Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 29, 1999
A new evangelization for a new millennium
Pope John Paul offers a way out of our current social morass
By GLEN ARGAN
There is a widespread assumption in academic, media and other quarters that Christianity has lost its ability to revitalize Western culture.
Christianity was a good thing in its heyday, so this line of thinking goes, but its day is over. We are more enlightened now, more liberated, and we don't need the firm imposed discipline of authoritarian, hierarchical Church structures to protect us from ourselves. Our greater scientific and technological knowledge, our understanding of the roots of human behaviour and our awareness of the global implications of our actions has set us free from previous superstitions.
In this perspective, the continued outbreaks of religious fervour, ranging from Protestant Pentecostalism to Islamic fundamentalism, are but the last gasps of the old order which will soon pass away as the benefits of Western know-how and civilization are made available to all.
For the last 20 years, Pope John Paul has approached things from a radically different perspective. He maintains that the personal autonomy so highly esteemed by Western intellectuals is really the road to destruction. It dehumanizes the human person by detaching humanity from the source of its dignity. The human person is a child of God who, through the mystery of Baptism, is raised to a dignity higher than mere nature.
For Pope John Paul, Christianity is not a spent force or in its death throes. It is a wonder which is ever ancient, ever new, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8). He always gives life and never takes it away.
What Western civilization needs to overcome its decadence is a new springtime of faith. And the new springtime can only be brought forth through an activity the pope calls "the new evangelization."
The pope has linked this new evangelization with the coming of the third millennium. Preparation for the jubilee has been one of the hallmarks of Pope John Paul's pontificate, undergirding his whole pastoral approach.
In his 1994 letter on the coming of third millennium, the pope says "vast sectors of contemporary civilization and culture, of politics and economics" need to be evangelized. "The more the West is becoming estranged from its Christian roots, the more it is becoming missionary territory."
Rooted in Vatican II
Although Pope John Paul first used the term "new evangelization" in 1983, the origins of the concept can be found in Pope John XXIII's decision to call the Second Vatican Council. In his speech opening the council in 1962, Pope John said, "The greatest concern of the ecumenical council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously."
He had already stated in 1961 that the council was needed for the Church to express its teaching in modern language because of "a crisis underway within society." Society was being reorganized in a way which tended to exclude God and it was a matter of "immense gravity" that society be imbued with "the vivifying and perennial energies of the Gospel. "
Pope John did not use the term "evangelize," but that was clearly what he was urging - a proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ to a society that was forgetting that news.
Jesuit Father Avery Dulles notes that the council did go on to talk explicitly about evangelization. Unlike Vatican I which, a century earlier, never used the terms "evangelize" or "evangelization," the Vatican II documents used the former term 18 times and the latter 31 times. The council fathers clearly wanted to bridge a growing gap between the Catholic faith and a secular society.
If there was a gap between faith and culture in 1961, it has grown to a huge chasm in the intervening four decades. Rates of Catholic church attendance have plummeted through much of the Western world. Weekly church attendance in once staunchly Catholic Quebec, for example, fell from 83 per cent in 1957 to 23 per cent in 1990. Further, practices which contravene Catholic moral teaching - such as abortion, contraception, and common-law relationships - have gone from being rare to commonplace.
Crisis has spread
The "crisis" Pope John referred to in 1961 has spread to an extent that few, if any, anticipated.
With it, however, have come increasing papal calls for evangelization. Pope Paul VI convoked a World Synod of Bishops on the topic in 1974 and later released his major apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi which grew out of the synod. Pope John Paul has, if anything, made the topic an even higher priority since his papacy began in 1978.
He first used the phrase "the new evangelization" in a March 9, 1983 speech to the Latin American bishops in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He said the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the Americas, to take place in 1992, required "a commitment, not to re-evangelization, but to a new evangelization, new in ardour, methods and expression."
In his 1990 encyclical Mission of the Redeemer, the pope clarified the term by distinguishing it from the Church's traditional mission work which is directed towards "persons or groups who do not yet believe in Christ . . . and whose culture has not yet been influenced by the Gospel."
