Monday, February 01, 2016

Hour-long Catholic critique of the Alpha program

Some people aren't going to like this at all. "The Tyranny of Emotion" (Mic'd Up, January 29, 2016) includes a discussion with Michael Hichborn of the Lepanto Institute about the Alpha program being implemented in many places and notably in Detroit; and Dr. Jay Boyd, who offers an in-depth discussion of Sherry Waddell's Forming Intentional Disciples with some cautions.

The upshot seems concisely expressed in the question: why are Catholics embracing these 'watered-down' and 'protestantized' sorts of programs when excellent Catholic alternatives exist, such as Servant of God, Fr. John Hardon's Marian Catechist Apostolate, now under the sponsorship of Cardinal Burke? Not to mention all the hazards of emotionally-charged low-information evangelization with potentially misleading components. Food for thought. One can hardly say "food for feeling," can we!

Update: William J. Cork, D.Min., "Is ALPHA for Catholics??," offers a fairly detailed outline and critique of Alpha, arguing that it promotes (a) an individualistic Christianity, (b) a congregationalist ecclesiology, (c) an evangelical perspective on the sacraments, as well as (d) a charismatic agenda. The author concludes:
Despite the commendable intent of Alpha to evangelize the unchurched by facilitating an initial encounter with Jesus Christ, we must conclude that even with a Catholic supplement, it remains deficient, and cannot be recommended for Catholic use. Alpha does not fulfill the expectations for Catholic catechesis and evangelization, and presents what Catholics must see as an impoverished and distorted Gospel. It is not "basic Christianity," but is Charismatic Protestantism. To tack Catholic elements to be tacked onto the end, especially issues of Church and Sacrament, denies the integral nature of Christian revelation.


Amateur Brain Surgeon said...

Alpha, good name in that in gets ya to the head of the mission-this, mission-that, mission-the-other-thing, line.

These new movements almost always ape proddy precedent and the list is too long to limn here but ABS does remember the Renew Program and its plug ugly Renew Tree crammed into the sanctuary of any local Franchise of Dead Diocese Inc. America in Maine.

And RENEW was so bad (started by a liberal bishop) that even the USCCB was forced to address it

This personal relationship with Jesus business is, at its core, a proddie movement that means, essentially, that one does not need any intervening Ministers or Bishop or Pope between him and Jesus but "we've addressed and corrected for that"is the response.

Ecumenism is the Universal Solvent that has dissolved Tradition and so former prots arrive to create new structures, base communities, faith communities in the empty space- remember when the local Franchise of Dead Diocese Inc America fell for the "statement of purpose" scam and ended-up dropping Church as a descriptor? - At St. Martin Sheen Faith Community we are a faith filled family committed to serving the needs of all - only to be dissolved when the people get bored with the old new program and fall riotously in love with this new new movement/retreat that makes hubby act like the man his wife has always wanted - a compliant sissy that talks about his feelings.

ABS is old enough to remember when The One True Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church produced men and women who got married, had children, and, if they had time/inclination would serve the local parish in any numbers of way.


It is all Mission this and Mission that B.S.

Lord have mercy, we have more missions than the times Trump has dogged a question or pitched a fit.

Go and try to volunteer at your local Parish and speak with the Pastor and tel him what expertise you have to offer and you will be directed to Speak with Tiffany, she oversees all of our Missions...

Or, try and join an Adult Bible Study only to be told that, No, we are sorry ABS. I know you have several different Bibles and Commentaries but we only use Dr Scott Han materials in this parish faith community

More and more we are coming to resemble those (protestants) we have always longed to be accepted by in Calvinistic America.

JM said...

Part I

I guess I am "some people"! Haha!

Anyway, I wonder who has actually watched the whole Alpha program amongst these commentators?

Though I sympathize with objecting to broth versus real soul food, I think they are so horrified at oddities like Baptism in the Holy Spirit and, yikes, speaking in tongues (both Catholic charismatic standards, of course), they miss the forest for the trees. I have sat through the whole series. Alpha at its core just does not aim at emotion (though it does have its share of syrup)-- its essential thrust is doctrinal: people need a savior due to sin, and one must make an intentional decision for Christ. The 'emotion' aimed for is the virtue of faith, for heaven's sake. The second half of the series does tilt too much charismatic for my tastes, but in clearly communicating the basic idea of the gospel, I'd argue it bests almost all Catholic preaching today and has no modernist aftertaste like most homilies. As for having the audacity to speak of 'generic' churches, well, unless it is Catholic with a capital 'C,' of course the course will speak in those terms. Gumbel is an Anglican! And it is hard to get huffy about that with him if all the recent popes talk in circles the same way.

