Sunday, January 12, 2014

Evangelii gaudium, 6: why evangelise?

Witness: the Rosary Crusade of Reparation in London, 2013
I have a couple more posts to add to my series about the Holy Father's Exhortation. The first, this one, is an area which I think it should have been clearer. Surprisingly, this is the question which is central to the whole document, evangelisation. The question is, why should we do it?

The traditional answer is to play our part, under providence, in the salvation of souls. That we should work for the conversion of non-believers out of a concern for their eternal salvation does not imply that we believe their salvation is absolutely impossible without their conversion. We should promote the sacrament of Penance out of a concern for the salvation of Catholics already baptised; that doesn't involve a denial that mortal sin can be forgiven by an act of perfect contrition, without sacramental absolution. Indeed, one can have quite a broad view of the possibility of salvation outside the visible boundaries of the Church, and still want to see people come into the Church, visibly, in order to make their salvation more likely. To this extent the debate about how people can be saved outside the Church, interesting as it is, is a red herring. We all think that the sacraments are at least very useful aids in escaping the state of mortal sin. As useful, say, as anti-malaria tablets for those visiting a malarial region, for those who want to avoid a state of malaria. Can't we at least agree about that?

But the motivation of saving souls for evangelisation is not stated in the Exhortation. Instead, Pope Francis talks first about how we want to evagelise because we love God, rather than because of our love for the people we are evangelising. Thus (264):

The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known? If we do not feel an intense desire to share this love, we need to pray insistently that he will once more touch our hearts. We need to implore his grace daily, asking him to open our cold hearts and shake up our lukewarm and superficial existence. Standing before him with open hearts, letting him look at us, we see that gaze of love which Nathaniel glimpsed on the day when Jesus said to him: “I saw you under the fig tree” (Jn 1:48). How good it is to stand before a crucifix, or on our knees before the Blessed Sacrament, and simply to be in his presence! How much good it does us when he once more touches our lives and impels us to share his new life! What then happens is that “we speak of what we have seen and heard” (1 Jn 1:3). The best incentive for sharing the Gospel comes from contemplating it with love, lingering over its pages and reading it with the heart. If we approach it in this way, its beauty will amaze and constantly excite us. But if this is to come about, we need to recover a contemplative spirit which can help us to realize ever anew that we have been entrusted with a treasure which makes us more human and helps us to lead a new life. There is nothing more precious which we can give to others.

The LMS Oxford Pilgrimage, 2013

This leaves open the question: why, exactly, does love of God lead us to seek the conversion of others? Why does spending time before the crucifix inspire this kind of work, rather than any other? The answer must be sought in the benefits gained by converts who receive the message. This is referred to more briefly and rather vaguely.

272: A committed missionary knows the joy of being a spring which spills over and refreshes others. Only the person who feels happiness in seeking the good of others, in desiring their happiness, can be a missionary.

Again, in 274:

Consequently, if I can help at least one person to have a better life, that already justifies the offering of my life. It is a wonderful thing to be God’s faithful people. We achieve fulfilment when we break down walls and our heart is filled with faces and names!

Those who receive the Gospel are refreshed. It assists their happiness. They are helped to lead a better life. Is that all? Of course not. Only a few years ago, in 2007, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith produced a 'Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelisation'. This asserted the obvious (1): 

The Apostles, therefore, “prompted by the Spirit, invited all to change their lives, to be converted and to be baptized”, because the “pilgrim Church is necessary for salvation”.

A talk at the SCT Summer School, 2013
The reason this had to be re-stated was:

3. There is today, however, a growing confusion which leads many to leave the missionary command of the Lord unheard and ineffective (cf. Mt 28:19). Often it is maintained that any attempt to convince others on religious matters is a limitation of their freedom. From this perspective, it would only be legitimate to present one’s own ideas and to invite people to act according to their consciences, without aiming at their conversion to Christ and to the Catholic faith. It is enough, so they say, to help people to become more human or more faithful to their own religion; it is enough to build communities which strive for justice, freedom, peace and solidarity. Furthermore, some maintain that Christ should not be proclaimed to those who do not know him, nor should joining the Church be promoted, since it would also be possible to be saved without explicit knowledge of Christ and without formal incorporation in the Church.

I do not think Pope Francis is a victim of this 'confusion'; I do wish, however, that he had taken the opportunity of his Exhortation to dispel it. But the fact is that, after its initial linkage of evangelisation with salvation in the opening section, even the CDF (under Pope Benedict, of course) seemed reluctant to call a spade a spade. It goes on to talk (very interestingly, it must be said) about things like the fullness of truth which Christ represents. Fine. But I can go to heaven without the fullness of truth about mathematics, and the same is true of theology. The only sense in which individual Catholics have the fullness of truth is the sense in which they possess it by virtue of their incorporation into the Mystical Body by Baptism. What gets us to heaven, if we go, will be the sacraments.

