week ago, someone on one of the lists I frequent posted a question asking how much influence the emerging church has had on the Roman Catholic Church to determine if there has been much borrowing of emerging concepts in Roman Catholic circles. From my perspective, however, there has been very little borrowed directly, but there is an interesting parallel in the experiences that draw people to the emerging church and the experiences that draw Evangelicals to convert to Roman Catholicism. For starters, I highly recommend this article by Scott McKnight on understanding why people become Roman Catholic:

Scott McKnight, “From Wheaton to Rome: Why Evangelicals Become Roman Catholic”
Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 45:2 - 2002, pp451-472.

Although this article is slightly dated WRT the emerging church, it is interesting to read this article with an emerging church lens and an eye toward Scott McKnight’s more recent writings, particularly on his blog. Note that Scott McKnight has also published other papers on conversion which add further insight to this question.

An interesting parallelism between emerging thought and Roman Catholic thinking can be seen in Scott Hahn’s “Rome Sweet Home”. Hahn’s book traces his story of his conversion by exploring his collegiate and seminary experiences, including his recollections of the kinds of conversations he had that brought him around to a Roman Catholic way of thinking. In fact, most of the book could be seen as an account of his conversations and journey - a narrative - of Hahn’s discovery of Roman Catholicism. There is an obvious parallel in style with books by certain emerging authors in records of conversations between people dissatisfied with their Christian experience or tradition. Also, similar kinds of questions are addressed. The most obvious parallel question is the emergent fascination with ecclesiology and the method by which Scott Hahn concluded that the Roman Catholic episcopal polity was the best model.

Another parallel I noticed was my anecdotal experience with college students who were reared in Evangelical backgrounds who became Roman Catholic. One of these individuals became involved with a Roman Catholic student group and noted that while attending the Catholic Mass and student sessions, there was a sense of “awe of God” in the worship experience which was lacking in their otherwise Evangelical background. Another noted the importance of the real presence of Christ in the celebration and worship of the Eucharist and how the Evangelical church she had grown up in made the communion dead and were almost embarrassed of it, holding it only twice a year. Similar threads of thought flow through emerging discussions.

An interesting difference does exist, however, in how converts to RCC and how emergents answer the question of authority. RCC converts are drawn to the unifying power of an authoritative and infallible magisterium, embracing hierarchy. Generally speaking, emergents reject social and institutional authorities, tending toward either an extreme individualism or a radically egalitarian model of authority. While reading Aaron Wildavsky’s “The Rise of Radical Egalitarianism” I couldn’t help but see some striking parallels in emerging ecclesiology:

“The animating principle of the egalitarian world view…is this: organization without authority. Whether they be religious or secular, egalitarians choose to live a life of purely voluntary association. From rejection of all authority - people who have authority tell other people what to do - come their other political [and religious –michaelh] choices. … They choose criticism because painting the society ‘out there’ in lurid colors keeps them unified. For them, leadership either should not exist (hence the endless discussions inside egalitarian groups seeking consensus, for voluntary consent implies no coercion, meaning no majority rule) or it should be perfect (hence the appearance of the charismatic leader).” (p104)

Converts to RCC are drawn to hierarchy and institutional authority, while many emergents appear on the surface to be opposed to authority but still have their own leaders and authority figures they have chosen for themselves which they are fiercely loyal toward. It is an enigmatic parallel, to be sure.

I’ve been keeping my eyes open for indications of emerging church ideas within RCC, but to my surprise I haven’t found much as yet. Most young converts to RCC I’ve encountered tend to embrace the RCC wholly without retaining ties with Protestantism. Why go back and look for spiritual experience there when it can already be found in the Catholic Church? Emerging thought is trickling into the Roman Catholic church, but very slowly. More interesting IMO is the reverse process: Roman Catholicism and Roman Catholic practice being appropriated by the emerging church.

After I posted my thoughts, Colin Lavergne had this to add (posted with permission):

Michael Hamblin’s analysis of this issue seems an accurate portrayal of the current situation. As a Catholic who follows closely all sorts of trends within the Catholic Church, I have seen very little interest in the emergent church movement among Catholic leaders.

One difference is that even among those Catholics most oriented toward emphasizing experience such as charismatics, Hispanics and Cursillo folks, they all share a pretty strong acceptance of the Catholic Church’s doctrinal teaching authority. So a movement that gets fuzzy on doctrine wouldn’t have much long term appeal in Catholic circles. Early Catholic charismatics were often accused of being fuzzy on doctrine so the movement now strongly emphasizes its loyalty to Rome.

There are two movements in Catholicism that might have some convergence with emergent approaches and those are:

a. progressive liturgists who appear to minimize doctrine but want to provide an experience of encountering God. This group looks for new ways of structuring Sunday worship and creating community experiences.

b. New Age type Catholics who often work in retreat type settings and advance ideas of spirituality focused on relationships, self-discovery, getting in touch with nature, etc. but where the main thrust is creating connections with people and creation rather than presenting a message from God.

Neither of the above groups is widely influential in broad Catholic circles but they often publish a lot of materials so they look more influential than they really are with the rank and file Catholic.

There is another group of Catholics interested in reform of the church but in progressive modes and they are mostly older academic and clergy types. They might find some aspects of emergent approaches interesting, but the overall impression they have of emergents is that they are still too evangelical. (From a Catholic perspective, the distinctions that are so obvious among various kinds of Protestants, do not seem to be that significant to many Catholic observers.)



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