Smaller Church, Bigger Faith? The Problem of the New Evangelization
It seems to me that the Church faces a critical obstacle to the New Evangelization, an obstacle which arises inescapably because this is in significant part a re-evangelization. I am referring to the profound deficiency in Christian witness within the Church herself. Again, I beieve this deficiency is to some extent inevitable, given the circumstances, but I also believe it can be mitigated, and that there is a right and a wrong way to undertake this mitigation.
If we briefly compare the “old” or original evangelization with the “new” evangelization, it becomes easier to see the nature of the problem. Broadly speaking, an original evangelization brings people into a church composed of serious believers who are themselves either relatively recent converts or missionaries. Under these circumstances, new converts are attracted to something significant, unique, vibrant and compelling in the life of the Church as evidenced in the lives of her existing members, and they respond to that “something” with the commitment it takes to enter the Church and live the Catholic life. This does not mean that young churches are problem-free—far from it! But at least they are likely to possess a kind of enthusiastic and contagious commitment.
In the beginning, in other words, there is not only the Word but a buzz about something new and quite astonishing. But over time, this enthusiastic commitment can and often does wane. It wanes even more over long periods of time as whole cultures begin to take the faith for granted, observe it in only a minimalist way, and gradually slip into worldly habits. Many Catholics drift from a serious commitment to the Faith into a kind of “cultural Catholicism”. They think of themselves as Catholic; in some sense they even wish to be identified as Catholic. But increasingly they maintain only a shell of Catholicism while becoming broadly habituated to the skewed values of a religiously bored world which is moving steadily away from Christ.
Everybody knows this is the situation we are in today. Otherwise there would be no need for a “new” evangelization, an evangelization directed at cultures and peoples who have a kind of memory of what Christianity is, but who no longer have the understanding or interior commitment to live according to any sort of complete Christian vision. The Church herself is similarly full of people who claim to be Catholic but who give little or no distinctive Christian spiritual or moral witness.
The result, of course, is that those outside the Church who are looking for deeper meaning in their lives too often fail to see something significantly different when they encounter Catholics and their Church. It is exactly this that constitutes the greatest of all possible obstacles to the New Evangelization.
A Risk of Oversimplification
In looking at what might be done to mitigate the lackluster contemporary witness of the Church through her members, it is important not to oversimplify. Except perhaps in the very earliest days, the Church has always included cradle Catholics—often cradle Catholics multiple generations old—as well as enthusiastic new converts. Certainly there is nothing particularly new about recent converts having a better knowledge of their faith and a greater zeal than those who have been taking the Church more or less for granted for some time.
Moreover, in some places and periods, huge numbers of people have come into the Church with very little notion of what it means to be a Catholic or even a Christian, such as when large populations have “converted” along with some ruler or territorial change. Even when this happens in the context of a desire for salvation in Jesus Christ, older traditions and attitudes take time to fall away or be Christianized. When we add the negative influences of worldly bishops and priests, sometimes advanced for social and political reasons rather than spiritual excellence, we find that there is always what we might call an inescapable diversity of zeal and spiritual knowledge within the Church!
In other words, what the Church is in herself is always blurred by the sins of her members. But I do not think it is unreasonable to see this problem as particularly acute at a time when the Church is self-admittedly attempting to “start over”. For example, if Western culture has drifted away from the Faith, then Catholic Westerners have to some extent drifted from a pure attachment to Catholic principles as well. The very call for the New Evangelization suggests that the Church finds herself in the early stages of an attempted renewal. This can only mean that she is carrying within herself—let us be honest—significant dead weight.
What Can Be Done?
In considering how to minimize this dead weight, which is a huge obstacle to evangelization, we must understand at the outset that to rid the Church of sinners is to eliminate the Church altogether. Against any such temptation, we recall that Our Lord came to call sinners to repentance, not those who have no need of it. But even among sinners we are permitted to raise a critical question: Do you accept the ministry of the Church? This raises a further question: Would the Church be better served if she shed those nominal members who are unwilling to affirm the Church’s definitions of faith, her moral teachings, and/or the precepts required for membership in good standing?
If the Church were made up only of those who joined her for the right reasons, and who have not fallen away from those reasons, every single member of the Church would be willing to affirm all three of these requirements. This would still leave a Church full of sinners, but they would be sinners who accept what the Church is. Surely this is a legitimate goal. Surely the Church should be composed not just of sinners but of sinners who desire to grow in union with Jesus Christ, sinners who for that very reason immensely value the Church’s mission, and desire its action in their own lives and beyond.
This would result in a Church which bears a far stronger, more visible and more attractive witness to those who need to be evangelized outside her borders. But to what extent is this goal achievable? How can it be legitimately pursued? What pitfalls does it involve? What misunderstandings need to be avoided? In the end, must this be left entirely to the mysterious workings of sacramental grace? In succeeding installments, I intend to explore these important questions.
Next in series: Smaller Church, Bigger Faith, 2: The Impact of Grace
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Posted by: -
Apr. 15, 2014 10:01 PM ET USA
A Church full of sinners is unattractive, indeed; a Church full of repentant sinners is also unattractive but at least it's honest. Honesty is attractive because people are used to being deceived. When we are brutally honest, as was Christ, people may find us shocking but also compelling. Human nature is always attracted to truth.
Posted by: FredC -
Apr. 15, 2014 8:50 PM ET USA
We should remedy of the scandal of the publicly dissenting Catholics so those on the fringe can see the importance the Church places on its beliefs. In early times excommunication was much more common.
Posted by: fenton1015153 -
Apr. 15, 2014 2:17 PM ET USA
The most fervent defenders of the faith must be the priests and bishops. This is under the control of the church. Priests and bishops that don't measure up should be sidelined to private prayer. This would leave fewer clerics but ones that are fervent and on fire for the Lord. Pray for our priests and bishops!
Posted by: Dlukenbill2151 -
Apr. 15, 2014 12:40 PM ET USA
Great article, eternal question; and wasn’t this the gist of the argument between Pope Callistus and Hippolytus in the third century?
Posted by: John J Plick -
Apr. 14, 2014 6:31 PM ET USA
You speak very calmly of a very serious problem. The shouted words "We have a breech!" are indeed the most serious words that can be heard in a time of battle. It means the hull has been penetrated and water is pouring in..., it can mean that a reactor core has lost integrity and radiation is pouring out, or it can be the city walls have been penetrated and a fight to the death is imminent. This is not a problem to be framed in cold technical terms. It is time to cry out to God... Ave!
Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 -
Apr. 14, 2014 6:11 PM ET USA
I am a great Catholic, for the standards of my generation, just for going to Mass on Sundays and remembering to pray at night and holding orthodox beliefs, but how big is that? I really am a terrible Catholic and God only knows how bad - I hope He also knows that I try, I try. But it is saints that evangelize, but we're awfully short of them. Not to blame God but, my Lord, we could use some grace!!