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The Credibility Wars: Where We Go From Here

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 06, 2014

Contemporary Catholics find themselves at a bit of a turning point, without being quite sure which way to turn. It has become clear over the past few years that the emphasis on “culture wars” has done little or nothing to reverse the flight of Western culture from Christian values, even though the concept was initially perceived as a sort of rubric through which the public morality essential to the common good might be recovered. During this same period, the Church has called repeatedly instead for a “new evangelization”. The apparent clash between the two phrases has come to a head in the insistence of Pope Francis that we must proclaim the whole Gospel rather than concentrating so much on public battles over the Gospel’s most contested moral points.

This conceptual shift has been bewildering to many, who wonder whether their public witness to the faith is unappreciated in Rome or, worse, whether they have somehow been wrong to screw their courage to the sticking point in precisely those controversies where contemporary society is most opposed to the Church. I hope by now that sufficient distinctions have been made to enable everyone to see the larger issue. It is not that working for the public acceptance of Christian and natural morality is wrong, but that the failure to recognize and respond to the need of our contemporaries for the full Gospel is self-defeating. Our moral efforts are often undermined by a kind of tunnel vision.

The public culture is increasingly anti-Christian not primarily because of political manipulation but because the private culture is, on the whole, not significantly Christian at all. People do not support divorce, contraception, abortion, homosexual behavior, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, and, inter alia, the primacy of secularity and the State over religiosity and the Church primarily because they are evil, but primarily because they are wounded and lost. There are reasons enough over the past several hundred years for what we might call our deep civilizational loss of faith. Even for those called to emphasize public battles, it is useless to proceed as if we are just a few votes away from the Age of Faith when, in fact, we live in a period where effective awareness of the Gospel is largely non-existent.

Such considerations have led quite a few recent Catholic commentators to stress the need for a service-based evangelization. As I have written elsewhere (The New Evangelization: What Does It Look Like?), it is necessary to lay aside the “culture wars” paradigm for two reasons. First, despite the use of the term “culture”, it is essentially a political slogan, and the Catholic goal is always personal and salvific before it is legal and political. Second, a sacrificial service to others in their self-perceived needs, while not the only possible manifestation of Christian love, is the best possible starting point for initiating others into relationships with Christians and, through them, into a relationship with Christ and a knowledge of the Gospel.

Love and Credibility

There are huge potential gains (as well as a fundamental rightness) in approaching people as friends to be helped rather than as enemies to be defeated. To take a common contemporary example, one need not be a genius to perceive that supporting a woman in a pregnancy is a Christian witness superior to condemning her as a potential murderer. It is superior not only spiritually (which ought to be the deciding factor) but tactically (which is never to be ignored). It is a tactic that says “I care about you” instead of one which says “I care about being right.” Both are legitimate values, but true care always includes rectitude, whereas rectitude does not necessarily include care. Caring about the other is both the superior value and the superior message.

In this light, it is paramount to foster the development of more apostolates which serve the needs which people recognize in themselves. Such apostolates serve at once as a concrete manifestation of Christian love and as a means to respond to other needs which people may not yet recognize. Almost any form of genuinely Christian service and support will seek to address root problems affecting the whole person. It will also seek to incorporate the one served into a supportive community, within which that person can also serve others, and through which he or she can begin to see the value of virtuous habits—and the attractiveness of Jesus Christ.

One danger in explaining things this way is that it can lead to a facile assumption, the assumption that we ought to prefer forms of service which do not make waves. On this assumption, everyone breathes a sigh of relief and says, in effect, “Good: I can reduce risk and quit beating my head against the wall at the same time.” Then we can all go to work in food pantries, where the only quarrel will be over who gets the last can of beans. But this assumption is false. As we see even among families and friends, love usually does smooth out much that is ragged and rough, but it also very frequently leads to tension and conflict. The point is not to avoid conflict for the sake of avoiding conflict. The point is to serve in a wholehearted and personally sacrificial way that creates a relationship with credibility. The credibility factor will not always be enough. But often it can make the difference between creating a tension that breaks a relationship, and creating one which strengthens it through spiritual and moral growth.

Personally, I am praying for a new generation of Catholics that can embody credibility rather than merely write about it. The age-old Catholic approach to this would be to live lives of obvious renunciation before we challenge others to renounce the false attachments they hold so dear. Obviously this has to be in accordance with one’s state in life. But it explains, for example, why St. Dominic and his friars were successful in reconverting the Albigensians in 13th century France even though the glittering visits of wealthy bishops to the same region had only made matters worse. Or to take just one contemporary example, it explains the substantial success of FOCUS missionaries on college campuses in our own day, where so many previous programs had borne so little fruit.

Christian effectiveness does not grow through the crusade, by which the heathen is to be defeated, but through the cross, by which the heathen is to be saved. There is no escaping the tension and the conflict, nor are we meant to escape them. But personal sacrifice for another increases both grace and credibility. These are the Divine and human gospel-starters, bearing fruit when even the most successful war will fail.

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Show 7 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jan. 09, 2014 7:27 PM ET USA

    To Randal Mandock: For information on FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, see www.focus.org.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jan. 08, 2014 6:46 PM ET USA

    What's a FOCUS missionary?

  • Posted by: wsw33410 - Jan. 08, 2014 9:40 AM ET USA

    At: jg23753479 - glad that you spotted this part: "the effectiveness of Dominic and his friars in countering the Albigensians". It would be worth remembering that those friars worked within the structures of the Church's Inquisition (not a Spanish Inquisition of 15-17 cent.) and, perhaps, their methods were not always exactly very amicable ... but this I agree - EFFECTIVE! We need leaders who know how to be "kindly pursuant" and represent the Catholic teaching UNCOMPROMISINGLY!

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jan. 07, 2014 5:44 PM ET USA

    There is a lot of talk about humility, service, non judgemental attitude etc of late. There has even been a certain throwing off of cumbersome outdated Church traditions that might no longer enjoy relevance. OK. But there is a danger in all this. What if there are among us and there have been all along workers in the vineyard doing the work of the Master? What if those in the trenches so long and so thanklesslessly and tirelessly are growing tired? What if we seek what we already have?

  • Posted by: jamesbell431857 - Jan. 07, 2014 4:38 PM ET USA

    If we de-prioritize the culture war and move closer to a "truce" position, that does not mean the culture will not continue to come after the faith of our children. The defensive army in a war has two options - resistance or surrender. In 1968, few believed in Catholic sexual morality. Now, we are a growing minority. Do not urge people to downplay the hard truths Saint JPII fearlessly preached. Only those who understand sin comprehend their need for a Savior. Faith v morals is a false dichotomy.

  • Posted by: shrink - Jan. 07, 2014 9:29 AM ET USA

    Jeff, are you saying that we must quit fighting in the public square for what is right? I can imagine where we would be today if JP2 had preached that gospel in 1979! I don't get it, the US Church has been doing "service-based evangelization" for 50 years. This is not new in the US. Culture battling is not opposed to helping the poor. There is no opposition. No matter what our form of evangelization, we are ALWAYS in a spiritual war. The key is spiritual awareness and commitment.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Jan. 06, 2014 9:44 PM ET USA

    This is an admirably clear explanation of what the pope is attempting, one of the best I've seen. The allusion to the effectiveness of Dominic and his friars in countering the Albigensians, as formidable enemies of the Church as any that ever existed, is especially telling. It strikes me that the "glittering bishops" syndrome still plagues the Church and continues to make matters worse.

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