"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

A note on the latest CDF Note

On my desktop, I keep a Notepad file listing theological topics in which I've promised readers I will post. Each is quite beefy enough for my more academically inclined readers to sink their teeth into, the latest being that ol' AIDS-condom thing. Even the Vatican has considerably delayed its long-anticipated magisterial document on that topic; I have it on good authority that that is because of sharp internal divisions which are about presentation as much as about substance. I find difficulties of almost the same degree, if not always of the same kind, about most of the topics in my list. But one topic about which it is relatively painless as well as useful to comment is evangelization, at a time in Church history when many Catholics seem to believe that evangelization and ecumenism are mutually incompatible. As is clearly its intent, the CDF's new Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization (SAE) rebuts that belief. So I want to draw attention here to how.

As Cardinal Levada and Archbishop Amato remind us in §3:

There is today...a growing confusion which leads many to leave the missionary command of the Lord unheard and ineffective (cf. Mt 28:19). Often it is maintained that any attempt to convince others on religious matters is a limitation of their freedom. From this perspective, it would only be legitimate to present one’s own ideas and to invite people to act according to their consciences, without aiming at their conversion to Christ and to the Catholic faith. It is enough, so they say, to help people to become more human or more faithful to their own religion; it is enough to build communities which strive for justice, freedom, peace and solidarity. Furthermore, some maintain that Christ should not be proclaimed to those who do not know him, nor should joining the Church be promoted, since it would also be possible to be saved without explicit knowledge of Christ and without formal incorporation in the Church.

The above-described problem is quite real among progs, many of whom believe that efforts to get people to become Catholics are "proselytism"—now a dirty word—and are thus immoral. Confusion about the matter has also spread among rank-and-file Catholics, many of whom have never had it explained to them what missionaries are for if religious freedom must be respected and non-Catholics can be saved. What the CDF does not point out, however, is the fact that trads blame Vatican II, and the corresponding ecumenical program pursued by the subsequent popes, for that state of affairs. They agree with the progs that Vatican II and the subsequent popes have left it unclear at best why we should bother encouraging people to become Catholics, the difference being that progs approve of that fact and the trads disapprove. Once again, the Left party and the Right party among the hermeneuts of discontinuity agree on the diagnosis but not on the prescription. On this topic, applying the hermeneutic of continuity that the Pope called for two years ago, and practices, is long overdue.

B16 no doubt intended that SAE be published when it was: only two weeks after Spe Salvi (SS). The point of SAE may thus been seen as explaining with greater precision why the Church must communicate to the world that "hope" which is described in SS. The two documents do the job together: SS offers more inspiration, SAE more explication. The latter makes very clear how encouraging people to become Catholics can and ought to be done consistently with their human freedom and dignity. But rather than merely summarize the document, which should be read in its entirety (13 pages, printed), I shall focus on the main point pressed by hermeneuts of discontinuity.

Recall first a key point I cited yesterday: what distinguishes Christianity from all other religions is that, through the Incarnation, it signifies God's search for man. So, if Christianity is true, then "man's search for God" should be a response to that divine initiative. But it is not easy to make such a response if the nature of the initiative is not clearly and fully proclaimed. With that in mind, consider SAE §7:

Although non-Christians can be saved through the grace which God bestows in “ways known to him”,[21] the Church cannot fail to recognize that such persons are lacking a tremendous benefit in this world: to know the true face of God and the friendship of Jesus Christ, God-with-us. Indeed “there is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know him and to speak to others of our friendship with him”.[22] The revelation of the fundamental truths[23] about God, about the human person and the world, is a great good for every human person, while living in darkness without the truths about ultimate questions is an evil and is often at the root of suffering and slavery which can at times be grievous. This is why Saint Paul does not hesitate to describe conversion to the Christian faith as liberation “from the power of darkness” and entrance into “the kingdom of his beloved Son in whom we have redemption and the forgiveness of our sins” (Col 1:13-14). Therefore, fully belonging to Christ, who is the Truth, and entering the Church do not lessen human freedom, but rather exalt it and direct it towards its fulfilment, in a love that is freely given and which overflows with care for the good of all people. It is an inestimable benefit to live within the universal embrace of the friends of God which flows from communion in the life-giving flesh of his Son, to receive from him the certainty of forgiveness of sins and to live in the love that is born of faith. The Church wants everyone to share in these goods so that they may possess the fullness of truth and the fullness of the means of salvation, in order “to enter into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:21). (Emphasis added).

That is why (§9; emphasis added)

[t]he incorporation of new members into the Church is not the expansion of a power-group, but rather entrance into the network of friendship with Christ which connects heaven and earth, different continents and ages. It is entrance into the gift of communion with Christ, which is “new life” enlivened by charity and the commitment to justice. The Church is the instrument, “the seed and the beginning”[27] of the Kingdom of God; she is not a political utopia. She is already the presence of God in history and she carries in herself the true future, the definitive future in which God will be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28); she is a necessary presence, because only God can bring authentic peace and justice to the world. The Kingdom of God is not – as some maintain today – a generic reality above all religious experiences and traditions, to which they tend as a universal and indistinct communion of all those who seek God, but it is, before all else, a person with a name and a face: Jesus of Nazareth, the image of the unseen God.[28] Therefore, every free movement of the human heart towards God and towards his kingdom cannot but by its very nature lead to Christ and be oriented towards entrance into his Church, the efficacious sign of that Kingdom. The Church, therefore, is the bearer of the presence of God and thus the instrument of the true humanization of man and the world. The growth of the Church in history, which results from missionary activity, is at the service of the presence of God through his Kingdom: one cannot in fact “detach the Kingdom from the Church”.[29]

That well explains why encouraging people to be formally incorporated into the Church is a vital service of love to them. Along with other passages, it also helps to explain why forcing people to profess Catholicism, which has admittedly occurred at certain times in the Church's past, is incompatible with the true rationale for evangelization and conversion. We can debate with trads ad infinitum the question whether the Church was once right to insist that public heresy be accounted a civil crime and severely punished. But it cannot be seriously argued that forcing people to be Catholics gives them what makes incorporation into the Church a service of love to them. Nor can it be seriously argued, on the basis of developed Church teaching, that becoming Catholic gives "good people" nothing essential that they could not have got without being Catholic. The hermeneuts of discontinuity are therefore wrong. The one-two punch of SS and SAE shows why.
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