On St. Matthew’s Feast (September 21), the Holy Father established a new Vatican dicastery to address the loss of faith in traditionally Christian lands. The Motu Proprio, “Ubicumque et Semper – Wherever and Always,” refers to “going forth to teaching all nations,” in Matthew. “It is the duty of the Church,” the document begins, “to proclaim always and everywhere the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
This pope, unbeknownst to most of academia and the media, constantly thinks about the future and the past with their connection to the present. No more original mind is found anywhere in the public order. As Tracey Rowland indicates, Benedict’s intellectual efforts are to show, conclusively, that Vatican II did not establish a “new” Catholicism. It continued the same Church that existed since the Apostles, the only one worth any attention.
When concern is for the evangelization of lands that never were Catholic, the main, though not the only, effort involves the political obstacles preventing any proper and peaceful presentation of the Gospel. We underestimate such legal obstacles. For this reason, the Church insists that the first freedom is the freedom of religion. All people should have the civil freedom to hear what the Church, not on its own authority but that of Christ, teaches. No doubt, any conversion of large numbers to Catholicism in most states in the world would bring retaliation and interference by civil authorities, usually inspired by the local religions or ideologies. Scripture implies this.
The present Motu Proprio, however, is addressed to the large-scale, mostly voluntary, loss of faith in lands across Europe. The present action is perhaps too late, like closing the barn door after the horse escapes. Yet the effort to meet the challenge is worthwhile.
Pope Benedict signs “Ubicumque et Semper”
The premise of evangelization (“re-” or otherwise), something every person everywhere should have the liberty to hear, is the following:
Faithful to this mandate (Matthew 28:19-10), the Church – a people chosen by God to declare his wonderful deeds (1Peter 2:9) – ever since she received the gift of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4), has never tired of making known to the whole world the beauty of the Gospel as she preaches Jesus Christ, true God and true man, the same “yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8), who, by his death and Resurrection, brought us salvation and fulfilled the promise made of old.
The Church is not immediately concerned about whether this presentation is accepted or not. It knows, in fact, that it will be often freely rejected. Christ never promised that it would be listened to. He did insist that what was handed on “from of old” through “Jesus Christ, true God and true man,” be fairly explained and presented to everyone.
The pope deals here with “the First World,” the more prosperous world. Indifference and atheism are noted. Even in Christian lands, the routine practice of rites is separated from “those moments of human existence which have the most significance, such as birth, suffering and death.” These latter events no longer are understood as graced moments that connect each person with his origin and transcendent destiny.
“Re-evangelization” requires first the remaking of “the Christian fabric of the ecclesial community itself.” The Church needs to get its own act together. We read of empty churches in Belgium, Germany, Spain, and Ireland, or of their use by Muslims, now on the rise everywhere. “We also sadly know of some areas,” Benedict frankly notes, “that have almost completely abandoned the Christian religion, where the light of the faith is entrusted to the witness of small communities: these lands, which need a renewed first proclamation of the Gospel, seem particularly resistant to many aspect of the Christian message.”
This loss of faith seems ironic since the intellectual structure of the faith has never been more coherent and well articulated. John Paul II and Benedict XVI have faced every reasonable objection to the faith. Both understand that the issue is not merely intellectual. The modern mind that accepts nothing but itself and what it wills for itself, a mind correctly spelled out in its origins by Benedict, is ruled also by its own pride. It refuses to face the consequences of its own choices. This is why, in Christian tradition, we find constant reference to reform that only comes by suffering.
Eric Voegelin remarked that Christian men with weak faith would look to ideology, to this-worldly projects, to replace the faith they were not strong enough to believe. Benedict, in Spe Salvi, has spelled this alternative out. The absurdity of it explains why, I think, the pope suspects that now is the time carefully to point this contrast out. Ultimately, “re-evangelization” of Europe concerns not only the salvation of souls, but the re-establishment of what Europe means in this world itself.