The Catholic Thing
Another Call for Evangelization? Print E-mail
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Why is there a new papal call to evangelize? Didn’t John Paul II already do that? In Redemptoris missio (1990), he wrote: “I see the dawning of a new missionary age, which will become a radiant day bearing an abundant harvest, if all Christians, and missionaries and young churches in particular, respond with generosity and holiness to the calls and challenges of our time.” Well, that obviously did not happen. And Benedict XVI has announced a Council for the New Evangelization because “the mission of evangelization, a continuation of the work desired by the Lord Jesus, is necessary for the Church: it cannot be overlooked; it is an expression of her very nature.”

So what has happened since that announcement? Let’s hope something is happening somewhere. In the United States, all of the numbers seem to be going steadily in the wrong direction. The numbers of Catholic baptisms and weddings are down. Then, of course, the numbers of Catholics for whom divorce and abortion are OK are over 50 percent and rising. The number of ex-Catholics is rapidly increasing too – they form one of the largest religious blocs in this country after the Church Herself.

This is deeply embarrassing. Among the central works of the Catholic Church are teaching the faith, encouraging those whose faith is weak, and correcting those who are misinformed. I am speaking about that instruction to: “Go out and teach all nations”! There seems to have been a tectonic shift in American Catholic self-understanding in the past fifty years. The majority denies Catholic teaching and probably believes the Church should not be evangelizing anyone anyway. The two papal exhortations to evangelize did not produce a blip in the statistics. Is this simply apathy or is the idea now that the Church is large enough to survive even if we do not act?

Are bishops, pastors, or rectors simply leaving things for their successors to deal with? Or perhaps there a kind of ill-concealed Protestantism in the lassitude that comes from trying to function in a Protestant dominated culture? Or is it simply sin? Thomas Aquinas notes that: “knowledge of truth may become hateful, in so far as it hinders one from accomplishing one’s desire.”

   Paul evangelizing Athens

Logically speaking, teaching should be about one third of a clergyman’s workload – the other two thirds, sanctifying and governing. This emphatically does not include hiring someone else to do it since it is the personal duty of the ordained clergyman. After all, not only was he ordained for this, but he might be the best trained in the area to actually make it happen.

Now, some clergy definitely did not get a good formation. Many seminaries got caught up in the seduction of the structuring of secular tertiary education, where priestly formation got divided up into degree programs. Probably the secular structuring of education was seen as superior, which might be true for some secular disciplines. But it does not automatically follow for ecclesiastical formation where one is dealing ultimately with one truth, Jesus Christ. 

Indeed, the secularizing of seminary organization went further still. Instead of courses forming an integrated and continuous exposition of truth, some seminaries went for the absolute partition of disciplines, where the professor teaches what he or she wants to teach, which is the practice at most secular colleges. No effort is made to make sure that each course dovetails with every other course in the formation program. Those seminarians doing courses in secular colleges suffer from this problem to a great degree.

Then, of course, we cannot give what we do not have. Many professors today very likely did not learn for themselves how their disciplines are influenced by various philosophies or how they fit into the other branches of theology. As a result, the student (who is the only reason for the existence of the whole system in the first place) would have to be a genius with loads of free time during formation (imagine that) if he is ever going to fit all the disparate information together – to say nothing of identifying the minefields lying in wait for him due to the flawed philosophies that were used in what he has learned.

The study of Sacred Scripture has been especially fraught with difficulties. “Scholars” got caught in the current of sola scriptura in which they learned about the Scriptures as if they were free-standing and unrelated to the tradition of the Church. Contrary to this essentially Protestant approach (Thank you Martin Luther!), Benedict XVI says: “Ultimately, it is the living Tradition of the Church which makes us adequately understand sacred Scripture as the word of God.” Vatican II said something similar.

So when is the vast educational gap between the Church’s teaching and where the majority of Catholics stand, going to be met with a teaching effort commensurate to the problem? Or is the can going to be kicked yet further down the road?

Bevil Bramwell
, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology.

