Buried in the Fine Print: An Inside Look at RENEW 2000

For the Church at large, the Holy Father’s call to renew the faithful in prayer on the eve of the third millennium is a splendid opportunity to strengthen the faithful and redeem the times. For the individual pastor, however, it can be a splendid misery. Overworked, weary, with resources stretched thin by administrative and pastoral demands, the average pastor can barely keep his head above water, much less design a prayer and study program for the 21st century.

Enter, then, RENEW 2000, described by its publisher, Paulist Press, as a “pastoral process for spiritual renewal as we approach the 21st century.” The Press’s marketing campaign promotes RENEW 2000—which was developed by Renew International, an organization founded by Msgr. Thomas Kleiffler—as the only nationally distributed, comprehensive plan for parish preparation, a one-stop shopping source for books and leader training, with the blueprints for a comprehensive follow-up and post-Jubilee sessions. It seems to have worked: The program is in use, in varying forms, in 250 dioceses and 13,000 parishes across the globe.

Is RENEW 2000 a godsend for the harried pastor? Not really, as it turns out. The program is the subject of a mounting controversy; for example, it is “not recommended” by Catholics United for the Faith (CUF), which has “raised a red flag” pending further study. CUF reports “several hundred calls” from Catholics since April 1998 when the RENEW promoters began introducing the program to parishes. According to Philip Gray of CUF, most of those calls were from parishioners disturbed by the “dissension RENEW was causing in their parishes.”

The source of that dissension comes, in part, from the texts of the leader’s manuals, the three-volume Called to Lead, which features commentary from prominent dissenting priests, religious, and theologians, including Monika Hellwig, executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, who once famously questioned whether Jesus was the only savior and opined that Humanae Vitae was simply Pope Paul VI’s “personal judgment.” Hellwig wrote the forward to a RENEW leader’s manual. Other dissenting Catholics cited in the manual include Fr. Raymond F. Collins of The Catholic University of America, who signed both Fr. Charles Curran’s infamous dissent against Humanae Vitae and the Cologne Declaration, which excoriated the Vatican’s stand on dissenting theologians; Diann T. Neu of WATER (the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual, a member organization of Catholics Organized for Renewal [COR], which is a Call to Action subsidiary), a professed lesbian who gave a 1997 retreat for the Boston chapter of Dignity, the militant homosexual advocacy organization; Virgilio Elizondo, champion of liberation theology; Fr. Michael Crosby, OFM, author of The Dysfunctional Church, in which he equates reliance on the authority of the Church with co-dependency; Bill Thompson, editor of Call to Action News; and feminist scripture scholar Sr. Sandra Schneiders, whose more famous observations include, “God is more than two men and a bird,” and, “The problem of Jesus today is not only, for women, the problem of his masculinity, but also the exclusivity of Jesus.”

Many of the authors and theologians cited in the RENEW 2000 Leader’s Manual are found among the ranks of heterodox organizations, most notably, Call to Action and its subsidiary, COR. (See “Inside Call to Action,” CRISIS, February 1996, and “Trojan Horses,” January 1997.)

Ecclesial Base Communities?

The program features a three-year cycle divided into five six-week seasons; the first season, “God, A Community of Love” was initiated in October 1998. The program employs a small faith community structure familiar to many Catholics who were introduced to that format in the original RENEW programs during the 1980s. Renew International dispatches “Service Teams” to participating parishes as guides for the selection and training of parish leaders. The chosen leaders, after attending “formation sessions,” graduate to a permanent Core Community. The Core Community (CC) uses a separate set of leader’s manuals that instruct CC members on how to shepherd the lower level “Invitational Ministry,” which in turn invites parishioners to join “Small Christian Communities” (SCCs) composed of ten to 15 parishioners. These small communities meet weekly to read the season’s assigned booklet and share faith experiences according to listed questions and activities.

