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Toward Effective Christian Witness: Making Room for the Gospel

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 09, 2014

The concerns most often expressed about my writings on the New Evangelization fall into two categories. I’ve emphasized the importance of apostolates of service, both for their own sake and to attract and open others to the Gospel. Given this emphasis, it would be rather disturbing if some Catholics did not wonder whether (a) Failure to continue what we call the “culture wars” would weaken our defenses against various forms of political restriction and coercion; and/or (b) Failure to witness consistently to today’s most contested Catholic moral values would be a betrayal of Christ.

Again, it would be extraordinarily disappointing if these very legitimate concerns were not raised, and raised strongly. I am very glad that some readers have raised them. They merit significant attention.

An Adequate Defense is a Strategic Defense

Concern about the political vulnerability of the Catholic community is clearly legitimate. But the key to dealing properly with this concern is to recognize that it is strategic, not moral, in nature. Certainly we are morally obliged to bear witness against immoral policies, whether these are policies that permit abortion or policies that permit persecution of Catholics. But this witness need be specifically political only to the degree that political involvement has strategic value. Thus, for example, nobody insists that all good Catholics fight politically to outlaw contraception, for we have no conceivable effective strategy for doing so. In the same way, the degree to which Catholics should feel obliged to engage politically in the fights against abortion, or gay marriage, or euthanasia, or the restriction of religious liberty is directly proportional to the possibility of strategic success.

This is very similar to the way we must treat the “how many babies must die” argument against Pope Francis’ emphasis on the full Gospel (see Abortion, the Death of the Soul, and Christian Strategy). The argument that we cannot take the time now to be more fully evangelical because it will cost the lives of unborn children is weak and confused on a number of grounds, but the first of these grounds is strategic. For the argument makes any sense at all only if, in fact, by striking hard and fast now in some more directly political way, we can actually achieve a significant and lasting reduction in the number of babies who will be killed. This is a strategic argument, not a moral one. And a moment’s reflection suggests that it is a severely problematic strategic argument, if not a very bad one altogether.

In exactly the same way—even apart from the obvious spiritual superiority and long-term advantages of attempting to open more people to the whole Gospel rather than simply to defeat them politically—the argument that, as a matter of corporate defense, Catholics cannot afford to take their eye off the political ball for a single second is strategic, not moral. Its validity depends on there being something significant that Catholics can do politically to secure themselves against increasingly restrictive pressures from the secular world through its secular governments.

Political Disproportion

Because these are strategic questions, of course, they are also prudential ones. Therefore, there is room for disagreement; I do not mean to suggest otherwise. More important, it is always necessary to recognize that each of us is called to slightly different specific forms of witness. God gives us different gifts, different opportunities, different roles to play, and different works to accomplish. It is an unrealistic fear to suggest that recovering an emphasis on the whole Gospel in its deeply personal dimensions will amount to throwing a gigantic switch, a switch which will suddenly cause everyone to ignore politics in favor of daily heartfelt chats with their neighbors. The good for souls and the positive long-term social effects of an emphasis on the whole Gospel of Christ do not eliminate politics; they simply place it in a different light, and invest it with a different priority.

It so happens—no surprise!—that I think our political prospects are fairly bleak. I have made this abundantly clear, and this opinion certainly affects my emphasis in these matters. But surely some political initiatives hold promise and need our attention, and surely some of us are called to significant political involvement. It is our culture’s preoccupation with political solutions that I have criticized (see, as just one minor example, Advocating for a Minimum Wage: Is There a Better Way?). There can be no possible objection to supporting the strategic use of politics where there is something significant to be gained. Still, as I argued in The Credibility Wars: Where We Go from Here and On Our Dangerous Need for Enemies and The New Evangelization: What Does It Look Like?, the “culture wars” paradigm, including its preoccupation with politics, is by its nature somewhat inimical to the Gospel. And even in the ways in which it is not inimical, it tends to be an all-absorbing paradigm, conditioning all of our thoughts and attitudes.

One result is that what we might call Catholic guilt inevitably takes its toll. Here are three propositions which illustrate my concern, propositions which I hope every reader can recognize as true:

  • We Catholics, led by our bishops, too often respond to each new problem by proposing a political solution, that is, another point for political advocacy. Often the laity emphasize things that the bishops do not, but the tendency is remarkably similar for both.
  • In certain areas of concern, there is a cottage industry of think tanks, political action committees, and non-profit organizations churning out agendas, marketing ideas, and explaining why their particular approach is the key to political success—while effecting relatively little change.
  • Recognizing all these efforts as morally good—and consistent with our contemporary preoccupation with politics—good Catholics are to some degree “guilted” into putting a disproportionate share of their time, energy and financial resources into the task of keeping these various bouncing balls in the air.

My contention is that all of this is frequently distracting and self-limiting. So what we are really talking about here (and clearly what Pope Francis has talked about) is ratcheting down our political freneticism, of taking a step back to make room for the Gospel.

Non-Political Witness

It is time now to consider the second question, of whether the failure to witness consistently to today’s most contested Catholic moral values would be a betrayal of Christ. It goes without saying that a failure of Christian witness would be such a betrayal, just another temptation that asks, “What will you give me to deliver Him to you” (see Speaking of Temptation…). But the problem with this question is the unwarranted assumption—deeply rooted in the political bias which is so utterly characteristic of modern life—that if witness is not political it hardly qualifies as witness at all. This is a chilling prejudice which can all but destroy the ability of the Gospel to take root and grow.