The new evangelization is rather directed to situations "where entire groups of the baptized have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church, and live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel."
Dulles describes the new evangelization as having four characteristics:
Essential to any form of evangelization is a presentation of the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as the source of our liberation of evil, sin and death. This proclamation must be made in a way which shows "love and esteem" for the people hearing the message.
- It calls for the participation of every Christian.
- It is directed at the baptized, or at least those living in traditionally Christian countries, who have never made a personal commitment to Christ and his Gospel.
- It is directed to whole cultures as much as to individuals.
- It envisages a comprehensive Christianization including catechesis, moral doctrine and Church social teaching.
However, evangelization does not end with the initial proclamation of the Gospel. This initial proclamation should lead to "examination of the reasons for belief, experience of Christian living, integration into ecclesial community, and apostolic and missionary witness," the pope said in a 1979 statement on catechesis. The initial seed of faith needs to be matured and educated "by means of a deeper and more systematic knowledge of the person and the message of our Lord Jesus Christ."
Evangelization includes catechesis. So, when an Extraordinary World Synod of Bishops was held in 1985 to mark the 30th anniversary of the end of Vatican II, it was fitting that the synod called for the writing of a universal catechism. A full response to the crisis mentioned by Pope John in 1961 would seem to necessitate a new catechism written in the light of the new cultural conditions and the evolved understanding of the Catholic faith which had emerged from the council.
The new evangelization needed a new catechism. This catechism would present the faith in a systematic and serene manner which, while not directly challenging the errors present in particular cultures, would provide a clear alternative to them.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church as it was eventually called, itself states that, "The Catechism emphasizes the exposition of doctrine. It seeks to help deepen understanding of faith. In this way, it is oriented to the maturing of that faith, its putting down roots in personal life and its shining forth in personal conduct." Catechesis should not only affect what people think, but also how they live.
When Pope John Paul again spoke to the Latin American bishops in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Oct. 12, 1992, he said, "All evangelizers must pay attention to catechesis." The Catechism, about to be released, would be "a valuable tool for the new evangelization, compiling all the doctrines that the Church must teach."
The Catechism stands as an alternative to those cultures which the pope has described as either turning away from God, distorting the nature of the human person, dulling the moral sense or presenting a false notion of freedom.
The pope has, in various contexts, described the cultures or trends which need to be evangelized as utilitarianism, materialism, consumerism, relativism, agnosticism, atheism, Marxism, radical capitalism, skepticism, the culture of death, secularism, religious indifference, neo-Manicheanism and subjectivism.
Although this may seem to be a mouthful of labels, some of which are mutually exclusive (for example, Marxism and radical capitalism), these phenomena are connected by their common characteristic of trying to deny the importance for society of the transcendent orientation of the human person.
The Church's primary aim in evangelizing, it must be emphasized, is not to bring about political and social change, but to present the person of Jesus. However, successfully presenting Jesus as "the Way and the Truth and the Life" (John 14:6) will have enormous consequences for societies which have turned from a belief in God and a belief in objective moral norms. Evangelization, and the new evangelization in particular, will enrich and transform the social order.
In his 1979 statement on catechesis, Pope John Paul wrote that "The power of the Gospel everywhere transforms and regenerates. When that power enters into a culture, it is no surprise that it rectifies many of its elements. . . . (It enriches cultures) by helping them to go beyond defective or even inhuman features in them, and by communicating to their legitimate values the fullness of Christ."
The opposite is also true as the pope noted 14 years later in his encyclical The Splendor of Truth - the loss of faith can lead to the moral decay of a culture: "De-Christianization, which weighs heavily upon entire peoples and communities once rich in faith and Christian life, involves not only the loss of faith, or in any event its becoming irrelevant for everyday life, but also, and of necessity, a decline or an obscuring of the moral sense."
Tell the truth
The greatest step on the road to preserving human dignity is to tell the truth about humanity - that it is oriented to the transcendent and finds fulfillment by living in accord with God's law. Without an acknowledgement of God's existence and man's relationship with him, humanity is reduced to the level of a thing to be used rather than a person with a dignity which cannot be violated.
