Evangelizing the Self-Satisfied Secularist

A high school student told me recently that he does not attend Mass on Sunday. I tried to engage him by asking, first, why he attends school each day. “Because if I don’t come to school,” he answered, “I will get in trouble. If I miss Mass, nothing happens. I have everything I want right now, so why should I bother going to church?”

His view is probably the same as the growing number of Americans who identify themselves as atheist, agnostic, or not religious. They are satisfied with the immanent in the imminent moment. They see no need for God or any transcendent meaning for their existence. They therefore live secular lives, concerned only with this world. This attitude has contributed to forming a culture that is fundamentally agnostic in its consciousness. Like this student, God and religion simply do not appear on the cultural radar for society at large. For such people, there are far more pressing, immediate things to worry about.

How can the new evangelization open up the happy, self-satisfied secularist to God? In the nineteenth century, rational arguments were often advanced to convince doubters of the need for faith. But with morality and religion now confined as prisoners of the dictatorship of relativism, today such arguments are dismissed at best, simply ignored at worst.

In the twentieth century, thinkers such as Maurice Blondel and the Transcendental Thomists made an existential appeal to the depths of human being, inviting us to see God as the answer to the ultimate longings of the human heart. This has been the preferred approach of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI who have repeatedly challenged us to listen for the voice of God within our souls.

This existential appeal has become more difficult today, however, because of our agnostic culture’s discouragement of meaningful reflection. Reality no longer seems to exceed the stomach, the checkbook, or the smart phone, and the constant presence of electronic distractions makes self-introspection as difficult as a journey to the center of the earth. What is tangible and natural is what matters; what is invisible and supernatural is irrelevant.

How, then, can we make the invisible reality of God a reality to the self-satisfied secularist? There is no easy or uniform answer. Faith in its essence is the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 1:11), and therefore contrary to the demands of the current age. Faith, since it longs for the transcendent, at first glance may not have much to offer the self-satisfied secularist in the here and now, and efforts to force faith into worldly relevance only make religion appear embarrassingly glib.

        St. Augustine: “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”

Liturgical experiments intended to make the Mass more relevant to young people are a particularly unfortunate example of this wrongheaded approach. Faith morphs into what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger called “religious entertainment” whose “attraction fades quickly. It cannot compete in the marketplace of leisure pursuits, a marketplace that increasingly incorporates various forms of “religious titillation.” Faith reduced to worldly concerns and rhythms is no faith at all.

In an address on evangelization to the Roman Ecclesial Conference, Benedict XVI proposed steps for the new evangelization: faith lived by believers sincerely from the heart; the proclamation of God present and near us in the incarnation of Jesus Christ; parents who raise their children in the faith; community support from the Church; creative catechesis that extends sacramental life beyond the walls of the church building; setting aside time for silence and interiority; employing beauty in the form of art and architecture to inspire faith.

At the minimum these initiatives show the self-satisfied secularist that believers too are satisfied – indeed, satisfied is far too weak a term – but with a joy that lies outside of their control and beyond the secularist’s imagining.

It is not a very effective strategy for believers to tell the self-satisfied secularist that he is really unsatisfied, just not aware of it. It is far better to appeal to the unstable nature of human satisfaction, and the consequent human tendency to always yearn for more, even when we feel satisfied. Existential theism of that kind reaches back to St. Augustine: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.

Believers know well the injunction that it profits a man nothing to gain the whole world but lose his soul. This means little to the self-satisfied secularist who acknowledges only the world. But if he can come to see that even the roots of his self-satisfaction lie beyond the visible realm – the satisfactions of love, friendships, esteem of others, security, and even the contentment he feels as he relaxes on the sofa – then he may be able to glimpse the invisible source of these invisible realities.

Introspection is a necessary element of the new evangelization, even if it is a rare commodity these days. Somehow, someway, the secularist’s sights must be set beyond himself to see that there is more to his satisfaction than meets the eye. There is no magic move on our part to lead to that. We do well to start with the initiatives Benedict proposed, but we must also have confidence that, since the desire for God is written in the heart of every human being, at some point the self-satisfied secularist can realize that there is a greater satisfaction transcending this world – and He invites everyone into His company.

David G. Bonagura Jr. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary and is the 2023-2024 Cardinal Newman Society Fellow for Eucharistic Education. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church, and the translator of Jerome’s Tears: Letters to Friends in Mourning.