The Mission of the Church

Evangelization is an Obligation, Not an Option

The melancholy tale about Maryknoll that Charlotte Hays related in a recent issue of this journal [“Lost Horizons at Maryknoll,” April] had the effect of calling attention in an especially poignant way to something which all of us today are quite aware of, but which, I suspect, none of us are, or ever will be, completely used to. I refer to that peculiar atmosphere of unreality, that climate of the near-fantastical, that has been created in the Church as a result of the large discrepancy that exists between, on the one hand, what is insistently dubbed the “spirit of Vatican II,” and, on the other hand, the Second Vatican Council itself, body and spirit together, as revealed in its solemn pronouncements. So much of the quirky, the questionable, and the considerably worse, that has been proposed and advanced in the Church over the past two-and-a-half decades or so has had cited as its source and justification the Second Vatican Council. But when one goes to the source, to the Council documents themselves, and to the various official clarifications and embellishments of those documents that have been published almost continuously since 1965, the one overriding fact by which one is struck, indeed, fairly bowled over by, is this: between what is often said on behalf of Vatican II and what Vatican II has to say for itself “there is a great chasm fixed.” One could go over those documents with a fine-tooth comb — to borrow a phrase from Mark Twain — and not find in them what certain people claim to find in them, or, at least, assume that the documents are saying.

Now, this is a perfectly astonishing phenomenon, and one wonders if there has been anything quite like it in the entire history of the Church. How might we venture to explain it? We could, I suppose, imagine the worst possible situation and sadly conclude that there are people who, while knowing perfectly well what the Council documents say, choose deliberately to distort their meaning simply as a matter of expediency, to lend legitimacy to certain pet projects to which they are devoted and which they wish to further. Such is possible, but not, I think, a strong likelihood. There might be a rare one or two who would do something like this, but I see no reason for believing that a pathetic practice of this kind is engaged in by many.

We might explain the phenomenon as resulting from no more than an honest difference of opinion over the interpretation of the documents. Here we would have in mind people who know the documents, who have presumably studied them assiduously, and as a result of their study they have come up with interpretations, in fact whole patterns of interpretations, which, oddly enough, seem to depart on several salient points from what is reliably discernible as the mind of the Church. Such things happen, we might want expansively to admit. The Council documents are, after all, both rich and complicated in their make-up, and one should not expect perfect agreement concerning everything they have to say. But this explanation, however superficially persuasive, will really not do, for after only a little reflection we are quickly brought back to the obdurate fact that what we are confronted with is not best described as honest differences of opinion emanating from close analyses of texts. Rather, we are confronted with sundry assertions that pretend to relate to the texts but which in fact have no basis in the texts. That there are differences of opinion goes without question. But that those differences are founded on a fund of knowledge which is shared by the opposing parties is very much open to question.

There is a third possible explanation for our puzzling phenomenon. That is the embarrassing fact — how could it be anything but? — that there are not a few people in the Church today, high-placed people, people who would even lay claim to the title of scholar, people who are wont to hold forth with much enthusiasm and confidence about the Second Vatican Council and all that it means for the Church and the modern world, who either are in a state of almost perfect ignorance respecting the documents of that Council, or who can claim some familiarity with the documents but whose reading of them has been perfunctory, and therefore whose knowledge of them is just of the kind virtually to guarantee, with no necessary malice of forethought involved, distorted and even seriously disordered renderings of those documents. From what he has had to say on the subject on several occasions in recent years, this would seem to be the explanation favored by Pope John Paul II. He is constantly urging us to take up these documents and read them.

Whatever the explanation of the phenomenon — and my little list of suggestions does not pretend to be exhaustive — there is no denying the phenomenon itself: again, the discrepancy between what is being claimed for Vatican II, or, more broadly, what is being claimed for the Church, and what the Church actually says. What I would like to do here, and in light of what would appear to be well-nigh pervasive confusion on the matter, is to spell out as succinctly as possible the Church’s crystalline-clear teaching concerning missionary activity. It does not have to be said how important a matter this is, and, therefore, how seriously damaging could be any misunderstandings about it. There are three important documents that bear directly on the subject, the careful study of which would educate and edify all who encounter them. The first document is, naturally enough, Vatican II’s “Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity,” whose Latin title is Ad Gentes Divinitus; the second is Evangelii Nuntiandi, “Evangelization in the Modern World”; the third is Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation, entitled “Catechesis in Our Time,” Catechesi Tradendae.

Ad Gentes Divinitus was published on December 7, 1965. What is most noteworthy about this document is that in its overall tone and in everything specific it has to say about evangelization it stands as directly, even dramatically, antithetical to much of what one hears about that subject in the Church today, especially, and ironically, from people belonging to religious congregations whose very reason for being is missionary activity. There is in this Conciliar document no hint of hesitancy in proclaiming the primacy of the missionary obligation of the Church. There is no suggestion that the Church must somehow rethink her position concerning the cosmic significance of the Incarnation, and the solemn obligation that awesome event places on her with respect to the entire human race, and for the duration of the world.

