Monday, December 3, 2012

Evangelization Today

Today’s commemoration of the great Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552) - who was distantly related to Tennessee’s 1st Governor, John Sevier (1745–1815) - is certainly an appropriate day to think about what the 1974 Synod of Bishops famously reaffirmed as “the essential mission of the Church” – the mission to evangelize. Indeed, today's collect explicitly prays "that the hearts of the faithful may burn with the same zeal for the faith [as St. Francis Xavier showed] and that Holy church may everywhere rejoice in an abundance of offspring." And yet it is widely believed that, on the contrary, missionary enthusiasm has slumped somewhat in recent decades.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I read Ralph Martin’s Will Many Be Saved?: What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization (Eerdmans, 2012).  As the adverb “actually” in the title suggests, the author discerns some selective misreading of Vatican II’s teaching on the subject of the possibility of salvation for all, including those without explcit faith in Christ, which, he believes, has contributed to what he (and many others) see as a post-conciliar “crisis” for missionary activity.
The possibility of salvation for non-Christians is not a new idea. It was not invented at Vatican II. It is implicit in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, but it was only in the modern period (when Christians again encountered large populations to whom the Gospel had never been preached) that the issue became theologically so salient. Trent had further opened the door in its teaching on Baptism of Desire. The possibility of salvation for non-Christians had been more explicitly explained by Blessed Pope Pius IX in his 19th century encyclical Quanto conficiamur moerore (1863). In fact, what Vatican II ultimately taught had been on the agenda for Vatican I, but that Council was unfortunately interrupted by the Franco-Prussian War and then never resumed thanks to the Kingdom of Italy’s occupation of Rome in 1870. Between Vatican I and Vatican II, the issue had been comprehensively dealt with by Pope Pius XIII in the Holy Office’s Letter to the Archbishop of Boston (1949), responding to the errors of Jesuit Leonard Feeney. In a sense Vatican II simply confirmed what had by then become standard teaching. In the ferment which followed, however, the culture changed in unanticipated ways, one result of which was the so-called “crisis” for missionary activity.
The first half of Martin’s book is a detailed treatment of Vatican II’s teaching and of its scriptural and doctrinal antecedents. His fundamental point is that, while the first seven sentences in Lumen Gentium, 16, effectively explain the possibility of salvation apart from explicit faith, the final three sentences recall the various difficulties and obstacles in the way of salvation: But very often, deceived by the Evil One, men have become vain in their reasonings, have exchanged the truth of God for a lie and served the world rather than the Creator (cf. Rom. 1:21,25). Or else, living and dying in this world without God, they are exposed to ultimate despair. Hence to procure the glory of God and the salvation of all these, the Church, mindful of the Lord’s command, “preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mk. 16:16), takes zealous care to foster the missions.
Much of the second half of Martin’s book is taken up with his critique of two very influential post-conciliar theologians, Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar. In Rahner’s theology of the “anonymous Christian” and in Balthasar’s “hope” that all will eventually be saved, he sees a problematic tendency toward the ancient heresy of the certainty of eventual salvation for all (apokatatasis), a view Martin sees as ultimately irreconcilable with scripture and tradition – including Lumen Gentium, 16. The problem, Martin believes, is that a resulting “atmosphere of universalism” is undermining the motive for evangelization.

That a casual, unreflective optimism among Christians about salvation - certianly about their own and probably about that of others - has become normative is fairly evident. Just attend a typical contemporary Catholic funeral!

Obviously, no one should want anyone not to be saved. The question is whether this ought to lead one to casual, unreflective optimism (in obvious disregard for all the evil evident in the world) or whether it ought to call for intensified efforts at conversion and repentance. 
What Martin recommends is what he calls a new “pastoral strategy.” He applauds Vatican II’s texts, which are characterized, he says, by “balance, theological quality, solid scriptural bases, and pastoral sensitivity” and provide “a solid foundation for that true renewal and revitalized evangelization that was the twofold purpose of the Council.” What he calls the Church’s  “pastoral strategy” at and after the Council was “to affirm everything it could about the endeavors of the modern world and modern man and not speak much about the consequences of rejecting the good news.” Fifty years later, however, it has, he argues,  “become clear that an adjustment in her pastoral strategy is needed.” That is because “contemporary culture has proven more resistant to the gospel as it has been presented than the Church has been resistant to the secularizing pressures of contemporary culture.” Hence the need for a new "pastoral strategy." To this end, he calls for “an unashamed teaching of the explication of Romans about what the human condition actually is apart from Christ.” He cites then-Cardinal Ratzinger quoting a fellow bishop lamenting our contemporary failure “to make to our age this elementary evangelical appeal, with which the Lord wants us to acknowledge our sinfulness, to do penance, and to become other than what we are.”

Sounds like an Advent strategy for our time - and every time!

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