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The essential posture of evangelization: We are all adopted.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 15, 2016

This is the fourth installment of my series on the relationship between the quest for religious unity and evangelization. A large part of what I have been trying to get at may be summarized in a simple comparison between how the relationship of Catholics to those in other religions was viewed five hundred years ago, and how that relationship is viewed today.

To preface this comparison, let me say that a full understanding of the Church, the Christian faith, God’s plan for salvation—whatever you wish to call it—is quite beyond the capacity of finite minds to grasp all at once. For this reason, we tend to consider different aspects of it at different times, just as we do with God Himself. The result is that by emphasizing one aspect of God’s plan we may obscure other aspects, or at least fail to take them fully into account in our overall view of things.

Truths and assumptions

Thus in earlier periods of history there tended to be a strong emphasis on the perfection of the Church and her necessity for salvation. These are certainly true, but the emphasis tended to flatten and obscure the Catholic perception of the avenues of grace open to others. An emphasis on the Church’s necessity to salvation gave rise to a less-carefully articulated assumption that all who were not visible, juridical members of the Church were damned. But (as the Church herself has since formally taught) an emphasis on the necessity of the Church actually admits of other possibilities.

These possibilities were more richly explored in the last century. But the resulting focus on the broader access to grace and salvation made possible through Christ and the Church—an access which is not exhausted by confessional divisions—has led once again to a less-carefully articulated assumption. I refer to the common assumption today that the unique configuration of salvific gifts within the Church is not vital to salvation at all, and so there is no compelling reason to induce others to accept it.

But this assumption similarly ignores other possibilities for understanding the importance of the Church’s salvific gifts.

Attitudinal pitfalls

These different doctrinal emphases in the course of history have inescapably affected how Catholics perceive non-Catholics. Therefore, they have a great bearing on evangelization. In the past, there was a tendency to ascribe to non-Catholics an obdurate refusal to enter the Church. Even official Church documents tended to stress the pernicious errors of non-Catholics more than the legitimate problems which made progress toward the light difficult. As a general rule, the obvious falsehoods embraced by non-Catholics were given more attention than the historical, spiritual or even psychological obstacles which impeded their good-faith efforts to grasp the Good.

Catholics who are deeply aware of the past teachings and practices which touch these matters, and who place a (justifiably) high value on Catholic orthodoxy, often express concern that the contemporary pastoral emphasis on unity may minimize or completely obscure an important truth. I do not mean the idea that professing the full Catholic faith is necessary to salvation (for that is not true), but rather the reality that non-Catholics do need to significantly adjust their conceptions of Christ and the Church in order to participate fully in God’s plan of salvation. This is most certainly true. Yet many regard it as scandalous today.

Unfortunately, there is often a moral or psychological corollary to this that is not true—the assumption that non-Catholics are necessarily deeply and personally guilty for their failure to accept the fullness of Catholic truth. Thus some who grow weary of what we might call the “designed parity” of ecumenical efforts will remark (in frustration) that “the Protestants are guilty for the separation; it is the Protestants who have to change.” But only the second clause is true.

Let us agree to leave aside our universal obligation to change—the ongoing process of conversion which enables growth in holiness. It really is true, after all, that anyone who does not recognize and accept the fullness of truth offered by Christ through the Catholic Church ought to change in specific ways to recognize that fullness. Moreover, this is a change with respect to knowledge of the truth which well-instructed and faithful Catholics simply do not need. But for the non-Catholic, there is even a need to change his understanding of the way God has chosen to communicate the truth. A good Catholic has no trouble accepting as true whatever the Church teaches, whereas the non-Catholic still lacks the complete structure of Faith which enables that acceptance.

The problem of guilt

All this is true, yet it is quite another thing to hold non-Catholics personally guilty for such deficiencies. In the case of Protestants, such an argument might be made against the first generation who left the Church (though even so, it is foolish not to recognize mitigating factors). But it is a grave injustice to apply a similar judgment against men and women who have been raised for generations in a particular way of looking at God, at the Catholic Church, and at the operations of both in the world.