That tightly structured training and implementation of a program closely identified with notable dissidents sparked a brushfire of concern. Parish leaders conversant with national “We Are Church” demands and methodologies were alert to those same dissident themes and tactics embedded in RENEW 2000 materials. It has been pointed out that “small faith communities” (SFCs) are the strategic hallmark of Call to Action and its satellite groups, which adapted the format from socialist political agitator Saul Alinsky and his liberation-theology-style “ecclesial base communities” (see “Inside Call to Action”). The small faith community format was also used by Marxists to subvert the Church in Latin America. Even more troubling is the involvement of two priests with clear ties to Call to Action. Both have made public statements supporting the use of SFCs to subvert the hierarchical structure of the Church. Msgr. Philip Murnion—author of Called to Be Catholic, the manifesto of the Common Ground Project, a participant at the 1976 Call to Action meeting called by U.S. bishops (later, heterodox catholics adopted that title for the dissident organization, “Call to Action”), and a devotee of Alinsky—wrote the forward to a volume of RENEW 2000. Coordinated, controlled small faith communities can become “para-churches” serving as the main spiritual support for participants. A master of the technique is Fr. Art Baranowski, a Call To Action regular and founder of the conspicuously titled National Alliance of Parishes Restructuring Into Communities, who is listed as an adviser to RENEW. His group compares SFCs to the earliest Christian “house churches” and points to many parish groups, especially Marian devotional groups, as common examples of the form.

Not quite, retort wary parish leaders, who point to the ominous connection between RENEW and Call to Action, whose 1998 national conference headlined a session titled “Imagining Future Church: Small Christian Communities.” The session featured Rosemary Bleuher, the director of RENEW 2000 for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois.

These ties have made many parishoners question the orthodoxy and intent of the program. Some took their reservations to their pastors and Core Community leaders. Frequently, these skeptics were branded as divisive and were made unwelcome at RENEW meetings; many leaders pointed out that RENEW 2000 carries the imprimatur of the respected Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick of Newark, New Jersey, and had often been approved for use by the local bishop.

A Closer Look

Frustrated, many Catholics have turned to organizations such as CUF to inquire about the reliability of RENEW 2000. Catholic Answers, an apologetics apostolate based in San Diego, has received sufficient inquiries to launch its own analysis of the program. A preliminary examination by Catholic Answers found several troubling tendencies, including the use of genderless language and a refusal to acknowledge God as Father in the profession of faith contained in Book 2, Session 14, “Baptism and Confirmation—Sacraments of Initiation,” which reads, “I believe in the living God, the parent of all humankind, who creates and sustains the universe in power and in love.” Catholic Answers notes that this particular profession of faith was taken from Women and Worship, a book extolled by the magazine Religious Education as a “practical consciousness-raising book that will help eliminate all sexist terms from worship.”

Just so, say many Catholics, who report that RENEW, as used in their parishes, advocates a subtle elimination of traditional Catholic authority, teaching, images, and piety. One who voiced concern regarding the undermining of authentic spirituality is Beth Drennan, an attorney from Baraboo, Wisconsin. Drennan served as a youth minister in her parish, where she first encountered RENEW 2000. Anxious about portions of the material, Drennan began a systematic correlation of names cited in the texts. She uncovered multiple Call to Action links that she characterized as an “unacceptable risk to the Catholic faithful,” the majority of whom are insufficiently catechized and rely upon their pastors or bishops to defend them against error. Drennan points out that dividing parishes into small groups renders “adequate ongoing pastoral supervision” impossible. Drennan will collaborate with Women for Faith and Family, founded by Helen Hull Hitchcock, to assemble an exhaustive review of all RENEW 2000 material.

Among the most revealing of Drennan’s findings is the pantheistic ritual and prayer given in Book 2 of Called to Lead. Participants stand in a circle praying with arms extended to the “Great Spirits of the Four Directions” and to the “Great Spirit of All That Is Below.” This prayer is written by Neu, “life partner” of lesbian Catholic “femilogian” Mary Hunt. (Neu and Hunt are co-founders of WATER.) Drennan maintains that it is “virtually impossible” for pastors and parishioners to discover the links between heterodox theologians and RENEW 2000 unless they were conversant with the names of Call to Action votaries.

