Passages in Scripture tell us that, when the Lord comes again, few believers will remain. Looking around the world, it is not hard to believe. Of the strict essence of the Christian teaching and practice, believers are a distinct minority. Both the Old and the New Testaments paint a dark picture of the number of people who believe, who believe properly, or who, believing, still do not live their lives in a manner proposed to them. But how often are we told to announce the good news so that others may also know what has been revealed? “How can they believe if they have not heard?” is a rhetorical question that we find in St. Paul.
Christianity conceives itself — or better, “tidings of great joy” are announced to it. It too receives the Good News that it did not itself formulate. Christ told the disciples to “go forth.” They are to teach all nations. In order to present the Good News, in some sense, they need to be allowed to do so. The existence of martyrs in every era testifies to this abiding problem. The political order in existing states has to be formulated so that it is not a “hate crime” to state what one believes, nor a civil crime to join the Christian community. The fact is that few civil societies exist today in which the preaching, teaching, and practicing of Christianity is not in some way restricted or forbidden, often enforced with legal (sometimes criminal) restraints.
In the documents of the Holy See, as in the American Bill of Rights, the freedom of religion is the first freedom. Without this freedom, the other freedoms become irrelevant. We are free to do everything except the most important thing. Yet freedom of religion stands within a political framework: Generally in Muslim countries, even when they grant freedom of religion, it is formulated so that Islam remains the only one allowed in the public space. However, Christ did not say go out and teach only those nations in which it is legal. In one of His instructions, Christ did tell the disciples to go in to a town or household; if they will not listen, leave that town, brush the dust off, and go on to those who will listen.
The Church exists so that its teaching might be known and lived. Its teaching, moreover, is not an indifferent matter. The charge to teach has a certain urgency about it, even when it is not permitted or encouraged by the political or cultural order. But the faith is not to be imposed. I like the idea that we do not have to listen to every philosophy or religion that comes down the pike. Something is to be said of a “right not to be bothered.” We see signs on buildings that forbid literature to be distributed on their premises.
Over the years, the Church has striven to find a space and place where it could present and practice freely and in public that life that is revealed. Wildly distorted pictures of this revelation are often found in the media and print literature. It is a full-time occupation just pointing out, against some claim to the contrary, that “the Church does not teach or practice what she is accused of teaching or practicing.” This effort to keep the record straight is necessary.
Chesterton said that the way he himself came to the faith was by reading what those who were not Catholic said of it. When he added up all the things that the Church was said to teach, he concluded either that it must be an extremely odd belief to hold such contradictory positions, or that the exaggerations indicated that in fact the Church was really saying what was true and sane.
The Church understands that it must evangelize — that is, teach what is revealed to it. At the same time, it recognizes that what it presents must be heard and lived freely. The content of the faith, in some basic sense, is something necessary for each human being to hear — whether he accepts it or not, whether he practices it or not.
The point I wish to make is simply this: Looking back over 2,000 years of evangelization, it seems clear that the objective, quiet presentation of what revelation teaches is impeded on every side. It is always precarious and never permanent. Revelation must be presented anew to each actual person, who is free to accept, reject, ignore, or oppose it. All that we can say of the initial mandate to “go forth” is that the Lord thought it worth doing, even when it is rejected. We may not want to know the truth, but Someone still wants us to know it.