The great advantage of more recent theological insights into the relationship between Catholics and others, as articulated by the Church at least since the mid-twentieth century, is that Catholics are more easily able to approach non-Catholics without a prior judgment of special guilt. This opens us to relationships which may theoretically involve an exchange of gifts. The Catholic will have significant truths and religious habits to share, but his mind is open to the possibility that he might find important insights in those with whom he meets, or at least gain from the example of those who have received less but, in some ways, have been more faithful to what they have received.

While some may leave their Faith at the door in such relationships, this is a mistake for any discussion designed to bear good fruit. On the contrary, our Catholicism should be the firmest of foundations for all genuine friendship. It provides the best possible vantage point for discerning points of commonality, points of difference, and how and when it may be possible to share richer insights into the relationship of God and man. As we might proceed with a certain wise delicacy with a non-Catholic friend in our own home, so too in formal meetings devoted, step by step, to more limited initial ends.

In our time there is usually a far more aggressive source of guilt than confessional differences. We are engulfed in a culture which denies transcendence altogether while offering huge enticements to the most abject worldliness. Most religious groups include many who accept only those principles which are compatible with this worldly wisdom. To take only our own internal problems, how many Catholics claim to be deeply religious because they support culturally popular causes which the Church approves, such as feeding the poor or refraining from the persecution of homosexuals? Yet they reflexively dismiss any Catholic teaching which contradicts worldly nostrums, such as the goodness of sexual relations only within true marriage or the need for government to operate within the natural law.

It is along these fault lines that we are most likely to recognize, at some point, that nothing can be accomplished in a particular discussion. Sometimes these cultural fault lines are congruent with confessional lines, as in the case of those Protestant sects which constantly redefine the moral content of the Christian faith. The Anglicans have been a sad example for at least a century. But even in these cases, many have been left in a rootless quandary. It is of the highest importance to our present situation that such culturally-approved moral lapses are no longer generally predictable along confessional lines.

Grounds of unity, grounds for evangelization

The grounds for unity are strongest between Catholics and other religious groups which are not prone to continually change their doctrines according to the spirit of the times. It is just here that we are most likely to find an awareness of the real scandal that ought to concern all good Christians, the scandal of disunity which renders it all but impossible to represent God generally, and Christ in particular, as a credible presence in the modern world.

Successful work for religious unity presupposes the willingness of all parties to give up the false attractions of the world, and to look seriously at those elements of the true and the good which the world deliberately obscures. But as it turns out, this presupposition is equally necessary for successful evangelization. Evangelization will succeed only where there is a genuine desire for that which transcends the world, a true thirst—even in the midst of inadvertent errors—to drink of the waters of salvation. Little good can come from engaging those who are hiding from God under cultural canards.

For its part, evangelization begins with the hope—and indeed the preliminary guess—that those to be evangelized are not guilty of any essential resistance to the true and the good. If they are Muslims, they are not guilty of their rejection of the Trinity, though they do reject it; if they are Protestants, they are not guilty of their rejection of multiple sacraments, though they do reject them; if they are Orthodox, they are not guilty of their rejection of the authority of the successor of Peter, though they do reject that authority. We do not begin by insisting that others describe what they cannot see.

Thus the way we view those in other religions is not only important for efforts at religious unity and ecumenism. As evangelists we have something to learn from such developments. Perhaps what I should have said in the preceding paragraph is not that we do not hold others guilty, but that we hold others to be no more guilty than ourselves—and perhaps less, considering how much we have been given. It is just this, at last, which brings us to the portal of successful evangelization.

Either we are all poor sinners, or else none of us needs Christ. The evangelist should have no doubt of the importance of truth, and no fear of explaining it. But the evangelist needs to understand why he knows the truth. It is not because of his innate superiority, though it may be due to his innate inferiority, his extreme need. In any case, it is a gift. It has come through a completely gratuitous and utterly undeserved adoption as a son or daughter of the Father, lived through communion with Christ in His Church.

From this comes our very first principle: Our own incorporation into the life of the Church is the beginning of evangelization, just as the incorporation of others into the life of the Church is its end.


Previous in series: Religious unity, evangelization and the salvation crisis
Next in series: Effective evangelization: Initiation into the Church

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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