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Books examine challenges of modern Catholic Church
Authors approach church's challenges from different perspectives
Authors approach church's challenges from different perspectives "The Emerging Catholic Church: A Community's Search for Itself" by Tom Roberts. Orbis Books (Maryknoll, N.Y., 2011). 204 pp., $24. "Wake Up, Lazarus! On Catholic Renewal" by Pierre Hegy. iUniverse (Bloomington, Ind., 2011). 328 pp., $22.95.
Catholic News Service

The data from recent surveys concerning membership in the Catholic Church have not been positive. Fewer people are attending Mass weekly, contributions are down, and many more adults are leaving the church than joining it. These two books examine the challenges and offer suggestions for reversing the current trends.

Tom Roberts, author of "The Emerging Catholic Church," is an editor-at-large for the National Catholic Reporter newspaper. The book developed from a series of articles Roberts wrote for the paper during 2009 while visiting dioceses around the United States, but it does not repeat the original articles. Roberts approaches the topic from the perspective of a journalist, and one who writes for a newspaper that covers the Catholic Church from a progressive or liberal perspective.

Pierre Hegy, the author of "Wake Up Lazarus!", is an emeritus professor at Adelphi University. His dissertation focused on authority in the Catholic Church. He addresses the topic of church renewal from the perspective of an academic who is fully committed to the church and its survival.

Although both books examine the data from many of the same studies and both offer suggestions on what the church can and should be doing to reverse the negative trend, the books are very dissimilar in approach and attitude. Roberts tends to see the problems the church faces today as a contest between the hierarchy and the laity, with the bishops trying to take back the power they lost following the Second Vatican Council. Hegy writes that he is concerned with "pastoral strategies" and so uses whatever tools he can -- theology, sociology, statistics and theory -- in an effort to "make a contribution to the growing field of pastoral sociology" and renewal in the church.

Roberts begins with Sister Thea Bowman's presentation to the U.S. bishops in June 1989. That day the bishops heard what Roberts calls "a plea for a change in the church's hierarchical structure," but the author quickly moves to Pope John Paul II's efforts to roll "back the reforms of the Second Vatican Council" and reshape the hierarchy.

Chapter 2 examines the data from recent studies and presents a brief explanation of their meaning and causes. In the next three chapters, Roberts recounts the sexual abuse crisis and decries the clerical culture that he believes exacerbated the problem. The last half of the book focuses on parishes that Roberts suggests exemplify the new emerging Catholic Church.

Hegy begins with research data to set the context for his proposal for renewal. From the data he suggests that a new form of theological reflection is needed because "academic theology reflects on belief rather than faith; on doctrine rather than practices" but that people today are more interested in spiritual growth rather than knowledge, individual conversion rather than structural change in the church.

Drawing from the work of churches -- Catholic and others -- that are successful at attracting and holding new members, Hegy identifies key issues that need to be addressed, such as the need for a global vision for the future that encourages strong community involvement and vibrant outreach to attract newcomers and keep young people from leaving. He explains that strong and vibrant churches focus on spiritual growth and encourage spiritual practices, while helping their members develop a strong faith identity. In the last 70 pages, Hegy offers strategies for renewing the Catholic Church's vitality by focusing on such issues as piety and devotion, relationships and getting members actively involved in the life of the faith community.

Both books are well written and easy to understand. On balance, "Wake Up, Lazarus!" will be more beneficial to the reader who is interested in a fuller picture of the challenges facing the Catholic Church today and what needs to be done to address these challenges.

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