The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the New Evangelization

Is the New Evangelization still relevant? The assured answer is a resounding Yes! However, it has fallen out of favor as a pastoral movement, fallen under the weight of its own branding. Given its origins as the overarching thesis of the Second Vatican Council, it is not only still relevant but it is the intended existential expression of the Faith for the twenty-first century. Its theme can be found most explicitly in the writings of St. John Paul II, beginning with his diocesan synodal plan, Sources of Renewal, to implement Vatican II as Archbishop of Krakow. Up until Pope Benedict’s calling of the Year of Faith of 2012–13, the New Evangelization was a concept expressed as uncapitalized terms (“there is a need for a new evangelization,” cf. JPII), a new (form of) evangelization, understood properly. The inspiration and principles of this new form were concisely set out by the pope-saint as a movement of evangelization with new “expression, ardor, and method”; further noting that along with the traditional form of missionary evangelization, that of going out to territories where Christ has not been proclaimed, and the evangelization of domestic unbelievers, there are two “new forms” needed, one being the calling back of fallen-away Catholics, and most importantly (his emphasis) the advancement of catechizing the weekly parishioners who attend Mass but have a stunted “confirmation age” understanding of the faith (my paraphrasing). The faithful of the Church must be led into an “existential faith,” faith lived out in their everyday lives.

This little-known origin of the concept of the New Evangelization, coupled with the sincere effort of Pope Benedict XVI to raise awareness of the New Evangelization by calling the aforementioned Year of Faith, resulted in the movement rising to a peak of branding but fell to the constant search for “newness” in pastoral programs. Ministries of New Evangelization evolved into Evangelization of the Faithful, then quickly, for the sake of praxis, into departments of Parish and Family Life on diocesan organizational charts. One could say this evolution is indeed the manifestation of the New Evangelization, but at the same time the fact remains that the concept of forms and objects of the movement have been left behind as a brand superseded.

Given this evolution of the brand and, especially, given the unexpected moral battles and defeats of the first decade of the millennium, a new movement has arisen to a nascent state, still uncapitalized; the need for cultural renewal has taken a prescient position in scholarly rhetoric. The only Catholic scholar to still use the phrase New Evangelization today is George Weigel, who uses it readily in describing the current milieu of the Church. One may remember Mr. Weigel’s book of 2014, Evangelical Catholicism; a seminal work that lays out an outline for the renewal of Catholicism encompassing the original call for a new form of lived faith and evangelization (at all levels of the Church). Aside from this, however, the rhetoric has focused on the encroachment upon Western Culture by neo-leftist ideology.

The surprise moral attacks on human culture (e.g., ongoing fight against abortion, same-gender “marriage,” transgender/gender ideology) at the beginning of the twenty-first century were valiantly taken up by Catholic scholars with a strong counterargument of Natural Law. Natural Law was the best and correct defense; however, its technical nature and expression, and its propensity to be easily misunderstood in application by our opponents, along with their refusal to accept it as a principle, was our defeat. The response to these defeats has been a plethora of critical essays correctly analyzing the current state of affairs; how did we get here, what does “here” look like now, etc. All well-articulated diagnosis with little prognosis. Mostly recently, I must say, there has emerged some generalized suggestive solutions and responses. While the neo-leftists are taking over our college campuses, our generalized responses need to take up a more moving pace with more specificity, but not at the cost of diluting their efficacy. Which amounts to a very precarious and difficult challenge. This challenge, rightly seen, is the movement for cultural renewal.

Examples of some prognostic rhetoric with more specificity can be seen in Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes, R.R. Reno’s Resurrection of the Idea of a Christian Society, Cardinal Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land, and the much debated and misunderstood Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. The example that I feel takes a new step in this prognostic movement is Cardinal Müller’s new book, The Cardinal Müller Report. Embedded in his analysis are very simple yet challenging solutions; solutions subtle in their expression but profound in their praxis. I offer one such occurrence from early on in the first section, A Report on Hope (pp. 12–14). Having accurately given a critical analysis of the confrontation between certain “forms of nihilism” which promote “marginalization of intellectuals who propose hard truths,” the interviewer presents Cardinal Müller the following question: “Precisely because of what we see in this landscape, would it not be more prudent to cut back our expectations, . . . to content ourselves with a more moderate and considered hope?” The good cardinal responds to this with a firm No! Following it up with,

Instead, the great questions we have to ask ourselves, those of us who want to resist submitting to this relativist dictatorship, are these: What is my responsibility as a father or mother of my children? What ethics and morals do I want to teach them? What political principles should I support with my vote in order to work for the common good? Answering such questions involves explicitly spelling out the hope that is in us (see 1 Peter 3:15). This well-founded trust means, in the end, that the whole history of salvation leads to the ultimate good and that nothing that is good, beautiful, and true in our life will be in vain or go to waste.

