Sunday, June 24, 2012

Where is the New Evangelization?

Catholic Online asks the million dollar question: after decades of Pope John Paul II's New Evangelization, where is it?  As is well known, without immigration, the Catholic Church in America would be losing members like a sinking ship.   Ex-Catholics have been called the single largest denomination in America.  If we've had 30 years of emphasizing evangelization, where are the results?  Why aren't we seeing them in our own back yards? 

Well, I'm not an expert.  I don't have degrees from Catholic universities.  I don't have access to the highest offices in the Church.  But I do hail from a denomination that, for all its flaws and warts, was known for its emphasis on missions, evangelization, and church growth.  For better or worse, doing evangelism in that denomination was the source and summit of the faith, and it was around evangelization that everything - church, worship, ministries, pastoral counseling, everything - was measured.  So there are few observations I'd like to make.

One, evangelization is not just something you say.  It's how you live.  It's how things revolve.  Right now, the source and summit of Catholicism is the Eucharist.  OK, that's fine.  That brings me and, like a laser beam, focuses me on Jesus.  It's me and Jesus.  It's Jesus and me.  That's as it should be.  But it can't only be that.  Because if the focus is on Jesus and me, and nobody else makes three, then it's highly unlikely I will develop an actual passion for anything but a faith that revolves around Jesus and me. 

And that is a major, major, major issue I see in Catholicism.  It isn't spelled out.  It isn't an official doctrine.  But somehow, in some way, many Catholics I see or listen to (or more often, read on the Internet), have developed an approach to the faith that says the single most important thing in the universe is me, getting to heaven.  That's it.  Everything else, and I mean every thing else, comes dead last. 

This manifests itself in some strange discussion in the Catholic blogosphere.  Even when Catholics are standing on the teachings of the Church, one can't help but get a whiff of something wrong in the mix.  There's a sort of 'I don't care what happens, as long as I get to heaven.'  Nothing is more important than me being saved, and since the Church calls for nothing less than perfection, and any one of a number of mortal sins can derail that journey, it's not hard to see the logical outcome of such an approach to one's faith: I'd rather do nothing, than take the chance on doing something wrong.  Or, I may simply not develop a faith that puts much emphasis on others, at least on other beings' physical, worldly needs.

Think this is far fetched?  Just consider some conversations I've had with folks in my eight years of Catholic livun'.  Some years ago, an argument broke out over the dropping of the atomic bombs in Japan.  Now, officially, the Church leadership condemns those.  Fair enough.  This falls under 'don't kill innocent civilians, even in war.'  And yet, watching the debate, I couldn't help but notice something.  There is this trend in Catholic debate that puts much emphasis on 'doing' something that is an intrinsic evil.  That is, if it's sinful, wrong, evil, you can't do it, ever.  Now in this debate, you had many wishing to buttress their arguments by the usual 'Japan was a country of peace', 'all Japan wanted was to give peace a chance', 'Japan was begging to surrender but we just wanted to nuke babies.' 

Anyone who studies history and is honest about things knows, especially in light of the last 20 years of other Asian countries revealing the horrors of Imperial Japan, that this was not the case, no matter what Japan says.  No matter how Japan officially wants us to believe it, there is no suggestion that Japan was all about peace, love, and John Lennon songs in 1945.  That still doesn't make the bombings right, but it does make it more difficult to find an alternative.  So in this discussion, I noticed someone bringing back the increasingly likely chance that America would have had to invade to end the war.  Hundreds of thousands could have died.  Hundreds of thousands of civilians and children as well.  After all, the casualty rates on Okinawa, a mere island off the coast of Japan, were horrible.  What of that?  What of an invasion that could have killed ten times the casualties of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

The answers still echo in my mind.  You see, they explained, if we had launched an invasion that slaughtered millions, that's different.  That's not directly causing their deaths.  By dropping the bombs, we were directly causing the deaths of those people.  That's the evil.  That's the sin.  But an invasion?  Well, that doesn't have to cause those deaths, their deaths may simply be a logical extension of the invasion.  They may be the result, but they weren't directly caused by our actions, merely indirectly caused.  We directly caused the deaths of the civilians in Hiroshima.  And invasion would not directly cause deaths, therefore we would not be to blame.

And it's that idea - that it's one thing to indirectly cause the wholesale mass slaughter of innocent civilians, or that it's one thing to indirectly lead someone to believing a false reality - that's the heart of the issue.  For if we boil it all down, what we have is a faith that says you're better off not doing than doing.  To do is risk.  To do is chance.  To indirectly do is better, but I can't help but notice, hear, and observe that in actual Catholic living, many Catholics seem to have concluded that if it's safer to indirectly do things, perhaps the safest of all is to do nothing.  After all, if indirectly causing mass slaughter is fine, certainly doing nothing at all while mass slaughter occurs is acceptable, possibly even preferred.  Hey!  I didn't cause anything in any way.  I simply stayed on the bleachers, kept my uniform clean, and rejoiced the the pearly gates yawn before me.

