Another Call for Evangelization? Print
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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