Identifying Our New Mission Print
By Joseph Wood   
Saturday, 16 February 2013

The next pope, still to be elected, is already getting plenty of advice.  Some of it is very valuable, such as the push for continuity with, and yet greater fervor for, the New Evangelization as set forth by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. 

Just as lay people have a major role to play in this Year of Faith – and perhaps an even greater role now with the papal transition – they will play a larger role over the coming decades in the Church and the New Evangelization.  That is essential and desirable if it proceeds on the basis of love for Christ and the Magisterium, including respect for the authority of the pope and the bishops.

We know from experience that the problems the next pope will face are much like the ones Benedict XVI and those before him faced. And the entire Church must participate in the always-incomplete effort to deal with them.  That is our perennial task in the city of man, until the city of God replaces it.

In his own particular station, the pope will have to play many roles.

The pope as priest must minister to a flock that is, as a whole, unaccustomed to silent prayer and contemplation.  His own prayer, joined to that of his predecessor (who will be living nearby), must both carry the weight of the whole Church and bring Catholics back to a life of prayer in the ordinary tasks of the day.  Only that simultaneous attention to the ordinary and the mysterious, or that way to the mysterious via the ordinary, can overcome what Walker Percy called the malaise of our post-modern time, the contemporary and widespread acedia that afflicts the developed world. 

The pope as bishop must teach a flock whose knowledge of Church doctrine is limited and whose basic mindset is that of the mainstream around it, which is to say utilitarian and rationalist. The flock is thus challenged in its capacity to exercise a faith-informed reason.

The pope and bishops must also respond to new forms of the old craving for community, for a life lived in friendship with others.  This longing for community opens the way for Christian lives of sharing.  But it also paves the way for false friendships and communities worshipping false gods, usually the members themselves.

The pope as administrator must carry out reform of the Curia, a task that has stymied his predecessors. But the Curia also has within it some truly holy men ready to help. 

The pope as chief diplomat for the Holy See must cope with an array of foreign policy problems stemming from unhealthy regimes around the world:  the persecution of Christians in China, the Middle East, Pakistan, and elsewhere; the advance of intolerant secularism with its attacks on religious liberty in Europe and the United States; the confrontation between Islam and Christianity in Africa; relations with the Orthodox countries; and more.

     White smoke rising

Those are all challenges with which the Church is familiar from ages past.  They are not new.

What may be new is that the New Evangelization must proceed in the context of the modern technocratic state, which offers itself as rival to God.  And here, the pope must especially inspire and then trust the laity to advance the cause.

Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, to which I refer often but not often enough, describes the trajectory from Enlightenment thinking to a mode of moral decision-making that ultimately substituted emotion for reason, and gave us the modern state.

That state grows out of the loss of traditional virtues and the authentic life in community that they enable.  It replaces excellence, struggle, and meaning in suffering – the local and specific and ordinary – with the promise of immediate ease, comfort, and security, fueled by the grandiose and abstract.  To that all-encompassing appeal, it adds a monopoly on the means of coercion, an unprecedented technological sophistication, and increasingly unlimited powers of property redistribution.  It enjoys the dependence and patronage of academe, the entertainment industry, and large corporations.

The Church has contended with secular authority before, from Rome through the middle ages to the absolute monarchs to the totalitarianisms of the last century.  But the scale and capacity of the modern state presents a different problem.  The long and closely related transition from a prevailing morality of virtue built on absolute truths, to a prevailing morality of materialist scientism and relativism, makes the task of the Church especially difficult.  

That task is reestablishing God as the proper object of all our loves and the end of our whole lives, with service to others as our means and a just secular – but limited – government taking its place among those means.

Some commentators advocate more democracy and more equality as the panacea for the problems inside and outside the Church.  That formula could quickly elevate the autonomous self and its immediate gratification to the status of reigning idol.  It would mirror the decay of ordered political liberty and the loss of the balance of rights and duties in the West. 

The New Evangelization has to proceed from the Church to the mainstream world, not the reverse.  For that to happen, the new pope, and with him the entire Church, must assume the biggest role and mission of all, the one understood by the early Christians and all the saints: witness.

Joseph Wood teaches at the Institute of World Politics in Washington.
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