Share this article

print logo

CHRISTIANITY FINDS ITSELF IN UNIQUE TIMES, AUTHOR SAYS

As Roman Catholics welcome their new pope, Benedict XVI, loudly and publicly, there are quieter but just as far-reaching changes occurring in the church.

"This is a unique time in church history," said the Rev. Harry E. Winter of the Oblates of Mary, who has been pastor of St. Rose of Lima church since 1997 and previously was president of the Oblate College in Washington, D.C.

Winter has identified five groups within the church: catholic (with a small "c"); charismatic/evangelical; Vatican II/reformed; liberal and fundamentalist.

"To have all groups operating so vociferously is unique," said Winter, who has researched and written about the structural makeup of Christian churches.

"In America there is a great tradition of tolerance," he said. "Still, we have to wonder how far does tolerance go when everybody's opinion is just as good as another's."

In a snapshot portrayal, Winter identifies the characteristics of each group:

Catholic: baptized as infants, love structure and sacraments, suspicious of emotion.

Charismatic/evangelical: love the Bible, emotional preaching, long sermons and witnessing, are uneasy with structures such as sacraments.

Neo-orthodox/Vatican II: recognize the necessity of change and renewal and frequently mediate between those who "practically worship change" and those who view change as betrayal.

Liberal: must be up-to-date with any changes.

Fundamentalist: protects faith, family and country; has a siege mentality that circles the wagons.

Winter said that most Christians identify with one way, the "dominant" way, but usually have some sympathy for a second way and some hostility for one of the others.

Commonly, fundamentalists reject the flexibility of liberals; while liberals reject the stability of fundamentalists.

"I think very few parishes are sympathetic to both leanings, and in many places there is fragmenting," said Winter. "But, a church that doesn't have liberal tendencies dries up, and without conservatism it disappears because there are no boundaries."

So, Winter raises the question of whether these divergent ways might be complementary rather than conflictual. "Is it not true that a healthy, vibrant Christianity needs all five ways fully cooperating, if we are really to witness to the Lord?" he writes in his book "Dividing or Strengthening: Five Ways of Christianity."

Winter said that the only other historical times in which there may have been such identifiable divisions was in the age of Constantine, which was the fourth and fifth centuries, and during the Renaissance.

"What is certain is that all five have never existed together as they do in current times in the English-speaking world," he said. "Yet all five can claim a basis in the New Testament."

Guarded predictions

So, what are Catholics to make of it, and how do pastors deal with these varying opinions?

First, he said, by recognizing that the divisions exist. "And it's not just in Catholic churches, it's happening in all Christian churches," Winter said.

"To bring the Gospel message to our troubled and challenging times, we first have to name the problem and analyze it accurately," said Winter, who will speak on the topic at the St. Columban Center on May 11.

Asked for a prediction on how the church will evolve, Winter wouldn't venture beyond a few years.

"In five years, if there are no terrorist attacks, I think we'll see more attention to liberal Catholicism," he said. "That means improving the lot of the poor, trying to improve tax codes and jobs. Now we see the rich getting richer and more poor in this country. In this parish, for example, I know families where both people had worked for the county and lost their jobs."

He also expects that there will be more "second career" priests. "In fact, two seminaries have been set up just for those vocations," he said.

Winter, who was also pastor at parishes in Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina, said that when people get to know each other on a personal, deep level their labels and differences remove the barriers of labels and stereotypes.

"In West Virginia, I had two families who fought at every meeting we held," said Winter, "over genuflecting, over whether the priest had the last say, over everything. One was liberal, and one was fundamental.

"But you know that saying about all politics being local?

"Well, as it happened, at the same time they discovered that their daughters were pregnant, at ages 13 and 15. The two families started helping each other. They still fought, but they fought differently. They fought with respect. If you can get people to know each other's concerns, then that can happen."

The 9/1 1 effect

Winter admits that if one listened only to the increasing hostility, it would be easy to conclude that these five ways are more divisive than cohesive.

But he offers examples of ways in which opinion has coalesced: "Since 9/1 1, many Christians (and Jews and Muslims) have discovered a tendency within themselves, to protect the fundamentals of family, faith and fatherland," he said. "Fundamentalism is a human tendency, and it's not necessarily bad.

"At the same time," he said, "the liberal themes of dialogue with people who are different, of learning from others, have also become stronger."

He also sees that the "three middle ways of catholic, evangelical/charismatic and neo-orthodox/Vatican II" have begun to work more closely together.

"If a community can make way for at least three of the five ways, its Christianity will be greatly strengthened," he said. "And, we need to pray together. To help us realize that Jesus Christ is bringing us all together despite ourselves."

Winter will speak on "The Five Ways of Catholicism" from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and again at 6 to 9 p.m. on May 11 at the St. Columban Center, 6892 Lakeshore Road, Derby. The $30 cost includes meals. Call 947-5759 to register.

e-mail: pvoell@buffnews.com