And that's something I've picked up on.  Many Catholics, emphasizing their own salvation to the exclusion of all other considerations, have developed, perhaps without realizing it, a faith focused on themselves getting to heaven.  All other priorities rescinded.  All other considerations secondary.  Heck, there could be any one of a thousand things you do that could jeopardize your soul, but by doing nothing, you're safe. It's you, it's the Eucharist, and that's just fine by God. 

I don't for a minute believe that a Catholic would spell it out that way.  In fact, if a Catholic did, there could be hope.  That means they admit it, and you could reason with them why there might be something missing in the whole evangelizing equation under such an approach.  But I have the fear that many Catholics, without realizing it, have that very ethic ingrained within them.  Sometimes it's convenience - it gets me off the hook of getting my hands dirty in a sinful, fallen world.  But as often as not (and this is giving benefit of the doubt here), it's possibly a foundational approach to living that is as subconscious as anything could be.

And that could explain why, in the end, Catholics are not that evangelistic by nature, and it will take a whole lot more than saying 'New Evangelization' to change that.  It's the nature, it's the essence of Catholicism that Catholics just don't outreach.  It's habit almost. Habit born of focusing how I can get to heaven, everything comes second. When I was working in a publishing company as I went through RCIA, I remember one of the managers was obviously Catholic: calenders with nuns, Catholic icons, Catholic prayers all about her desk.  One day I thought I would tell her that I was a former Protestant minister, but I was becoming Catholic!  Hurray!  She just looked at me and, to be honest, I'm not even sure she said anything.  Had that been a Methodist, a Lutheran, a Baptist? Why, I'd have at least been acknowledged, if not invited to her church to give a testimony.  I don't feel insulted, however, because it's as if my entire statement didn't even register.  I found, in bringing this up to other Catholics, the bulk tended to respond the same way.

Not that there aren't Catholics who appreciate Protestants, especially former ministers, who become Catholic.  But on the other hand, there are those Catholics who would rather see folks stay out of their church.  So it evens out.  The point is, reaching out, going with the flow of my conversation starter, wasn't even on the radar screen.  It wasn't even part of the whole 'being Catholic' package.

Sometimes Catholics love, and I mean love, to bring out that famous line attributed to St. Francis: proclaim the Gospel always, and when necessary use words.  First of all, it's doubtful that Francis actually said that.  But even if he did, two observations: one, he still allows for the need to use words.  And two, why do I have the feeling that most Catholics who drop this little quote weren't saying 'Gee, if only Francis hadn't said that, I'd be on the street corner now, proclaiming the Gospel for all the hear!'  It's what's called in most circles of living, a cop-out.  It should never be brought up.  It merely means, if Francis said it at all, make sure you live the faith. Make sure you are an example.

Which brings me to another point.  I posted on this in one of my earliest posts (back when I was young and foolish).  Now everyone knows Catholics like to drink the bountiful fruit of the vine and celebrate life.  If you've been to a Catholic wedding, you know that much.  And there's nothing wrong with that.  Protestants, many of whom are descended from the Puritans of old, sometimes retain some of the more, shall with say, prudish tendencies of living.  A cold beer, a glass of wine, a selective expletive to drive home a point, a nice game of poker among friends - there should never be the idea that these things are wrong in themselves.  If you don't wish to do them, no problem.  But it is nothing that we should point fingers at other Christians for enjoying.

Stop.  With that said, there's the issue of moderation, and that's where Catholics can go overboard.  In college, we used to joke that if you wanted to 'get lucky', you should avoid religious girls...but Catholics were just as good.  I knew Catholics who could out-cuss, out-drink, out-gamble, and out-debauch the most God-hating atheist.  And while Catholics like to point out that they are not - NOT - puritans, there is an opposite extreme.  Like it or not, most Americans, atheists and secularists included, think that being religious should mean that you don't appear to live life in the George Carlin fast lane.  That sitting in a sanctuary, you shouldn't hear people talking as if they are reciting a long lost routine from Eddie Murphy.  That you shouldn't go to a party and be able to bet with some confidence that the ones most drunk out of their minds will be at Mass the next day - if they decide to go at all.

Hence, we have the issue of the Witness.  And we'll get to that, along with a few other quick observations, on the next post.  The importance of 'Living' a life of faith as a crucial aspect of Evangelization.  For now, that's the first thought.  A faith that, intentionally or not, leads people to believe that the most important part of existence is me getting to heaven, is going to be a faith where I can't help but inadvertently end up believing that the most important thing in the universe is me getting to heaven.  That inward focus is going to make the outward focus necessary for an evangelistic mindset nigh on impossible.  If doing nothing and focusing on my own self to the exclusion of anything else combine, then we will end up with a Church of over a billion people focused on themselves, and doing nothing for fear of losing everything.  Whether we want to admit it or not. 

1 comment:

  1. I noticed that on several catholic blogs (and comments) there seems to be shock, SHOCK that the world is fallen.

    That's one of the things that disturbs me about some of the progressivism I see. One would think that after 2000 years of trying, the Church would realize the futility at straightening the crooked timber of humanity. (or at least be more humble in the face of the task)


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