It is obvious that the missionary impulse is going to be blunted if the missionaries think that what they are offering others is little more than a combination of truths and a life-enhancing way of life. The people who promote Yoga or skin products with similar claims usually do so with financial incentives. We aren't going to get Catholics to be effective witnesses and evangelisers of the Faith until they are once again convinced, as they were until about fifty or sixty years ago, that their interlocuter's salvation may be at stake.

In preparation for the beatification of Pope Paul VI, let's just ponder his words (Evangelium nuntiandi (1975) 5):

Such an exhortation seems to us to be of capital importance, for the presentation of the Gospel message is not an optional contribution for the Church. It is the duty incumbent on her by the command of the Lord Jesus, so that people can believe and be saved. This message is indeed necessary. It is unique. It cannot be replaced. It does not permit either indifference, syncretism or accommodation. It is a question of people's salvation.

Someone being received into the Church.


  1. Thank God someone has laid this out. We have been treated to all sorts of double speak about baptism being necessary for salvation. The effect of this double speak about the how salvation comes about (in other words the preaching of the kerygma) results in all the talk about the New Evangelization being just that - talk.

  2. Thank God someone has laid this out. We have been treated to all sorts of double speak about baptism being necessary for salvation. The effect of this double speak about the how salvation comes about (in other words the preaching of the kerygma) results in all the talk about the New Evangelization being just that - talk.

  3. Missing in this discussion is mention of this passage:

    "Non-Christians, by God’s gracious initiative, when they are faithful to their own consciences, can live “justified by the grace of God”, and thus be “associated to the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ”. But due to the sacramental dimension of sanctifying grace, God’s working in them tends to produce signs and rites, sacred expressions which in turn bring others to a communitarian experience of journeying towards God. While these lack the meaning and efficacy of the sacraments instituted by Christ, they can be channels which the Holy Spirit raises up in order to liberate non-Christians from atheistic immanentism or from purely individual religious experiences.(EG 254)"

    This is a plain statement that conversion to Christianity is not necessary for salvation. Did you not notice it in your examination of the document? I suppose it is fairly far along in a rather tedious work. I am interested in your view on its claim that the rites of non-Christian religions can be sacred channel raised up by the Holy Spirit. Of course many will welcome it as a departure from the unpleasant intolerance of the Scriptures on this topic.

    1. I don't think there is anything plain about this passage; it seems very puzzling to me.

      Readers have to assume, I suppose, that the Holy Father does not mean that idolatry can be a channel of grace, since it is contrary to Natural Law. So is atheism, of course. Perhaps the journey from atheism to idolatry can be steps in the right direction. Of course, the journey from idolatry to atheism (recognising that the idols are not true gods) might also be steps in the right direction. It all depends on where you go next.

  4. This series is a valiant effort on your part to examine the Exhortation – but it is also very lengthy.

    Perhaps you could consider a summary of the whole, when you have finished? That would be very useful.

    1. Summary: It might be OK to tell people about Jesus, but don't be smarmy or too pushy, you know, so you don't creep people out.

  5. I don't see that the statement 'Non-Christians, by God’s gracious initiative, when they are faithful to their own consciences, can live “justified by the grace of God”, and thus be “associated to the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ”', is unclear. The key notions are being a non-Christian, being faithful to your own conscience, and being justified by the grace of God. Being a non-Christian is self-explanatory. Being faithful to your conscience means doing whatever your conscience tells you is right, and the fact that it is applied to non-Christians means that the commands of conscience in these cases are not considered to include conversion to Christianity. Being justified by the grace of God means that you are saved.

    The passage insinuates, but does not clearly state, that the rites of non-Christian religions can be channels of sanctifying grace, but it does clearly describe such rites as good and even as sacred. Things can of course be good and sacred without being channels of sanctifying grace, and not all grace is sanctifying grace. It is reasonable to describe the work of the Holy Spirit as a grace of some kind, so since the passage describes the rites of non-Christian religions as works of the Holy Spirit, it describes these rites as conveying grace.

    Of course you will be puzzled by this passage if you begin with the a priori assumption that the Pope cannot be describing idolatry as good or as a channel of grace. But there is no basis for this assumption. The Pope is not God, and this document is not an infallible definition or even clearly intended to teach authoritatively on matters of faith and morals. It is the personal opinion of the Pope, and thus there is no barrier to its expressing claims contrary to the Catholic faith, if that is what the Pope happens to believe.

    1. Anonymous7:15 pm

      In any case non-Christians need not be idolaters or atheists. Jews and Muslims are neither; nor, I'm given to understand, are Sikhs. -Ben D.