In this wonderful form of rhetoric Cardinal Müller, in the footsteps of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict, revives the New Evangelization and bridges it to the nascent movement of cultural renewal; taking theological principles and putting them into pastoral praxis (as opposed to the raw argument of Natural Law). This is the foundation and challenge that Cardinal-theologian Müller is giving to the Catholic scholars and theologians charged with engaging the current moral front. We pray that they will find his strong voice among the subtleties and specifics of others who have begun the new battles.

Deacon Peter Trahan, MATh About Deacon Peter Trahan, MATh

Ordained in 2008 to the Archdiocese of Miami; MA Theology from The Augustine Institute, Denver, CO; Master Catechist with the Archdiocese and Coordinator of Adult Faith Formation at St. Bonaventure Parish. Member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.


  1. Avatar Paul Chidi says:

    The problem with our times today is gross lack of commitment to Christ and the inability to be fully encorporated into new life in Christ as St Pope John Paul would highlight in his concept of New Evangelization.
    Christianity today is turning to “anything goes” in the name of search for freedom. It’s becoming freedom without limit, not longer “free for” and “free from” but pleasure without limit.
    Christianity is shifting from the injuction “…carry your cross and fellow me” to if you want to be my disciple do whatever you want. Nothing is right and nothing is wrong. There is no moral standard again. Is this what Christianity should really be?

  2. Avatar Bernadette Fakoory says:

    There is just too much noise. Too much business. Doing upon doing is getting no where fast. More renewed ministerial programs to assist in formation of faith. More parish Councils ,more clericalism lead only to more conflicts within the church . Everyone wants to rule. Everyone thinks their way is the best way. Pride, envy , jealousy ensues.

    Pope Francis has got it very right. The world is like a hospital with many who are lost, lonely ,unfulfilled and face a self identity crisis of one kind or another.
    The going against natural law and in turn ,going against the proper human and moral development of human beings which isderived from participation of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ is simply the cause of all social ills we face in our world today.

    We need to simplify things. We need to be humble. We need to be real and sincere. We need to have a healthy sense of who we are as individuals. We need to practice kindness and be compassionate in our outlook on life and consequently in our relating to others. Love is always the answer because it is life.

    There is a social cultural crisis we all can agree. How can it sort itself out? One step at a time. One person at a time. Be prepared to meet and help someone along the path to a better life .

    Thank you.

  3. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Calling those who differ from you “neo-leftists” does not help, that is simply name calling. Who are “neo-leftists”. Why can’t we encounter one another in dialogue without name calling?

    I do appreciate the questions raised by Cardinal Mueller. With those questions, one can begin to dialogue and encounter those with whom one has differences of opinion.

  4. Avatar Tabitha Raised says:

    For those of us who are catechized beyond Confirmation and have had the grace of a conversion that led to repentance, we want that for others in our own family. That is where evangelization should begin – in the family. However, as scripture taught in last Saturday’s reading, Mt. 25: “Mother against daughter….”, our own family members are the last to listen to those who love them most. The elect just want them to have what they have so they can realize more happiness on earth through the moral life before they die, but alas it will always take grace. Grace comes to people in different amounts like we with Mary who was “full of grace” so we have to pray for more grace for our family members to convert. Jesus told St. Faustina that is the one prayer that is always answered. We have to put it in God’s hands. But Jesus does seem to illustrate in Mt. 25 when there is this disunity in the family “a fire has been lit” at least in someone in the family or there would not be disunity. Does this make sense?

  5. “Natural Law was the best and correct defense; however, its technical nature and expression, and its propensity to be easily misunderstood in application by our opponents, along with their refusal to accept it as a principle, was our defeat.”
    The fact that the Natural Law was not accepted by our opponents is due to the fact that priests and bishops…. and deacons stopped teaching Natural Law 50 years ago, because we stopped teaching on moral issues. We gave up the dialogue on moral issues to society and the culture, and they were more than happy to pick it up and in the process make the Church irrelevant to the last 3 generations. That was our defeat.
    The Natural Law is not hard to explain and to understand and you don’t need five degrees in theology from the pontifical colleges in Rome to do it. It is not “technical.” That’s been the excuse for not teaching it for decades: “It’s too technical and too abstract, no one will understand it.” I explain it to teenagers in Confirmation classes and they understand it. They may not like it and it may not make them feel so good about themselves and their actions, and they may refuse to accept it….but they understand it. Our defeat was and still is in our cowardliness to teach it, something that, I’m afraid, the Catholic clergy will have much to answer for.

  6. Avatar John Donovan says:

    We need to evangelize Catholics first. Reform the liturgy and restore its sense of vertical transcendence and the new evangelization will follow in its wake. Mass is the primary contact Catholics have with their church. The liturgy must turn our hearts and minds to God and not us. When this is done use the pulpit to instruct and enlighten. There can be no evangelization when the primary Catholic experience on Sunday is Barney does God.


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