RENEW International is uncomfortable with any association to Call to Action. At its headquarters in Plainfield, New Jersey, a woman who only identified herself as Sr. Alice categorically denied any connection to Call to Action or related groups. Pressed about the citations of Neu, Schneiders, and others, she responded, “They were not part of the authorship of the books. It may be that they have taken a leadership position in RENEW 2000 in their own parishes, I don’t know, but they are not part of the Renew International team.” In fact, the dissident theologians are either cited or quoted in the leader’s manuals and in some of the SCC booklets.

However, the connections to dissident authors caused such controversy that Paulist Press has ceased to ship Book Two of Called to Lead to parishes that request the package. A RENEW employee identifying herself only as Sr. Monica conceded that the volume had been withdrawn, but maintained that it “isn’t necessary to the RENEW 2000 process.” Sr. Alice, when questioned on this point, explained that the “book was an older publication that was originally included in the RENEW 2000 parish package for its value in helping with leadership skills and running effective meetings. Unfortunately, this manual was written before the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.” This was also the word-for-word response given by the archdiocesan communications office of Newark when questions regarding the orthodoxy of Book Two of Called to Lead were raised.

Despite these troubling issues, defenders of the program continue to insist that McCarrick’s imprimatur is proof of its orthodoxy. Sr. Monica, for example, said of Drennan’s expose, “Her material is quoted out of context. Bottom line, our material is approved by a committee of theologians appointed by Archbishop McCarrick.” In fact, the imprimatur does not seem as comprehensive as it could be. The archdiocese has in place a theological commission, headed by Msgr. Robert Harahan, STD, that reviews material seeking an imprimatur. A member of the commission, Fr. James Cafone, STD, of Seton Hall University, explained that the commission assigned sections of the RENEW material to relevant experts who reported back concerning those selections that they had reviewed individually. No comprehensive overview was conducted. Only those materials that were to be used in RENEW packets were read by the committee members—not any other works by authors cited in RENEW. The committee seems clearly to believe that it was safeguarding basic Church teachings. (“Basic” is a key word, here, as submissions were required merely to be free of theological defects. An imprimatur is a negative safeguard; it does not necessarily recommend material for use.) Further, the committee understood that the RENEW material was “pastoral,” not doctrinal—that is, intended to promote greater participation in parish life, not to expound on doctrinal matters.

Nonetheless, Msgr. Kleiffler of Renew International admitted that the controversial leader’s manual written by Suzanne Golas, Book Two of Called to Lead, was removed from the RENEW 2000 packet. As letters have come in with inquiries regarding specific passages, the theological commission has reviewed those questions and ruled accordingly. The material of sanctioned theologian Anthony DeMello, S.J., for example, was deleted, as well as the prayer to “The Great Spirit of the Four Directions.” Fr. Cafone reports that the Renew directors have been cooperative; Renew has now agreed to use proper Trinitarian names and has “willingly removed objectionable material.” Admitting that Renew was going through “growing pains,” Fr. Cafone lamented the difficulty of quoting from the works of scholars and theologians who might later “turn into nuts.”

Buyer Beware

A valid question remains, however, even after obviously objectionable passages are removed. Is it truly possible that the balance of the material—written by an unnamed person who chose to include sanctioned theologians and questionable Trinitarian language in the first place—can be a source of a valid and authentic Catholic renewal? The authors’ understanding of the Church, her teachings, and her mission is clearly flawed—which is a matter for pastoral care and fraternal correction. The salient point, however, is that their flawed vision is being communicated via RENEW 2000 to 13,000 parishes worldwide.

To choose one example, the unnamed “team” that wrote the Season I booklet that cited Meister Eckhart (a medieval mystic whose works were condemned in 1329) took great care not to quote from Eckhart’s errors or mention his condemnation. This tactic allows the booklets to “come in under then formed our Small Christian Communities,” reported a member of St. Mary of the Visitation Parish in Huntsville, Alabama. “It’s a discernment process, based on a lot of prayer to determine who is called to this ministry. Some became part of the Invitational Ministry and all are called to be part of the faith-sharing groups. Our priests are involved at the diocesan level and there is a strong liturgical aspect since their homilies reflect the RENEW topics.”