To illustrate with an example, I think we can all agree that slavery is immoral. Yet in the ancient Roman Empire, Christians were not noted for their political battle against slavery. Instead, as Christianity took root, Christians grew spiritually to the point of freeing their slaves. As the social order became predominately Christian from the ground up, law and politics gradually reflected this value. The same was true for the exaggerated rights and powers of the heads of families over the disposition of their wives and children, even to the point of murdering them if they were sufficiently inconvenient or insubordinate (the notorious Pater Familias customs in ancient Rome). I am not aware of Christians fomenting major clashes in the Senate, constant polls, or fierce electoral battles over these issues. But they did witness against these and other grave evils at every moment of their lives by how they dealt with their family relationships, their domestic staff, and their businesses.

Indeed, the first and most important form of Christian witness is that of parents to their children, and by “witness” here I do not mean mere instruction. For parents to effectively pass on their values to their children, their personal and family life must actually be lived a certain way, even when the tangible disadvantages of that way are obvious to everybody. Parents who talk the talk but do not walk the walk raise kids who reject the parental rhetoric as unconvincing and socially worthless. And if we take this principle that Christianity must be an actual way of life and extend it to relationships with relatives and friends, with business associates and even with strangers, what we find is that people notice. It was said of the first Christians that they could be known by the love they bore for one another, and more than one historian has commented that a great reason for the growth of Christianity in the early centuries was that Christian communities took better care of their own people than did the Roman State.

The point is that opportunities for authentic Christian witness are both numerous and diverse within every aspect of a culture. Catholics must adopt an entire way of life that is different from their more secular neighbors. This will express itself in all the ways they interact. Therefore, it will not take long for Catholic families and Catholic parishes to become known as vibrant communities where people are loved rather than used; where babies are welcomed rather than aborted; where the old are cherished rather than euthanized; where the poor are succored rather than ignored; where chastity is practiced, sexuality is not objectified, and authentic self-possession is prized. We need to reflect on what might be accomplished if we put our energies and resources into fostering such patterns of life among Catholics in every parish, rather than instinctively seeking an easier but less deeply responsible solution, by attempting to pass a better law.

Catholic witness may be political at times, but it is not necessarily political. And it is a caricature of the Christian life to act as if it is exclusively or even primarily political. Once again, we need to make greater space for the Gospel in our lives.

The Inescapability of Witness in Community

In this last consideration, we come up against a notable characteristic of the Catholic life—that we are called to be in but not of the world. A fully Catholic life cannot be lived by a collection of individuals who conceal their real selves from their neighbors. Just as the human person is a social being, so too is the person perfected by grace drawn inescapably to community. I grant that this will be a community with both the living and the dead, with the heavenly hosts, and with that gloriously dynamic family which is God Himself. Nonetheless, even the earthly structure of the Church is communal, with many individual grains being constantly formed into the one body of Christ. Catholics are also fruitful in creating community not only through their immediate families but also through their recognition, love and service to their brothers and sisters in the Church.

Moreover, the Catholic community constantly interacts with the more secular communities and individuals which surround it. Except perhaps in extreme cases of hermitage, where the community at work is almost exclusively spiritual, it is essentially impossible for Catholics to exist in the world without a constant individual and communal intermingling with non-believing neighbors and associates. It is also nearly impossible for those who are more spiritually advanced not to interact with other Catholics who have come less far along the Way. Under these natural and supernatural circumstances, which are a constituent part of what it means to be the Church, it is no more possible to escape the need for Christian witness than it is to stop breathing. It is never a question of whether witness is possible or desirable; the only questions concern the forms it will take.

It is perfectly right that Christian witness should take different forms, among different people, in different circumstances, and in different times and places. And it is perfectly right to put our time and energies and resources into many possible initiatives to strengthen the Catholic identity of our families, our parishes, and even our Church as a whole. Not every form of witness will be open to every Christian in every situation. Not all women will give direct, biological witness to the value of motherhood; not all men will be called upon to demonstrate the generous employment practices of the owner of the vineyard. And those with limited or non-existent political opportunities are very infrequently called to bear witness to the joys and benefits of making laws that genuinely protect and enhance the common good.

It is absolutely paramount to understand that the length and breadth of Christian witness eclipses even politics as the true leaven of the community, of the social order and of the culture. To be effective it must be both something more and something other than a preoccupation with politics and law. It must be a witness to the whole Gospel. A nation can no more be made Christian by mere law than a family can be made Christian by mere rules. I say it again, and I say it without any hidden agenda, without any desire to denigrate the forms of witness prized by others, without any pressure to abandon political initiatives which are actually likely to bear strategic fruit. But still I say it: We must fill the vast human space beyond rules and beyond politics. We must make room for the Gospel.

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Jan. 15, 2014 1:20 PM ET USA

    "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven." There is no false dichotomy between evangelization on faith and evangelization on law.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Jan. 11, 2014 9:05 PM ET USA

    I like what you say but the application will be confusing. Time will tell if we can wrap our heads around what the Pope wants. I suspect it may be very difficult for our Bishops. It would seem that they have led the charge toward political measures. Maybe that is due to the idea that government has the power to enforce their laws. Our Bishops would do well to remember that they should only fear the One that can condemn both body and soul.