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Comments (13)Add Comment
written by champd, January 19, 2011
Thank you for your insightful and timely article. I can assure you that there are more than a handful of seminary students today, at least where I am, that are in a serious crisis of study, which as you pointed because our Truth is ultimately singular, leads to a crisis of faith- not only faith in the system, but Faith as well. I am sure the same is true for free-standing seminaries and seminaries that attach themselves to larger universities, but the same holds true at the Pontifical Universities in the Eternal City- some are better than others, but some do truly fail. I in fact had 3 conversations yesterday about this very topic with men suffering from mass confusion and frustration. Obviously the priest suffers because he is thrown into a real serious life that he is not prepared for, and ultimately the people suffer. It has been my experience that the slightest spiritual truth from the pulpit enlivens the Flock, but in the day to day at some universities not even the slightest spiritual kernel of theology is absorbed. It is a waste of money to say the least- most men will admit that they can learn much more sitting in their room reading. It is a huge problem and I am not sure we have the answers quite yet...
written by Bill, January 19, 2011
An excellent, excellent article, Fr. Bramwell! The recent broadcast that Canon 277 has to be observed which requires ALL Catholic clerics, including PERMANENT DEACONS to lead celibate, or at least continent, lives(!) will end a lot of the silliness and mindlessness which has permeated the Church in America for decades.
written by Grump, January 19, 2011
Didn't Jesus say, "By their fruits ye shall know them," referring to true believers. Thus for many, including this prodigal son who has yet to return to the Church, Catholicism's 'fruit' in the past 50 years has been largely made rotten by the sins of many, mostly notably and sadly the priests who have tarnished the tradition you speak of. Also, the unbridgable divisions within the Church to which you allude undermine any hope of unity, much less the ability to spread The Word, which has been muted by such fractiousness.

To doubters who may be seeking a return to the Church, we see the thorns of corruption, mendacity and hypocrisy blocking our path, strewn with the dead leaves of a once-vibrant vine, withered by distrust and never-ending internecine warfare.

In the post-modern world, organized religion and Christianity in particular, have failed to bring peace and solace to many souls, but rather more conflict and unrest. Jesus said he came to bring a sword, not peace, and on that score he was prophetically accurate, as one looks at the deep schisms between Protestants, Catholics and other so-called Christian sects that fight the same old theological wars to no good purpose other than to fill the air with useless polemics.

Jesus said the path is narrow and few will find it and we must be like little children to enter his Kingdom. I'm not sure what the cut-off age was/is, but I can't imagine he meant anyone much over the age of 5. The young today get older in an instant, corroded by a world gone mad, turned inward rather than outward. The Self has won the day and what little charity there is is lost in the maelstrom of confusion.

Stop the world and let some of us off so we may look elsewhere in the cosmos for intelligent life.
written by jsmitty, January 19, 2011
I don't know. I somewhat agree with the diagnosis of the problems in the first half of the piece. But why does every problem in the Church and proposed solution revolve around the clergy?? I suppose I can see why someone who is a priest and an academic sees the solution to many of the Church's problems as being all about better academic formation for priests.

But might I humbly suggest that there has been enough clerical naval gazing in the decades after Vatican II. Maybe it's time to end the clericalism and the moment for the laity to do more and stop waiting for the clergy to get it together.
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., January 19, 2011
There should be nothing mysterious about the abysmal state of the Church to anyone who is familiar with the revelations of those who once undertook to destroy the Bride of Christ. They told us that our seminaries were infiltrated by those who sought to replace the mission of Salvation with the ideal of social justice in this world and thereby discard all doctrine and morality. The fruits of their devious machinations are that many baptized Catholics hold as the highest moral priciple that evil must be tolerated as long as brings economic equality. Perhaas Pope Benedict XVI is right in suggesting that it would be better to have a smaller Church consisting of those who really believe and practice their Faith. Perhpas that small remnant, armed with the Truth, can challenge a world befogged by the superstitions of free love and socialism injected like venom into Church by the Marxists (yes, that is waht they are!) who infiltrated years ago.
Dear Grump, either the Church is the Bride of Christ or it is not. No amount of human evil involving the clergy can be an excuse to absent onself form the Sacraments that were instituted by Christ, Who promised that the Holy Ghost would not abandon the Church. We must all confess our sins and pray for our fellow sinners. Despare is not the vocation of man.
written by Aeneas, January 19, 2011
Sorry Grump, but Christianity (even in the post modern world), HAS brought peace and solace too many, many souls, including myself. This is also evidenced by the growing number of converts around the world. Like some say, it seems we are seeing the passsing of 'western' Christianity, and the rise of 'southern' Christianity. As for the old battle between Catholics and protestants, they are not nearly as bad as they used to be, many gaps have been bridged since the reformation. And what did you expect, there ARE some major ares of disagreement between these groups, they don't just vanish into thin air.
And to you yourself, I hope you find whatever it is your looking for, and hope that you return to the church, even in our post-sanity world.
written by champd, January 19, 2011
to Jsmitty- it is true that we waste too much breath on internal fights whereas that energy should be exhausted on our external mission to preach the Truth- but those fights are unfortunately there for a reason. In response to your comment about the laity- some of the strongest Catholic voices in our country today come precisely from the laity- so we should avoid the revolutionary language of the laity rising up...- the laity who are interested are out there and writing and presenting talks and the like- Scott Hahn, Peter Kreeft, Janet Smith,...and God-willing many more will be provided. Amongst these are some stellar priests- Fr. Fessio, Fr. Schall, and the like...God willing many more will be provided. We should pray for our shepherds and their co-workers for they do have a special role to preach the faith and perhaps that is precisely the point here- the priesthood is particularly essential to the life of the Church- if no priest, no Eucharist, and if no Eucharist, no Church. So that is why the problems in the priesthood and their formation are of particular force and can do essentially more damage to the Church.
written by Lee Gilbert, January 19, 2011
All this talk about evangelization makes me tired. I am sick to death of it.

