Sense and Nonsense: To Teach All Nations

The Catholic Church teaches that everyone ought to know certain things about God, man, and the world. This position—factually, not arrogantly, held—means that, now as in centuries past, concentrated effort must be made to bring this knowledge to others whatever their political or cultural condition. As Pope John Paul II put it on World Mission Sunday (May 19, 2002) and repeated in his address to the Italian Parliament (November 14, 2002), “The evangelizing mission of the Church is essentially the announcement of God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness revealed to mankind through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Lord.” The pope noted that the number of “unevangelized” has almost doubled since Vatican II. This figure probably does not include the lukewarm practice of the Faith in lands where there are or were large numbers of Catholics. The decline in population in Spain, Italy, France, and other Catholic countries is astonishing.

How do we make Catholicism known? The modern world is full of civil and cultural rules that inhibit evangelization efforts. The Church often reaffirms religious liberty as a constitutional principle in all modern states. Unfortunately, the political and cultural impediments put in the way of the Church’s mission ad gentes are unreported or downplayed. Muslim lands are for all practical purposes closed. India allows Catholics to remain what they are, but any sign of significant growth in their numbers there meets strong resistance—even persecution at times. China is as closed a society as exists on earth. Islam, India, and China constitute about three-fifths of the current world population. Within traditional Catholic lands, moreover, other Christian bodies evangelize not pagans but Catholics, often successfully. Protestant missions suffer the same impediments as the Church when it comes to other lands controlled by modern states. The African Church shows signs of life, but the whole condition of the Continent is not very hopeful.

From within theology, often as a result of the impasse over ever reaching the vast majority of the world population, theories arise about “anonymous Christians” or the salvific validity of other religious rites or the subjective conscience—all such theories claiming that God will take good will into consideration. Thus, no pressing need to evangelize exists. Indeed, it may be harmful. The result is that evangelization is increasingly seen as unnecessary, even though the lack of missionary interest is understood to be a sign of a lack of faith. Besides, the West, often associated with Christianity, is considered to be, and often is, decadent, so that what it does present outside itself only undermines the older and more honorable faiths or customs.

Francis Cardinal George, reflecting on the tenth anniversary of Redemptoris Missio, cited two common excuses for not wanting to make the Faith known: (1) Religious freedom means respect for what people already hold, so no direct effort to convert people should be tolerated, and (2) Everyone can be saved without the Faith (L’Osservatore Romano, October 30, 2002). The pope’s response to such views, the cardinal points out, is based on liberty: “Every single person has a right to hear the truth of the Gospel.” Church involvement in human development is not enough. The pope himself remarked to Brazilian bishops recently: “It is not charity to leave others in the dark with respect to the truth: It is not charity to feed the poor or visit the sick and offer them human resources without speaking to them of the Word that saves” (L’Osservatore Romano, English, November 6, 2002). Often, the faith is presented in purely pragmatic terms: “If you believe, you will have abundance.” But too many examples exist of economic abundance and little faith. The pope always has his priorities right.

In his World Mission Message, the Holy Father affirmed: “The main road of mission is sincere dialogue…. [But dialogue] is not an end in itself. Dialogue, instead, speaks to the others with respect and understanding, stating the principles in which we believe and proclaiming with love the most profound truths of the faith, which are joy, hope, and meaning of life.” But will we be allowed this kind of dialogue?

Ironically, the Church is ready to converse, but few are prepared or willing to respond—and too often this unwillingness is backed by coercion. The Church has never had her intellectual house in better order, however much of the deeds of bishops and clergy have obscured this fact (and they have obscured it). As Robert Royal has shown in The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, martyrs we have, even in abundance. What we are dealing with today is something different. It has to do with a refusal to hear the truth and a willingness to enforce that refusal.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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