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May 1988


Review of RENEW by the Committee on Doctrine of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) of the United States. To be read in conjunction with the critiques immediately following.


Review of the RENEW Process (Newark)


Description of the process

RENEW is described as a "spiritual renewal process" for the parish "to help parishioners develop a closer relationship with Christ, to make an adult commitment to Jesus as central in their lives and to open them to the power of the Holy Spirit so they become more authentic witnesses"(1)

RENEW is seen as a process to develop community, strengthen faith, and inspire the believer to witness more fully to Jesus and His Message. It is intended to be implemented on a diocesan level, or at least in a significant cluster of parishes within a diocese.

Schedule and themes

The RENEW process extends over a three and one-half year period, including a preparation or training year. The parish experience is divided into five six-week sessions offered in the Fall and during Lent. The themes of the five sessions are drawn from significant events in the New Testament and from the basic stages of Christian spirituality for all subsequent generations:

1) The Lord's Call;
2) Our Response to the Lord's Call;
3) Empowerment by the Spirit;
4) Discipleship;
5) Evangelization.(2)

Framework for participation

Parishioners are invited to join in the RENEW conversion process in four ways:

1) Sunday liturgy.
2) Take-home materials.
3) Large group activities.
4) Small sharing groups.(3)

Goals of RENEW

RENEW proposes to achieve the following goals within each participating-parish:

1) Set a spiritual climate and provide a common experience which will be a unifying force in the parish.
2) Call forth unparalleled prayer.
3) Find and develop parish leaders.
4) Bring many inactive people to involvement in Church and community.
5) Occasion the return of many parishioners to the sacraments.
6) Offer in one process basic formation in prayer, Scripture, community building, justice, liturgy, evangelization, family life, and support for the Adult Catechumenate (RCIA).(4)

General commendation of the RENEW process

As RENEW is described by its authors, it is an ambitious effort to achieve definite goals in terms of parish renewal. Dioceses that have undertaken the RENEW process report significant success commensurate with the degree of their engagement of personnel and resources. This creates an atmosphere of support and enthusiasm for RENEW on the part of additional dioceses.

We commend RENEW for analyzing the spiritual needs of people in our country, and for developing a process which helps the local church reach out to people and build more vigorous faith-enlivened communities. There is a constant need in all our dioceses to help our people come to conversion and renewal in their lives of faith. The RENEW process can give rich support and assistance to this ongoing mission.

We also commend RENEW for its energetic effort to identify responsable lay leaders and to inspire them and train them for significant roles in the process and in the parish community. The expansion of the pool of trained and willing lay leaders is a statistical and celebrated benefit of the RENEW process.

We note RENEW's resourcefulness in developing and compiling extensive materials to support people in various stages of the process. This keeps RENEW, once well begun and properly directed in a parish, from floundering because of a lack of resource materials or program support.

Some specific concerns about the process

Our review of the published materials which describe the RENEW process and our dialog with some bishops who have experienced it confirm the positive evaluation mentioned above. Since the accomplishments and promise of this process are so significant, we address the following concerns in air effort to improve it.

1) The tendency toward a generic Christianity:

Perhaps the main cause of concern for the critics of RENEW and one of the weaknesses we recognize in the process, is the fact that basic Christian themes are presented without sufficiently relating them to their specific form as experienced in Roman Catholic tradition and practice. The literature does not identify, to the extent that we think it should, what is distinctly Catholic in our faith process. As an example, expectation six under "what will RENEW do for the parish",(5) the formation in prayer, Scripture, community building, justice, etc., does not indicate the teaching of the Church that gives meaning to the living tradition which forms the basis for authentic Catholic renewal. We find the dimension lacking in much of the material of RENEW.

Even though the authors of RENEW claim that it "has never attempted to be a catechetical program", nonetheless there is an admission that there are "formational and programmatic aspects of the RENEW process" which provide, directly or indirectly, both content and doctrine for participants in the process. We must be concerned, then, about what such a pedagogical-formational device teaches by exclusion as well as by inclusion.

2) The need for greater balance and completeness:

The authors of RENEW admit biases in their approach to personal and parochial renewal.

"There is a bias in RENEW for immanence. . . the emphasis is on the God who is among us ... ours is a God who has embraced our humanity in the fullest possible way ... Jesus is understood immanently in his concrete humanity and historicity ... ministry arises out of the people and belongs to the people.

