To anyone paying attention to church participation in North America over the last forty years, things are not now, nor have they been, very good. The jeremiads have been spoken, the eulogies written, and the post-mortem begun, while the patient still lies weakly protesting on the table. Hell will certainly not overcome the church, but that is not to say that church as we know it will be the successor bearing forth the faith into the future.
Unlike many recent books, Brandon McGinley’s book offers a genuinely constructive, engaging vision of the renewal of the church. Rightly honing in on the ways in which American Catholicism has accommodated itself to a bourgeoise vision of success, McGinley lays out a picture of church renewal which reclaims its identity from the jaws of respectability, from the universal level down to the intimacies of friendship and community. Along the way, a variety of essential topics are covered, from the ordering of family life to the renewal and commitment to the local parish to recovering the economic dimensions of Catholic social teaching.
In particular, I want to draw attention to and commend McGinley for three areas where he suggests church renewal needs to take place: 1) intensive public Christian ethics, 2) doctrinal clarity, and 3) political engagement without political fear.
If the deficit across the board of an accommodationist approach of Christianity is that it became an American church as opposed to a church in America, it is long past time to retrieve substantive commitments to Christian social teaching and to clear exposition of long-standing doctrine. For too long, churches have shied away from the uncomfortably full-orbed vision of Christian economic ethics, such as the rejection of usury or clear warnings about the excesses of wealth, opting for an approach which forgets that the goods of creation are for the flourishing of all creation.
Likewise, accommodationist fears have led churches to be overly milquetoast in their doctrinal statements, fearing that precision, nuance, or long-standing doctrinal norms would run afoul of freedom of conscience. Seeking a place in the city, churches blunt their political witness in the same way, hiding behind political platforms rather than seeking to have moral consistency in ways which would render them politically homeless.
Not being Catholic, but as a professor of theology, there are points of disagreement to name— the degree to which Vatican II was a failure, and the role and need for mystery and mystification within public Christian witness being the notable ones. At times, pushing back against a church which has overly accommodate itself to American bourgeoise values, McGinley adopts a posture which emphasizes the oddness of the Christian life over against decadent intelligibility and respectability in a way which I find unnecessary.
He writes at one point that “it’s precisely because no one will understood that we should lean into mysterious (but authentic) devotions and public appeals to the Church Triumphant.” To speak of a Messiah who has been resurrected and who will return again to judge all creation is odd enough, and a claim which offends and mystifies whether it is spoken in Latin or not. It is worth debating whether or not the Vatican II movement toward contextualization and conducting mass in local languages was an act which conceded too much to a desire for modernization, but reevangalization of the church requires, in one way, both speaking faithfully and in a tongue the modern age can intelligibly understand.
But these are largely superficial disagreements. While much of McGinley’s vision can be commended by Christians from all traditions, some of his proposals for church renewal, such as reaffirming a rejection of contraception, need more clarification. He does so as part of a broader renewal of the family as an outpost of the local congregation, a proposal I fully agree with, and as a Catholic, this is adherence to Catholic teaching. But the Protestant, while rejecting on-demand abortion, need not likewise reject all forms of contraception in order to agree with the end McGinley envisions: the formation of faithful and holy families. The failure of contemporary American Christianity in nearly every form to think and form families well around questions of procreation is real, and the choice to defer children because of other arguably less important goals, such as career advancement, is rightly to be pushed back against. There has been shockingly little attention given in Protestant circles to the purpose and telos of the family, and a vision of the family as a school of virtue and discipleship is desperately needed.
Against that prior agreement for the need to reform our vision of families, though, it does not follow, as McGinley argues, that rejecting contraception is necessarily the first step to fostering an openness toward God at the heart of our families. Given his prior indictment on the bourgeois nature of contemporary Christianity, a different prescription is in order: household economics.
Scripture far more frequently points to our relationship to material goods as the way in which we enclose ourselves from God’s activity than in the prudential use of contraception. To order a household’s goods, time, activities, and energies around worship, service, and love of our proximate neighbors is the more direct inheritor of this vision of rendering a family’s structure and desires open to God’s service.
The two roads need not be competitive here—raising multiple children versus reordering family finances—but the emphasis McGinley places on fruitful families, when the initial critique of contemporary Catholicism was for its accommodations to economic and political visions, is an odd retrieval.
McGinley, in relating the renewal of community, family, and neighborly life to the renewal of the church has put forward an ecclesiology which is truly a church for the sake of the world, if by this we mean a world which is meant to be for God. To echo Augustine, we love our neighbors toward God, such that renewing the church is inseparable from the task of proliferating the goods of worship down into the far reaches of the world, that all of creation might feel the echoes of the church’s worship of God, though they might not join in.