First, because there is zero interest in stopping the de-evangelization of the Catholic family. The slogan of any such campaign would be, "Kill Your TV." But this would mean no televised sports. Ergo, no campaign, and so de-evangelization proceeds apace.

Second, there is no campaign to evangelize the family as in Family Evenings Together, where the parents would be encouraged to read the lives of the saints and good secular literature to their kids, and to spend some time going over the Baltimore Catechism. The Mormons, however, have a similar program for Monday nights. Ergo, more Mormons.

Third, judging by the sort of prayers I hear offered by the faithful at Mass, and by the kind of materials that arrive in our mail box, I have concluded that getting the poor souls out of Purgatory is Catholic evangelism. That's where our religious energy goes, evidently. Catholic evangelism, however, should be much more concerned with getting poor souls INTO Purgatory, should it not? Pray for the poor souls in Portland, would you?

Fourth, I doubt very much that more than one fourth of the creme de la creme of Catholics, the daily communicants, could briefly outline, and with scripture, what is required for an unbeliever and a sinner to believe and to do in order to save his soul. Unlike virtually all evangelical churches there is NO equipping of the saints for any such task. There are only canned programs such as Disciples in Mission that are not up to the task.

Fifth, at some point we will have to stop talking about evangelism, and after suitable preparation- by which I do not mean a master's in biblical studies- start going two by two door to door throughout the parish actually evangelizing. At this point we badly need to do this simply to strengthen our own faith. We need to have the joy of seeing the graces of our Confirmation actually kick in, to say nothing of seeing- for a change- hundreds of people being baptized at the Easter Vigil as a result.

written by chris in maryland, January 19, 2011

As Bill Buckley said to one ex-Catholic - "go and join a Church of your own choosing, and when you do, it will no longer be perfect."
written by Louise, January 19, 2011
"To doubters who may be seeking a return to the Church, we see the thorns of corruption, mendacity and hypocrisy blocking our path,"
Jesus said, "What is that to you. Follow thou me."

When you see your mother suffering and abused, insulted and betrayed and despised, do you turn your back and say, "Hmph! I don't want anything to do with a mother that looks like that. She's not MY idea of what a mother should look like."

Or do you see the Bride that God made her, the Bride of His Son, and come to bind up her wounds, protect her from the abusers, and support and comfort her with your love and allegiance, and in doing so, strengthen her against the onslaughts of her enemies--both within and without? Have you stood up to your enemies with as much dignity as She does, even when her worst enemies are her own children?

Hillaire Belloc said in (I think) "Heresies", there is no such thing as "Christianity". There is only the "Church". And the Church is not a patchwork of cobbled-together conflicting interpretations. The Church is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, given to us by Christ, Himself, and anointed with His Blood and the blood of martyrs. And you say that Her fruit is rotten.

Please, no obituaries for the Church. The Church has not failed. We have Jesus' promise on that. More likely, we have failed the Church, even as some sit in judgement of Her. And do you think that this was not foreseen and foreknown by our Lord? Isn't that why He said, "I will not leave you orphans? and lo, I am with you always, even unto the ends of the earth." Those words were spoken to the gathering of the apostles, IOWs, the Church. And when He said to Peter, "Strengthen the brethren."

And, on a more mundane note, I will repeat the words so often spoken to my children: "Who ever said it was going to be easy?" Facing lions in the Circus Maximus, facing the gas chambers of Dachau and the horrors of the Soviet gulags, facing ridicule and torment of the NYTimes and whatever comes in the future, Nobody ever said it was going to be easy.

written by Achilles, January 19, 2011
Father Bevil, excellent article! My wife and I just completed a catechesis program for religious ed. and it was terrifyingly secular, multicultural, somewhat feminist, modernist and somewhat new age particularly in the area of pedagogy. Sadly, my wife and I were the only ones disturbed and everyone else was content.
The Faith cannot be faithfully spread beyond that program.
written by Fr. Bevil Bramwell OMI, January 20, 2011
Wonderful and penetrating comments all. Yes there is a definite role for the activism of the Laity but clergy are commissioned to teach and in my experience very few do on a regular basis. But the issue is not simply at the level of activism there is a need for institutional change to reverse the wholesale concessions to the secular notion of education itself so that we have more educated educators. It is only one part of the puzzle but 'how will they learn if there is no one to teach them'?
written by Michael, January 25, 2011
As a someone in contact with young men considering the priesthood, what seminaries could I recommend?

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