I think the big beef must be this one expressed about Waddel's book over at amazon:

"The book seems to de-emphasize the Sacraments. Yes, it talks about how wonderful they are, but the author openly disparages the argument of “letting the Sacraments work”. Although we must avoid a magical view of Sacraments, and must not deny the need for a personal relationship with Christ, including a strong prayer life, sometimes we need to remember to let the Sacraments work."

We do. Yes. But sometimes we need to remember that they aren't magic, and there are sacramentalized pagans, and that a baptismal certificate is not exactly a membership card less it is renewed. An indelible mark / a grace-filled soul does not automatically make, if experience proves anything at all, and it very much looks like the relationship initiated at baptism for many Catholics gets all but snuffed out early in life.

JM said...

Part II

And catechesis of a pagan mind with scholastic doctrine--that will likely prove unsuccessful. This is the lesson Frank Sheed learned in his career, in which he switched from heavily Catholic teaching to a broader 'Mere'-ish Christianity as he got older. Was he right? He certainly thought so. I'd counter that we may need both. Alpha is the part of the 'both' that Catholics do poorly if at all. Because we have to stress the Church as a real institution, too many people end up thinking it is like some sort of tribal identity badge. "I don't need anything. I have the Pope and my priest, well, from a big distance but I will want last rites as a sort o celestial clearinghouse..." Though that *might* work, I think that is potentially more dangerous than anything in Alpha.

Which reminds me of the hubbub over at Commonweal in a piece that says RJ Neuhaus had the gall to find more in common with Evangelicals than liberal Catholics. If we are "Catholic" by baptism, then that is all that matters, and this talk of a personal relationship... heavens, it is enthusiasm or emotionalism.

All this somewhat is sharing thoughts and also overstating my reaction, but I think Alpha thrives because of a real vacuum. I also know many fault Peter Kraft's statement that follows, so I will duck the brickbats, but believe it needs more and not less heeding...

"...Many Catholics to this day have not learned the Catholic and biblical doctrine. They think we are saved by good intentions or being nice or sincere or trying a little harder or doing a sufficient number of good deeds. Over the past twenty-five years I have asked hundreds of Catholic college students the question: If you should die tonight and God asks you why he should let you into heaven, what would you answer? The vast majority of them simply do not know the right answer to this, the most important of all questions, the very essence of Christianity. They usually do not even mention Jesus!

Until we Catholics know the foundation, Protestants are not going to listen to us when we try to teach them about the upper stories of the building. Perhaps God allows the Protestant/Catholic division to persist not only because Protestants have abandoned many precious truths taught by the Church but also because many Catholics have never been taught the most precious truth of all, that salvation is a free gift of grace, accepted by faith. I remember vividly the thrill of discovery when, as a young Protestant at Calvin College, I read Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Council of Trent on justification. I did not find what I had been told I would find, "another gospel" of do-it-yourself salvation by works, but a clear and forceful statement that we can do nothing without God's grace, and that this grace, accepted by faith, is what saves us."

I leave before I tomorrow regret engaging in a streefight on behalf of Alpha!

Pertinacious Papist said...

ABS, your remark about ecumenism being the "universal solvent of Catholic tradition" is memorable. Did it originate with you. I quite agree.

JM, you mention being at Calvin College. Did you attend there? The reason I ask is that I was there for two years back in the early '70s and it did me a lot of good, though that's not where I became a Catholic. I had to wait another twenty years until I found myself in a lilly-white city in the American South where a midnight-black priest from Madagascar received me into Mother Church.

As to the issues, I think, JM, that you have a very important point in saying that (1) Catholics have been turning to these other resources and movements and programs because, more often than not, they have been spiritually starved over the last five decades; (2) the wouldn't recognize spiritual MEAT if they saw it, let alone be able to ingest it, and need something closer to what some used to call "pre-evangelism," or at least spiritual MILK, and (3) the Alpha program may provide something that approaches that.

My seminarians have been enlisted in helping out with the Alpha program at one of our suburban parishes, so I have some idea of what it involves. If the program even gets people started THINKING and TALKING about the the A-B-C's of a relationship with Jesus, and something like Billy Graham's "four spiritual laws," I suppose that's a start. Scott Hahn and Tom Howard used to say that Evangelicalism made a good nursemaid for those who would later become Catholic converts. I suppose there's something to that.

(continued ...)

Pertinacious Papist said...

(Continued ...)

Having said that, what concerns me most about things like Alpha is (1) catechesis rarely if ever gets beyond that level, and, more importantly, (2) more often than not Catholics will have ingested many Protestantized notions of Christianity that they will later have to unlearn if they're ever going to understand the Catholic Faith. The second problem is illustrated by the Catholic version of Alpha which tacks on a Catholic addendum. But Catholicism isn't an "addendum" to something else that's not Catholic, and that's where I agree with ABS's remark about ecumenism becoming a "universal solvent" of Catholic tradition.

