The Intellectual Tasks of the New Evangelization

by Michael Sean Winters

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This evening, a three day symposium on “The Intellectual Tasks of the New Evangelization” will begin here in Washington. The event is sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and they have invited a group of young theologians, many of whom I have gotten to know over the past couple of years through the Catholic Conversation Project. I reported on their meeting in August.

The symposium is a great idea for a variety of reasons. In the first place, many people have not been able to wrap their minds around exactly what the Holy Father means when he speaks of a “New Evangelization.” In the second place, many of these young theologians do not carry the baggage of their predecessors, of either the right or the left. Third, it is so, you will pardon the expression, distinctly Catholic to even recognize that an ecclesial endeavor requires intellectual tasks.

In the program sent to the media giving us the times of the different presentations, the list did not include any titles of the speeches. So, I am not sure what will be discussed. But, here are some of the outstanding issues that need to be addressed.

Conscience has become a most misunderstood concept among Catholics. Those one the right claim the right of “prudential judgment” in assessing social justice issues, but prudential judgment only gets you so far: It is not carte blanche to believe whatever you want. Similarly, many on the left claim the mantle of conscience, rooted usually in personal experience, to validate a prophetic vision for Catholic theology. But, when a prophetic vision consists largely of wrapping the ideological stance of the New York Times in ecclesiastical drag, you can keep your prophetic vision.

Conscience is the voice of God within our hearts. In our consumer driven society, anything of value is either something we make or something we choose. But, conscience is something we discover. It is something that must call us to conversion, because we are all sinners. If our conscience only tells us what we want to hear, we are not really listening to it, we change the channel, we find some ideas that comfort us. A conscience that does not cut both ways, comforting us at times and calling us to conversion at others, we are either saints (an unlikely proposition) or we have a dead conscience.

Secularism and relativism are the contemporary forces with which the New Evangelization must contend. When Pope Benedict denounces the dictatorship or relativism and rightly bemoans the increasing secularization of our culture, this plays out differently in the U.S. from the way it does in Europe. In Europe, you really do have a history of determined anti-ecclesial attitudes. But, in America, we did not like France pass Laic Laws in 1905. Our labor movement was cultivated in the Church. We still go to church more than other modern industrialized countries. Our history cannot be written without reference to great religious events such as the Great Awakening, the Abolition Movement, and the Civil Rights Movement. The New Deal was not without its religious justification, mirroring as it did one of the first documents to ever issue from the U.S. Bishops’ Conference, their 1919 call for social reconstruction.

In America, there is no, or at least little, outright hostility, but there is something more pernicious, a consumer mentality in which human happiness is purchased and human choice is the pre-eminent value. Just yesterday, in a speech at Liberty University, Texas Gov. Rick Perry spoke about growing up in a small town in Texas and he noted there were only two houses of worship: “a Methodist church and a Baptist church – your choice.” The period at the end of the sentence may be grammatically correct but it is not theologically correct. In a juridical sense, of course we Americans are blest to be able to choose how we worship. But, we are bound, by conscience, to choose rightly. In America today, it is difficult to proclaim Jesus Christ as the sole criterion of all we do and think and believe. It is difficult to believe that some choices are wrong. We have turned non-judgmentalism into the pre-eminent value. I hope the young theologians will provide some critical analysis of how we proclaim Christ in such a culture. I will offer one story, however, that I believe illustrates how critical it is to make the case that the point of departure for all Christian theology must be the event of Jesus Christ. Father Julian Carron gave a retreat to members of Communione e Liberazione. Someone asked him that they were wrestling with a question: Who is Jesus Christ for me? Father Carron said, and I paraphrase as I was not in the room, “That is the wrong question. Or it is a subsidiary question. The right question is: Who is Jesus Christ period?”

For Catholics, and especially for Catholic theologians, few issues are more contentious than that of authority. Let us be frank. The Church’s hierarchy has sustained a terrible self-inflicted wound regarding their authority as a consequence of the clergy sex abuse scandal. They must find, in this thorn in their flesh, what St. Paul found, the great realization that God’s grace alone is sufficient. Self-importance is a hindrance to this realization as is any recourse to canonical right. You can tell when a bishop really carries himself as if he believes that God’s grace is sufficient and you can tell when he doesn’t. Only if the Holy See selects more bishops who are capable of exhibiting normal human emotions will we have bishops capable of proclaiming the Incarnation of God in human flesh and thus, finding their only claim to authority.

At the same time, too many theologians have been exclusively concerned with the authority of the Academy as if theology were a mere profession, devoid of any explicitly ecclesial mission, or, more specifically, any ecclesial accountability. A university chemistry professor can bring his evidence into his laboratory and, through experimentation and subsequent peer review, make his case. But, for theology, the Church is herself the laboratory and the evidence. No revelation, no theology. No people of God, no need for theology. And, in an anti-authoritarian culture like the U.S., it is a little too cheap to cop a stance of dissent as if that establishes your intellectual bona fides.

Moralism is also a great impediment to the New Evangelization, especially in America. Twenty years ago, Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete warned of the danger of letting ourselves be reduced to ethical experts as a means of gaining access to the public square. The face of Catholicism in our culture is too often the face of angry denunciations of the moral law. To be clear: The moral law is important and I do not quibble with the Church’s moral teachings in any significant regard. But, the moral law is derivative of our doctrinal claims about the Holy Trinity as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. It is not enough to see in Jesus a great moral teacher. The people who knew him best put him to death and few Christians can point to the ethical teachings of any other first century Jewish rabbi who was crucified by the Romans. (And, yes, there were many rabbis put to death by the Romans in the first century.) We pay attention to what Jesus taught because we believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. His teachings have been confirmed by God’s great act of love that we call the Paschal Mystery. Devoid of that confirmation, our moral teachings must compete in the public square on their own merits and, let’s be honest, there is nothing self-evident about the value of chastity or the necessity of charity.

Finally, I hope the meeting will consider the liturgy. I have expressed the sentiment before that whereas our culture reduces us to homo economicus, the Church must present an alternative vision of homo liturgicus. This will require the people of God to understand how important, no, better to say, how vital the Mass is to our lives. Too few parishes and too few pastors treat their Sunday Mass as if it is the most vital thing in their lives. Many people vote with their feet, driving long distances on Sunday mornings to find a liturgy that indicates someone is even paying attention. But, any Catholic should be able to attend any Mass and find there a liturgy that brings to life the great mysteries of our faith. I will set aside whether the new missal is a good thing or a bad thing, but will repeat my belief that it is an opportunity for the Church to refocus herself on the centrality of worship in our lives.

I will be posting from the symposium, which begins tonight, so stay tuned.

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