Time for a quick trip into the thick tmatt file of guilt, full of GetReligion topiccs I had hoped to get to several days ago.
During the papal trip to South America, the New York Times veered away from political analysis in one story and hit on one of the most important two-part developments in world religion in the past few decades.
Part one: The rise of Pentecostal Protestantism in the once solidly Catholic culture of South America. Click here for tons of information from the Pew Forum. Part two: The rise of the Catholic charismatics soon after that in the same region, and elsewhere in the Global South.
This led to an interesting, and to me troubling, Times team use of an important doctrinal term. Then, that mistake hinted at a key hole in the story. Let's start at the colorful beginning:
QUITO, Ecuador -- The rock music boomed as the congregants at this simple, white-walled church sang and clapped, raising their arms skyward as they prayed aloud and swayed to the beat. The sermon included jokes and a call-and-response with people in the pews. There was even a faith healing testimonial.
But just when it seemed like a Protestant revival meeting, the blessing of the host began and the parishioners filed to the altar to take communion, as in any other Roman Catholic Mass.
Afterward, many of the worshipers bought T-shirts and scarves with the logo of Pope Francis’ visit to their country this week.
“They’re not so Catholic, are they?” joked the priest who presided over the service, Ismael Nova, referring to the Masses he conducts at San Juan Eudes parish church. “They’re different.”
Not very Catholic? Really now. We will come back to that question.
As you would expect, the story does not miss the obvious context for this anecdote, as in the task facing Pope Francis in this region that he knows so well:
Latin America and the Caribbean contain an estimated 425 million Catholics, more than a third of the church’s faithful worldwide. But while at least 90 percent of the region’s population was Catholic in the early 1970s, now just 69 percent say they belong to the religion, according to Pew Research Center surveys conducted in 19 countries in late 2013 and early 2014.
At the same time, membership in Protestant churches has exploded.
In Brazil, the nation with more Catholics than any other, evangelical churches have grown so much that one church founder built a 10,000-seat replica of Solomon’s Temple. Other evangelical churches lure crowds with fight nights, reggae music or even on-site tattoo parlors.
Now, pay close attention to this next statement:
... Trying to breathe new life into the Catholic Church, Francis has embraced the unorthodox practices of Catholics like Father Nova who belong to the charismatic renewal movement.
The pope has attended gatherings of Catholic charismatics, and has urged churches to open their doors to the movement. He told a gathering of priests in Rome last month that when he first encountered charismatic Catholics he thought they were “not right in the head,” according to an account on the website of Vatican Radio.
But he said that he later realized he had been wrong, and he encouraged priests around the world to hold charismatic training sessions in their parishes.
The problematic word, of course, is "unorthodox."
Please understand, I know that people often use this word as a fancier way of saying "unusual" or, well, "strange." However, in this context -- in a discussion of the pope and Catholic life -- using the word "orthodox" and then putting a red slash through it is not very helpful. Is the world's most powerful newspaper talking about doctrine or style? Does it know the difference?
Are there Catholics in charismatic renewal who have embraced beliefs and even doctrines that cause tension in their ancient faith? You bet. However, that is precisely the subject that the Times piece fails to explore.
When charismatics get into trouble, it doesn't have to do with rock bands, dancing in aisles, speaking in tongues and healing. The lives of the saints are, from time to time, marked by spectacular, miraculous displays of spiritual charisms and gifts. The key issues have to do with how charismatics relate to the authority of the church and their shepherds.
The bottom line: Most Catholic charismatics are very, very "orthodox" when it comes to basic Catholic doctrines. There are a few who, in the name of freedom and fresh revelations, begin to rock the doctrinal boat that is the Roman Church.
So this pope has embraced "unorthodox practices"? What does that mean? The Times needed to do some more homework and write with more precision, on such an important story.