Blog Post

The Troubled History of "Renew" in American Parishes

DS writes: " Several years ago in Shreveport, Louisiana, a traveling Jesuit came to our parish with these 2 [Renew] programs, filling heads with a lot of nonsense, which some believed. Sorry to say, I was one of them. Could you speak to the Renew program?"

Great question, DS!

The Renew program has been fraught with problems since its inception. The original program received a devastating review by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) which acknowledged some of the positive aspects of the program, but pointed out areas that could be "doctrinally misleading" and recommended revisions. A subsequent program, introduced in 2000, does not appear to have corrected these mistakes.

First of all, for those who are unfamiliar with Renew is, this program was developed to serve as a "spritual renewal process" for parishes to help Catholics develop a closer relationship with Christ in order become a more authentic witness. It is described as being more of a "process" than a program that seeks to develop community, strengthen faith and inspire believers, and was designed for implementation on a diocesan level.

As the USCCB explains in their review, the Renew process takes three and a half years to complete, including a year-long period of preparation or training. 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, such as the Lord's call and our response to it, empowerment by the Spirit, discipleship and evanglization. Renew invites parishioners to join in the conversion process by attending Sunday Mass, through take-home materials, and by attending large and small group activities. The goals of the program are to unify the parish, call people to prayer, find and develop parish leaders, encourage inactive people to become more involved in the church and community, and to help parishioners return to the sacraments.

The program was developed in the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., under now-retired Archbishop Peter Gerety. It was Archbishop Gerety who asked the bishops' committee to review the program.

Even though the USCCB praised the "significant success" the program is having in achieving its goals in some parishes, there are equally significant problems with the contents of the Leaders Manuals. They cite problems such as the program's tendency to profess a "generic Christianity" and called for greater balance and emphasis on the cognitive dimensions of the faith as well as a broader definition of the Eucharist and more of an emphasis on sacrifice and worship.

One of the reasons for these deficiencies can be found in some of the authors who contributed to the materials. As Mary Jo Anderson explains in this article, the three-volume Called to Lead manuals feature commentary from a variety of prominent dissidents. Among them is 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'," Anderson writes.

"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, t he problem of his masculinity, but also the exclusivity of Jesus'."

This could explain why Book 2 of Called to Lead included a pantheistic ritual that involved having participants standing in a circle praying with arms extended to the "Great Sprits of the Four Directions" and to the "Great Spirit of All That Is Below." Anderson explains that this prayer was written by Neu, "life partner" of lesbian Catholic "femilogian" Mary Hunt.

Even more problematic is that the program has an imprimatur from the now retired Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Washington, DC. However, Anderson dug a little deeper and learned that the imprimatur process used for Renew was not as comprehensive as it could have been. A committee assigned sections of the Renew material to various experts who reported back concerning the selections they reviewed individually, but no comprehensive review was ever conducted.

This could explain why, when the USCCB reviewed the original program, they found serious problems in its content. For instance, they believed that basic Christian themes are presented without sufficiently relating them to how they are experienced within the Roman Catholic tradition. The materials also tended to be biased toward framing the church more as a people than an institution, which the bishops believe causes the Renew process to favor certain aspects of Catholic life to the exclusion of others. "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." The bishops recommended that Renew revise its material to give "a clearer presentation of the distinctive nature of the Catholic Church, not merely as a community of faith but as a structural, hierarchical, visible, sacramental community . . .

They were also critical of Renew's emphasis on personal and shared "experience as the locus of revelation" which they believed could lead to fundamentalism and the privatization of religious truth.

The bishops were also concerned about Renew's emphasis on the Eucharist as a "meal" rather than as a sacrifice which they believed could 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," they wrote.

The resulting revision, which became Renew 2000, wasn't much better. Regis Martin, S.T.D. Professor of Theology at Franciscan University Of Steubenville cited numerous problems in Book 2 of the Leader's Manual.

Aside from never mentioning the Fatherhood of God, "there is an unfortunate and persisting tendency throughout the text to remove the meaning of Christ (Messiah, Anointed One of God, Savior), from the historical figure named Jesus. The Son of God, Jesus Christ, is thus stripped of His being and identity as God's anointed who has come to redeem the world. This pivotal fact seems repeatedly to have been overlooked in the Text," he writes.

There is no mention of original sin in the text and the whole discussion of sin is "woefully inadequate" in his opinion.

He also found it strange that a program designed to bring about spiritual renewal paid almost no attention to the development of the interior life of the soul. "Indeed, the whole life of prayer is dreadfully underdeveloped in terms of any Catholic tradition of piety. Where are the great prayers and devotions of the past? The Our Father is first mentioned on pg.43, then disappears altogether. As for Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the Sign of the Cross, prayers to Our Lady like the rosary - these are never cited as ways of honoring God or growing in virtue."

Even more alarming is the "dubious spirituality" that is put forward in the text. "While having earlier neglected authentic Christian 'tried and true' paths of prayer, the writers now promote a collection of Buddhist, Feminist, Native American and Eastern Centering Prayers . . ."

He concludes: " . . . (M)y judgment of the text is very simply this: it is seriously impaired in its content, and in its tone or spirit, alien to the ancient and Catholic faith we profess in the Creed. My recommendation would be that that it not be used under Catholic auspices, that it be jettisoned in favor of materials truly consonant to the faith as set out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (which incidentally is never referred to in the text)."

I think you get the idea, but if you want to read more, this page contains excellent links to a variety of criticisms about Renew.

ADDENDUM: After reading this post, LB asked me to address the new Renew programs, such as the "Why Catholic?" edition. Are these okay for use?

According to Catholic Culture, as of 2010, RENEW gets a "caution" fidelity rating which means there could still be some problems with this organization. 

EWTN also advises that while some of the errors in RENEW 2000 may have been corrected, and some of the erroneous texts have been dropped by dioceses, the way the programs are conducted "make them greatly dependent upon the orthodoxy of the local clerical and lay leadership who conduct them, and thus subject to great variability in their implementation throughout the Church." 

 So the new programs may be just fine, but be careful about who is running the course and how much of their own ideas are being shared in classes.

Send your New Age questions to