Catholics, it is said, are called to a New Evangelization that involves re-proposing the Faith to a world that is falling away from it. In that effort we are all expected to do our part.
But what does that mean for the average believer? We have always dealt with our obligations to those outside the Faith in different ways. Paul was at one extreme. He traveled the world in hopes of winning souls, breaking new ground and speaking to anyone who would listen. Even so, his letters don’t tell believers to proselytize pagans, go out to the peripheries, or storm the centers of power. Instead, they advise them on maintaining a settled life as Christians in communities ordered toward God.
That makes sense as a pastoral matter. If the Church wants to evangelize she has to offer something to people of all sorts. She needs to be a Church for all seasons, and a well-founded way of life in a community ordered toward God is something in which everyone can find a place.
What then should ordinary and even mediocre Catholics, who recognize no special gifts in themselves, do for evangelization? No matter who we are, we owe those outside the Faith justice and charity, and as part of that we need to offer them a Church that can help them live a better life with better hope. So each of us needs to help build up the Church as a community worth living in, pointed toward God, and available to all who are willing to accept her and what she asks. With that in mind we also need—as Peter said—to “be ready always to give an answer to every man who asketh you a reason for the hope that is in you.”
Growth in the Faith—self-evangelization—is the most important part of all that. That means reorientating our lives, so it depends on will and habit, and it’s spiritual, so it depends on prayer. But it’s also based on knowledge, on an understanding of the world and what is most real, and that has an intellectual component. Catholicism is among other things a religion of reason, so argument matters to it. That is especially true in an age that’s flooded with words, images, and sophistries, and insists on processing vulnerable young people through a decade and a half or more of what’s called education.
So it seems that the New Evangelization must begin at home. Explaining the Faith to others starts with explaining it to ourselves, and that has special problems today. If you live in a swamp you get wet, and twenty-first century Americans are immersed in ideas that leave no place for Catholic belief or moral teaching. After all, if all men are equal, and they all deserve equal support in living the life they choose, what room is there for religious or moral authority? If there’s no authority, though, there’s no God who has revealed himself—that would be authority—and therefore no Christianity.
So all of us who have grown up in today’s world need to relearn fundamental things. To that end we need more than information and arguments. We need a different understanding of reason and the world that takes us out of an intellectual culture that is becoming less and less functional and leads even devoted Christians to view their faith as an arbitrary personal commitment without rational support or public validity.
If the Church wants to care for her people and maintain her integrity she needs to look after that need in an organized way. In spite of all the Catholic universities, conferences on religious education, and official documents from Rome and elsewhere, it appears she is not yet doing such things as much as she should. The gap needs to be filled if the New Evangelization is to get very far. (That need in connection with family matters is perhaps something the Synod on the Family could discuss profitably.)
Force of circumstances will undoubtedly lead our pastors to do more in the coming years, but for now it seems that for most of us re-education must involve a great deal of self-education. That, it seems, is part of the lay involvement in the New Evangelization. With that in mind, I’d like to sketch some things that people with enough interest in ideas to read this publication might do. The sketch isn’t based on special expertise, but some may find it suggestive.
The big problem with the modern secular outlook is that it’s impossibly small and confined. It tells us the world consists of atoms, the void, and mechanism, with human subjectivity somehow splatted down into the middle of it, and there’s nothing else to look to for understanding our situation. That outlook, and the society that results from taking it more and more seriously, is considered infinitely better than earlier ones, so much so that the story of the past is seen as simply the story of how the glories of the present arose out of past horrors.
That view leads to endless problems. It makes desire the only available guide to action and satisfying it the only real good. Reason becomes a matter of figuring out the mechanisms for acquiring whatever it is we happen to want. Love, which consists in recognition of value independent of our own desires, loses touch with reality and becomes sentimentalized and unreliable. And human nature vanishes, and with it the meaning and value of humanity as such. The result is that politics and social life become ever more manipulative however much people talk about human dignity.
Such results are based on a radical falsification of reality, and to the extent people are caught up in them evangelization becomes impossible. What we need to do, then, is find our way back to the world as it actually is.
There are many things we need to do toward that end. A basic one is breaking our addiction to distraction and the organized system of illusion that constitutes present-day public life. Television and the Internet are infinitely distracting and infinitely deceiving. They seem to give us the world, but what they give us is a world chopped up into images, sound bites, and one-liners that can be assembled into anything whatever. We need to detach from that.
We then need to enlarge our mental world and anchor it in realities. One way is to read old books. They have limitations, just as new books do, but they’re different limitations, so they broaden the mind the same way foreign travel does. The same can be said of the study of history, which is a sort of virtual time travel. As such it sets us free from the temptation to mistake today’s views for the final reality of things. (That’s assuming it’s not pop or “whiggish” history that turns the past into a prop demonstrating the superiority of the present.)
We also need literature and the arts to demonstrate, through participation in imaginative worlds and pleasures that are their own excuse, that some things are independent of current political obsessions and more interesting and permanently valuable than they are. If some of the literature is in a foreign or even ancient language, so much the better. And of course we need the sources of our Faith: the Bible, the Fathers, the lives of the Saints, and so on. I’d suggest the Bible most of all: it’s the source of sources, and if you learn enough Latin to read the Vulgate you’ll get history, literature, language, and revelation all in one.
A new evangelization is indeed necessary. It must begin with us, though, since we can’t offer what we haven’t really made our own. As such, it has many dimensions. One that’s absolutely necessary is securing the intellectual independence of the Church, and that means relearning things that an age of technique has no use for. I’ve suggested a few steps toward that end, but much more is needed, and every Catholic with an interest in ideas needs to be part of the effort. So why not start today?
(Photo credit: Bill Fortney)