Some would maintain that the proclamation of the existence of God as a fact, rather than a personal opinion, and the proclamation of the existence of universal moral norms is an affront to human freedom and dignity. Charles Colson finds this view expressed in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Casey v. Planned Parenthood which stated: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, of the mystery of human life."
This court decision espouses a radical subjectivism which denies the possibility of moral truth which would stand above personal preferences. Colson goes on to say that most Americans agree with this way of thinking. He cites an opinion survey which found that 71 per cent of Americans believe there is no such thing as truth.
Underlying this widespread disbelief in moral truth may be a feeling that a system based on universal moral norms would be undemocratic, undermining the practice of majority rule.
However, democracy is best protected when there is a widely-held belief in moral norms which are inviolable. Pope John Paul has maintained that "if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power." A society which is not anchored in moral truth can easily degenerate into totalitarianism, even if it is a tyranny of the majority.
In the light of this widespread skepticism towards moral truth, one may understand the pope's statement of "the urgent need" for the Church to explain the relationship between freedom and truth to its people.
Freedom is not obliterated by moral truth; it comes into its own by obeying that truth. It is in Christ that we find authentic freedom. By his life and teachings he shows us that we find freedom through the gift of self in accord with the truth.
A society imbued with a belief in God, in humanity redeemed by God and in the existence of objective moral norms would be notably different than the one in which we live. The new evangelization, by its very nature, would challenge the current culture and lead to a renewal of society.
In another encyclical, Centesimus Annus (written in 1991), Pope John Paul speaks of the necessity of including the Church's social teaching as part of the new evangelization. The failure of Marxism stemmed from its attempt to "uproot the need for God from the human heart." Such an effort "throws the heart into turmoil."
The necessity of respecting the human need for God shows that our material needs should be subordinated to our "interior and spiritual ones." This fact represents a challenge to consumerism and materialism which turn people away from the truth about themselves - that fulfillment is found through self-giving, not self-gratification - and create forms of social organization which lead us to live in a way which is not true to our nature.
Proper forms of social organization would foster a fair sharing of the earth's resources. And in the buildup to the year 2000, the pope has pressed hard and often for wealthy nations to forgive the unpayable debts of the world's most impoverished nations.
But, in Centesimus Annus, he also argues that "The apex of development is the exercise of the right and duty to seek God, to know him and to live in accordance with that knowledge."
The pope re-states this view elsewhere when he maintains that people's development does not stem primarily from money and technology, "but from the development of consciences and the gradual maturing of ways of thinking and patterns of behaviour."
Role of the laity
One feature distinguishing the new evangelization from traditional missionary work is that while missionary activity was primarily the responsibility of priests and religious, all the baptized are called to take part in the new evangelization.
Laity, in fact, have a special responsibility for the part of the new evangelization which includes the transformation of society. Their primary responsibility, the pope says, "is to testify how the Christian faith constitutes the only fully valid response . . . to the problems and hopes that life poses to every person and society." This involves not only purifying the culture of its negative tendencies, but also "the elevation of these cultures through the riches which have their source in the Gospel and the Christian faith."
Laity can carry out this task in a myriad of ways: in politics, economics, the sciences and arts, the mass media, education, the family, catechesis, professional work, and even through suffering.
But laity cannot be expected to evangelize without what the pope calls "a totally integrated formation." They need spiritual formation, doctrinal formation and formation in the Church's social teaching.
Above all, those who take part in the new evangelization are called to lead holy lives. This holiness, however, does not involve a separation from the secular world. Rather, the events of daily life can be occasions to bind oneself more closely to God and to lead others to communion with him.
The Western world badly needs the new evangelization. To the extent that the new evangelization is successful, it will lead to personal conversions and higher levels of church attendance. It will create a new springtime of faith in the third millennium.
But the new evangelization will not stop there. It will also lead to a fuller integration of faith with all of life. It will transform every aspect of society - from Supreme Court decisions to the way we treat the poor and suffering - with a realization that human dignity is based on respect for moral truth and the greatness of God. The Christian faith will again prove to be a revitalizing force in Western culture.