Still, other Catholics resent what they describe as a sly new imposition of a “church within a church.”

“They counseled us that the Core Community leadership was not to be understood as ‘hierarchy’ but a ‘ministry,” reported a participant in a Maitland, Florida, parish. “Just the same, that core group is designed to be permanent and to watch over the small groups and to control the material the groups use even beyond the RENEW seasons. . . . I would describe the setup as a group within a parish that has the power to teach material I’m not sure is right.” Such intuitions are underscored by curious omissions, such as the section on the sacrament of baptism that makes no reference to original sin.

As for the parishioners who worry that a heterodox program is being used to reconfigure their parishes systematically, Philip Gray of CUF suggests that portions of the booklets used in the Small Christian Communities are less the radar,” passing the theological commission’s standard of no doctrinal error, yet leaving unknowing Catholics with the impression that Eckhart or similar authors are good Catholic reading.

Sr. Alice and Sr. Monica stressed that the booklets were a team effort and no one author could be credited. When asked about the credentials of the “team” of authors, the administrators replied simply that they had “various qualifications.” RENEW’s Bob Howlett, who identified himself as “a staff member to take feedback,” acknowledged that the Called to Lead series was never intended for the Small Christian Communities, but was intended for the exclusive use of the parish leaders (CC) who were trained in advance by the Renew International Service Team. Howlett dismissed any concerns about questionable sections of RENEW 2000. “The Church is big enough for a whole range of experiencing God in our lives—there’s tension, but that’s not unusual. The question is, ‘What is God calling us to?'” he said.

Repeated requests to see a list of the authors of RENEW and their qualifications were declined. RENEW takes the same stance regarding the source of the millions of dollars in grants given for development and implementation of RENEW 2000.

Some parishioners have described positive experiences. “We began in the summer with the Core Community team, troublesome than the leader’s supplemental books. While the leader’s manuals have grave flaws, the SCC booklets skirt the edges. Gray counsels, “If the program is already there, we advise people to get involved, to become leaders. Then they have the opportunity to lead the small faith-sharing groups to a proper catechesis. In the right hands the danger is minimized.” Gray noted that often it is an issue of faithful interpretation.

Much of the anxiety over RENEW 2000 booklets for parishioners (not the leader’s manuals) is in emphasis and direction—it is a slippery proposition to denounce a whole season’s booklet, since some sections are not problematic and can be used fruitfully by knowledgeable Catholics. Nevertheless, in tone and emphasis RENEW 2000 booklets quickly lend themselves to the litany familiar at dissident Catholic gatherings, particularly the “ecologically sensitive spirituality” which the (now removed) prayer of the “Great Spirits of the Four Directions” epitomizes. RENEW Season V still features a week devoted to “Loving the Earth” that calls for “healing its wounds.”

How flawed is RENEW 2000? Can it be used without damage to the faith of unsuspecting parishioners? Fr. Cafone observed that achieving good results using any means is a matter of good intentions. “Anything can be ill-used in the wrong hands, even the Mass.”

Mary Jo Anderson

By

Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and public speaker. She has been a frequent guest on "Abundant Life," an EWTN television program, and her "Global Watch" radio program is heard on EWTN radio affiliates nationwide. She writes regularly for Crisis Magazine. More articles and commentary can be found at Properly Scared and at Women for Faith and Family. Mary Jo is a board member of Women for Faith and Family and has served on the Legatus Board of Directors. With co-author Robin Bernhoft, she wrote "Male and Female He Made Them: Questions and Answers about Marriage and Same-Sex Unions," published in 2005 by Catholic Answers. In 2003 Mary Jo was invited to the Czech Republic to address parliamentarians on the Impact of Radical Feminism on Emerging Democracies.

MENU