Seminarians are also regularly encouraged by those involved in the Charismatic Renewal to get involved in weekend Charismatic retreats. The positive element in the Charismatic Renewal movement is the "personal encounter with Christ" for which Catholics have been starved for two generations. The negative element is the somewhat cultic emphasis on a distinction between those who have been "initiated" into the Baptism of the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues, and those who haven't, which sometimes suggests the view that these phenomena are regarded as the eighth and ninth sacraments. In the Mic'd Up video, you will remember the young lady who was excluded from the community after she refused to submit to "learning" how to speak in tongues. This is insane, as Msgr. Ronald Knox would heartily concur. Just as insane as those who see personal extemporaneous prayer is a "higher" form of prayer than the Mass. That leads to seeing liturgy is an "empty shell" rather than the source and summit of our Faith in which we actively participate by joining our prayers with those of the priest at our Lord's altar.

And having said THAT, I will return to my earlier point that "sacramentalized pagans" whose personal embers of faith have nearly been extinguished by the neglect of sound teaching need to have their faith rekindled. So perhaps I will agree with JM's remark that we need "some of both," as long as the spiritual MILK doesn't have things that have to be unlearned in order to be Catholic.

This doesn't mean they need to be lectured from "scholastic" manuals. What would help immensely is re-introducing many of the traditional devotions that went out the window over the last half-century. Our parish bookstore, which has to be seen to be believed, has everything from simple books and movies for children to excellent selections of books by the likes of Fr. John Hardon, S.J., to spiritual classics and Catholic novels and 'heavier' theological and other scholarly books. It's rare to find individuals there who do not know and love their faith, and their faith is The Faith.

JM said...

PB: I agree ENTIRELY. Having said that, your comment "the Catholic version of Alpha which tacks on a Catholic addendum. But Catholicism isn't an 'addendum,'" sort of creates a conundrum. No, Catholicism is not an addendum. But then why cannot the Church clearly articulate a comprehensive idea about the Gospel, Protestants, Jesus, etc. Instead, people still have to too often leave and return, etc. It takes umpteen years to become a priest, and then too often priests can't preach. Huh? What? Come on already. That is why these programs thrive. I have never encountered Sherry Waddell -- she may be a saint, but Mark Shea shucks for her so heaven knows, I am not overly anxious to plug for her!! I blame the state of affairs. And OK, also Mark Shea, who is probably greatly used of God but remains insufferable. Haha!

Chris Garton-Zavesky said...

IS part of the problem that we don't seem to believe that the actual teaching of the Church should be presented, but only the pablum which people want?

Amateur Brain Surgeon said...

ABS, your remark about ecumenism being the "universal solvent of Catholic tradition" is memorable. Did it originate with you


Amateur Brain Surgeon said...

Not surprisingly, Rad Trad has proposed some interesting and unique initiatives (anchored in Tradition an ecclesiastical history) that are not protestant derived.

For over one-half century, we have tried to absorb the weltanschauung of our enemies - protestants and jews, both of which form a unity opposed to The One True Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church - when, instead, we should have searched our own history for answers to the problems we have mid-wifed into being.

JM said...

QUITE HONESTLY, although all the comments of Voris and Co. have some merit, if they would read Martin's book, the have no ground to stand on -- none. And this after 20+ years. Alpha fills a Jesus-shaped vacuum with Jesus. Whenever official Catholics want to do that, they are welcome to improve on the job...

JM said...

QUITE HONESTLY, although all the comments of Voris and Co. have some merit, if they would read Martin's book, they have no ground to stand on -- none.

Another damning source if anyone cares to go there is the Ratzinger symposium, "Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on Bible and Church" And all this after 20 years plus. Sorry, but the faux-bewilderment is a bit exasperating. Alpha fills a Jesus-shaped vacuum with Jesus. Evangelical biblical scholarship does the job Catholics are not on the academy-level man enough to handle. Whenever official Catholics want to step up, they are welcome to improve on the job... But in the meantime if the best we have is Madrid, Shea, and Jimmy Akin's rear guard papal defenses, we'd best shut up...IMHO

Chris Aubert said...

I'm totally in agreement with you on Alpha - it's very bad for Catholics, IMHO. That said, you may want to reconsider reliance on Bill Cork's article. While he wrote that as an employee (Director of Catechesis, as I recall) of the Archdiocese of Galveston/Houston, he has since left the Church and returned to his Seventh Day Adventist roots. That doesn't make his arguments against Alpha wrong; I'm just sayin....