Catholic Campaign: Public Catholicism and Evangelium Vitae

With his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II brings a new urgency to a call that has echoed throughout the papacy: the need for a renewed understanding of and commitment to evangelization.

Already, in Christifideles laici the pope referred to evangelization as “the fundamental apostolate” of the Church. In Evangelium vitae, he expands on this notion: “What is urgently called for is a general mobilization of consciences and a united ethical effort to activate a great campaign in support of life. All together, we must build a new culture of life. . . . While the urgent need for such a cultural transformation is linked to the present historical situation, it is also rooted in the Church’s mission of evangelization. . . . The Gospel is meant to permeate all cultures and give them life from within, so that they may express the full truth about the human person and human life.”

For John Paul II, then, the concept of evangelization has a richness and depth far beyond what most people might ordinarily attach to the word. The work of evangelization implies nothing less than a complete transformation of culture. Faith without works is indeed dead, so our private faith in Christ must also translate into the public work of creating the “culture of life.”

The pope shows that this duty of evangelization extends to every Christian and may take a variety of forms. “Individuals, families, groups and associations, albeit for different reasons and in different ways, all have a responsibility for shaping society and developing cultural, economic, political and legislative projects which, with respect for all and keeping with democratic principles, will contribute to the building of a society in which the dignity of each person is recognized and protected and the lives of all are defended and enhanced.”

This is the essence of what the Catholic Campaign for America means by Public Catholicism. Public Catholicism is truly evangelical in nature, for it calls on us to renew the culture and serve the common good by bringing Christian principles to bear on the most pressing social issues we confront as a nation. As citizens in a democratic society, Public Catholicism holds it as our duty to see that the Church’s unique perspective has a place in the public conversation.

Late last year, hundreds of Catholic American leaders gathered in Baltimore under the banner of Public Catholicism for what was to become the first national conference devoted to making public the lay Catholic voice in America. Leaders such as Robert Casey, William Bennett and Michael Novak presented remarkable discourse on the importance of Public Catholicism.

This national convention, attended by many students, became the groundwork for a national student summit that was held in Steubenville last month. How necessary it is to reach our nation’s youth with this important mission! For they are the future executors of the culture of life.

In many ways, John Paul II embodies and has been the most fearless exemplar of “Public Catholicism.” The pope’s unyielding public witness as to the inherent dignity and worth of the human person was instrumental in bringing about the final collapse of the Communist political order that had denied this truth and enslaved half of Europe and the nations of the former Soviet Union. Most recently, John Paul II, almost single-handedly, compelled the nations of the world meeting under U.N. auspices in Cairo to step back from population and development policies at odds with the fundamental rights and dignity of individuals and families.

In the manner of not seeing the forest for the trees, Evangelium vitae‘s overarching call for a renewed evangelization leading to a cultural transformation may have been lost for many who focused only on its reaffirmation of Church teaching regarding such “hot button” issues as abortion, euthanasia and sexual morality.

But clearly, the pope’s reaffirmation of these teachings is the necessary groundwork for his larger call for us to make the Gospel of Life a lived reality — that is, to let our private affirmation of faith in Christ and his Church bear fruits in a public Catholicism that helps build the new “culture of life.”

Terrorism, murder, the dissolution of the family and with it the very fabric of a civil society — our nation today is indeed besieged by what the Holy Father calls the forces of the “culture of death.” Given this reality, and in the wake of Evangelium vitae, the need for a truly Public Catholicism has taken on a new urgency.

  • Thomas Patrick Melady

    Thomas Patrick Melady (born 1927) served as an American ambassador under three presidents and as a sub-cabinet officer for a fourth, and remains active in foreign affairs and international relations. Since 2002, he is Senior Diplomat in residence at The Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC. When he wrote this article in 1984, he was the President of Sacred Heart University.

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