"In RENEW the church is more a people than an institution … a definite bias towards the community model of church ... the single most revealing element of any theology is its ecclesiology, its understanding of the nature, function, and purpose, of the church. One's ecclesiology is the door of one's understanding of God, Jesus, and the faith of a people. One's ecclesiology also reveals a theology of ministry and a sense of mission. That is why RENEW clearly commits itself to a model of church that is a community of disciples ... a model that is inclusive rather than exclusive or elitist, and one that nurtures itself for mission rather than for self-service".(6)

It is our opinion that the overemphasis of these theological positions cause the RENEW process to favor certain aspects of Catholic life to the exclusion of other equally important aspects. This results in an imbalance which can be doctrinally misleading. The total renewal of our people requires, in the long run and for our unity as a church, an understanding and appreciation of the full gamut of Catholic theology and doctrine. While RENEW does not claim to offer courses in catechetics or a theological overview, nonetheless it does state that it intends "to create a 'theology', a way of understanding God, Jesus, Church, etc., for our time". Therefore, it does have the responsibility to offer a balanced theological perspective.

Some of the "exclusions", in our opinion, that would enrich the RENEW theological component and give it a better balance are: a clearer presentation of the distinctive nature of the Catholic Church, not merely as a community of faith but as a structured, hierarchical, visible, sacramental community bound together in a tradition that includes Scripture as a font of faith but also the authoritative development and interpretation of the doctrines of faith by the Magisterium of the Church; a more balanced presentation of the models of the Church which broadens considerably the sole emphasis on community; the insistence that Godís Revelation, and not just personal experience, is the norm for deeper understanding and appreciation of authentic faith.

While we applaud the strategy of RENEW to call people to greater responsibility for the mission of the Church, and their consequent ministerial roles, we are concerned that a corresponding emphasis on the Sacrament of Orders is missing. Unless the necessary and unique ministerial priesthood is constantly balanced with emerging lay ministeries in the Church, a distorted vision about the future of ministry can develop, and a confused ecclesiology.

3) The cognitive dimensions of faith need more emphasis:

We are grateful that RENEW has developed a process which stresses the contemporary need to touch the affective, emotional, and personal aspects of faith. Conversion and renewal in our culture require for many people these dimensions of personal faith experiences within a supportive community of believers. At the same time, we think there is need in the RENEW process to emphasize more clearly the cognitive, intellectual aspect of faith life. The large group experience can be used to make this objective presentation. Clearer support should also be given to the need to relate people not only to the parish, but also more effectively to the diocese and the Universal Church.

We are concerned that the emphasis of RENEW on personal and shared "experience as the locus of revelation"(7) can lead to fundamentalism and the privatisation of religious truth. Our people must always be made aware of the objective content of Revelation as the basis for our faith in Jesus Christ.

We note that RENEW is not just a "brief, intensive event such as a weekend experience or retreat"- rather it is a diocesan-wide three-year process of conversion and formation. Because of its duration and impact on the local Church, we have to be concerned about the effects it has on the orthodoxy and orthopraxis of our people. The cognitive dimensions of faith cannot be separated from any extended process of renewal or formation in the Church if we are to maintain our Catholic unity.

4) The Eucharist needs broader definition and an emphasis on sacrifice and worship:

We note the effective way the authors of RENEW relate the ordinary things of life to the Eucharist, and the centrality of the Eucharist in Catholic prayer. However, we have concerns about the singular emphasis in some of the material on the communal meal, and the paraliturgical agape that can lead to confusion about the essential nature of the Eucharistic Sacrifice.

The preoccupation with the Eucharist as meal, which should be open to everyone, is highlighted in the material on discipleship with reference to other kinds of meals people share together. Jesus seems to be present in the sharing rather than His Real Presence in the Eucharist.(8)

In the suggestions for concluding prayer services at the end of small group gatherings, the agape prayer service which stresses the symbolic sharing of bread and wine in the spirit of our tradition takes on the appearance of the sacramental Eucharist. There is no effort to distinguish between the two - which can lead, it seems to us, to a trivialization of the Eucharist in the minds of some.(9)

In one agape service, the leader tells other family members that Jesus took bread and wine like this, the natural elements of celebration, and gave them new meaning. He made them signs of his shared life with us – "so let us celebrate now by sharing this bread and wine together".(10)

And in an agape service directed primarily at youth, Jesus is referred to as the Bread of life, which is then shared, and Jesus is asked to bless the cup of wine which is referred to as the Blood of Christ, and then shared. But when we Catholics "share as Jesus taught us during the Last Supper", it is called the sacramental Eucharist. This seems to us to cause confusion between agape and the real Eucharist.(11)

Suggestions for further development

We understand that the authors of RENEW consider it a process of spiritual renewal, not a program – "a catechism is a program for learning the fundamentals of our faith. RENEW has never attempted to be a catechetical program. Instead, it is a process of spiritual formation ... meaning that people are on a journey of conversion."(12) But as we noted above, the authors of RENEW admit that "obviously, there are programmatic aspects to the RENEW process", and we agree. It is our conviction that any process or program or renewal and formation in the Church must have a well articulated doctrinal base which is both comprehensive and balanced.

