In the short time-frame of a few months since its publication, this is a book which would seem to have had some notable success in inspiring Catholic spiritual renewal at parish level not only in the USA but much further afield, including Ireland. In today’s climate this is no mean feat, and a story that deserves to be told. However, there is also another more critical story which needs to be heard, if for no other reason than to remind ourselves of the complexity of the issues involved in any such project. Prompted primarily by the book’s failure to highlight the link between spiritual renewal and social solidarity, this ‘review’ will focus on this latter story.
Spiritual renewal and social solidarity In Wake Up Lazarus, under the chapter heading, ‘Three Factors of Spiritual Decline’ (27-39), the author Pierre Hegy reflects on the growth in the USA of à la carte Christianity, which he calls ‘the liberalism of cafeteria religion’, and which he correctly attributes to the consumerist and individualist cultural ethos that is a feature of our secular age. So far so good, but unfortunately that’s it; the mainstream critique of the excesses of liberalism/relativism is as far as the analysis goes.
There is very little in the book which even suggests that radical individualism of whatever hue not only cuts itself off (at the vertical level) from any serious consideration of the objectivity of values such as is communicated by the idea of God or the Good, but also cuts itself off (at the horizontal level) from all the ties of kinship, family and community, which alone can make us sensitive to the related ideals of justice, equality, social solidarity and the common good.
Catholic social teaching has the potential to provide a much needed corrective to this rather one-sided understanding of the person in society, which has undoubtedly contributed to the financial crisis which continues to inflict misery on the lives of countless vulnerable people in the USA and indeed closer to home. Given this inescapable reality, the absence in this book of any sustained treatment of the importance of Catholic social teaching in fostering Catholic renewal today is frankly difficult to comprehend. It must never be forgotten that spiritual renewal and evangelisation are not stand-alone concepts which are in some way separate from the work for social justice that is inspired by the gospel.
Looking at the evidence Hegy is to be commended for adopting an evidence-based approach to his analysis of the changed religious and cultural environment in the USA today. Unfortunately, the quality and credibility of the analysis is undermined by his failure to critically engage with the evidence amassed by recognised scholars in this field such as Charles Taylor, Alasdair McIntyre and Robert Bellah. Even the very limited use made of the writings of Peter Berger is unnecessarily disparaging (32).
Just as serious is the lack of attention to the accuracy of historical detail (67-68, 230), and the a-historical manner in which much of the pre-Vatican II teaching on both the Eucharist and Church is interpreted. Finally, it must be acknowledged that an over-reliance on anecdotal evidence (for example, 44-48, 61-62) does not easily lend itself to balanced analysis. Questioning an over-reliance on a headcount of Church membership My final comment here relates to an unease that I have with an underlying thesis of the book – the view that religions are in a competitive market, where success is judged by the ability to maintain or increase market share, which in turn is measured by a headcount of Church membership (For example 2, 230, 253, 272).
Even allowing for the Church’s missionary mandate, it is still not clear how this business model (230) accords with the priorities of Christ as reflected in the Sermon on the Mount, which were clearly not designed with either popularity or profitability in mind. Furthermore, in targeting Islam as posing the biggest threat to Christianity, there is little evidence of the respect due to the Muslim Faith as reflected in the final document to emerge from the Second Vatican Council in 1965, Nostra Aetate. Finally, the over-reliance on a membership headcount takes no account of those World Religions such as Hinduism, or Buddhism, and most particularly Judaism, for whom any linkage of influence to the number of one’s adherents would be foreign.
In short, while acknowledging the distinctive missionary dimension to Christianity which renders suspect any simple comparison with Judaism, I am nevertheless not convinced that the author fully comprehends the Catholic understanding of evangelisation which must embrace the God-given imperative, not only of proclamation, but also of ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue – an opinion that is reinforced by his rather onesided treatment of these related themes in the final pages of the book (271-275).
In conclusion, Pierre Hegy is to be commended not only for the priority which he accords to evangelisation and spiritual renewal over structural reform (26), but also for the emphasis that he places upon the parish as the primary locus of any such renewal. It should not be forgotten however, that all authentic spiritual renewal is intertwined with the search for justice and the common good, and a committed respect for others of whatever creed or none, as the case may be.
- Rev Dr Eoin G. CassidyPhilosophy Department, Mater Dei Institute, Dublin City University