We welcome the assurance from the promoters of RENEW that they are willing to revise material content as the need is presented to them. We think a continued revision along the lines we have suggested above is important.

1) Take-home materials for people should include more "content" data which provide doctrinal and catechetical principles, to serve as a basis for personal reflections and against which personal experiences and attitudes can be measured.

2) In small-group sharing, materials should include information that better emphasizes the ecclesial dimensions of faith life, and God's Revelation through Jesus Christ and His Church, which is the only sure guide of faith.

RENEW has touched the lives of a significant number of people in many dioceses of this country already, with more dioceses on line here and abroad. This is the reason for our evaluation and critque. Even though we have offered several suggestions for improving the process, we want to make it clear that we recognize the overall value, of this renewal effort for our people.



(1)RENEW: An Overview, National Office of RENEW, Archdiocese of Newark, 1984, Paulist Press, 545 Island Rd., Ramsay, N.J. 07446; p. 3, no. 1.

(2) Ibid., p. 3, no. 2.

(3) Ibid., p. 4, no. 3.

(4) Ibid., p. 7, no.5.

(5) Ibid., p. 7, no. 5.

(6) Ibid., pp. 22-23, no. VI-VII.

(7)Ibid., p. 41, no. 7(1).

(8) RENEW: Discipleship, small group sharing, option 3, pp. 17-19.

(9) RENEW: Large Group Activities, pp. 196-199.

(10) RENEW: Discipleship, HOME, pp. pp. 56-61.

(11)RENEW: Discipleship, small group sharing, option 4, pp. 18-20.

(12) RENEW: An Overview, p. 22, no. IV.


* * * * *

This critique of the NCCBís above Review is offered because of the clarity with which it explains and illustrates the NCCB's criticism of the RENEW Process.

Critique of NCCB's Committee

Review of RENEW Process

EDITORS of The Wanderer

There are many marked dangers and weaknesses in the RENEW programme, as the Bishops' report makes clear:

1) "The tendency towards a generic Christianity" as the Bishops' Committee on Doctrine puts it, is a real danger in the programme. What this means is that there is no specific identification of RENEW with "Christian themes . . . as experienced in Roman Catholic tradition and practice". Like the generic label in the supermarket, RENEW does not want to be identified as anything definite, in this case, Catholic. The Bishop's report warns RENEW participants of the dangers of this kind of approach.

2) What the Doctrinal Committee calls "The need for greater balance and completeness", is still another defect. It gives as one instance of this defect RENEW's own statement that "there is a bias in RENEW towards immanence". But, since God is transcendent, and not only immanent, this undermines our entire conception of God and of His action with our lives. Or, as the Bishops' Committee puts it : "This results in an imbalance which can be doctrinally misleading. The total renewal of our people requires, in the long run for our unity as a Church, an understanding and appreciation of the full gamut of Catholic theology and doctrine". This implies that the one-sidedness of RENEW can become a means of separating us from the unity of the Catholic Faith.

3) The Bishops point out that "the cognitive dimensions of Faith need more emphasis". In fact, "The emphasis of RENEW on personal and shared 'experience as the locus of revelation' [inner quote is from RENEW, outer quote, as usual, from the Bishops] can lead to fundementalism and the privatisation of religious truth". This is a way of saying that RENEW is open to the Protestant fundamentalist experience of conversion, without regard to the objective truths of divine Revelation. Yet it is only through these truths that Catholic unity in the Faith is made possible. As the Bishops express it, "Our people must always be made aware of the objective content of Revelation as the basis of our faith in Jesus Christ".

4) Finally, the Bishops' report points out that the practice of a paraliturgical "communal meal," provided for in the RENEW materials, "can lead to confusion about the essential nature of the Eucharistic Sacrifice ... Jesus seems to be present in the sharing rather than His Real Presence in the Eucharist." Thus the central act of Catholic worship is gravely endangered by this parody of it promoted by RENEW.

Please note that in the following articles critiquing the NCCB these points are put and expanded by their authors with clarity and force:

Adverse Judgement: Widespread Use by John J. Mulloy

Trivialising Christ Our Lord by James Likoudis

Experience Replaces Objective Truth by Frank Morriss


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