The logic by which the document is guided is limpidly simple, and is the same logic that guided the Apostles. The Good News, the likes of which the world has never heard before, is that God became man in the person of Jesus Christ, and it is through Him alone that all human beings will be brought to God. This is the central, the overriding fact of human history, in the light of which everything else assumes significance. Christ alters all. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Given His stunning centrality, the Church He founded has one dominating, pressing, unceasing obligation: to bring the Word who is truth and life to every man, woman, and child on the face of the earth so that they might be led by Him to the Father. “Everyone,” the document says unequivocally, “ought to be converted to Christ.” The document stresses the point again and again that missionary activity is not a matter of choice for the Church. It is a matter of duty, and, too, a matter of what the Church is, for “the Church on earth is by its very nature missionary.”

The document emphasizes the peculiar role of the Church in the providential drama of bringing the human race back to God. The Church is the body of Christ, so, in the economy of salvation, the Church is the ordinary means through which we come to the Father. “Hence those cannot be saved, who knowing that the Catholic Church was founded through Jesus Christ, by God, as something necessary, still refuse to enter it, or to remain in it.”

Several other points of emphasis warrant attention, in the light of certain opinions bandied about today. The document notes that the Church, in engaging in her missionary activity, must take into account cultural differences and make practical adjustments accordingly. The Church is, after all, in the world, and cannot be separated off from culture. Part of the Church’s identity is cultural, as it were; it is a function of her enfleshment. But the Church also transcends the world. There is to her, vis-a-vis culture, a distinctly universal dimension; she cannot be identified with, or tied down to, any given culture. Least of all must there be any attempts to identify the Church with any particular political philosophy; the document is explicit in laying down that the Church must not become involved in civil governments. We find this last point also spelled out without ambiguity in one of the foundational pronouncements of the Council, the “Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”(Gaudium et Spes), where we read: “Christ did not bequeath to the Church a mission in the political, economic, or social order: the purpose he assigned to it was a religious one.”

What is particularly striking about Ad Gentes Divinitus, I think, is the manner in which it calls our attention to the fact that the obligation to evangelize is always and everywhere operative, and that it is an obligation which rests upon us all, whatever our place in the Church. We are told bluntly that “missionary activity retains its full force and necessity,” and so any attempt to downplay that activity, or relegate it to the periphery of the Church’s life, or to adopt and promote an apologetic attitude toward that activity would clearly not be in accord with the mind of the Church. Furthermore, it is an activity that all of us must engage in, if by no other way, at least by bearing witness in our own lives, to the best of our abilities, to the truth of Christ. And the document especially enjoins the laity to assume their missionary responsibilities. “They should spread the faith of Christ among those with whom they are connected by social and professional ties, and this obligation is all the more urgent since so many men can only come to hear the Gospel and recognize Christ through lay people who are their neighbors.”

Pope Paul VI promulgated his apostolic exhortation “Evangelization in the Modern World” on December 8, 1975, almost ten years to the day after the promulgation of Ad Gentes Divinitus, and one year after the meeting of the Third General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. Its primary purpose was to discuss the missionary activity of the Church. The pertinence of this particular document to our subject, then, is obvious enough. The intent of Pope Paul VI, besides sounding again certain themes raised by the Second Vatican Council (whose single objective, he tells us, was to make the Church more effective at evangelization), was to pass on to the Church at large what the synod of bishops had decided required special emphasis concerning the whole matter of evangelization. In this exhortation we find a reiteration of the idea that evangelization is not optional; it is the strictest kind of imperative. Also, we hear again that evangelization is the explanation of the very existence of the Church: “She exists in order to evangelize.”

But the exhortation gives prominence of place to an idea which had not received exceptional emphasis in the Conciliar documents, and which, one cannot help thinking, to which the Pope chose to call attention because he felt it addressed a pressing need in today’s Church. The idea might be loosely described by saying that evangelization must begin at home. In other words, the Church must begin by evangelizing herself, lest she find herself in the painful position of witnessing the blind leading the blind. What is at issue here is a rather practical matter. How can one ever hope to undertake what Paul VI describes as the “crucifying effort” that is entailed in spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ unless he himself knows, loves, is totally and irrevocably committed to, Jesus Christ? We cannot hope to convert others unless we ourselves are first converted.

As might be expected, this exhortation is more specific than the Conciliar document, and it is reasonable to suppose that its intent is to address specific problems relating to contemporary theory and practice apropos to missionary matters. A few of these might profitably be cited. Missionaries are ad monished to spread the teachings of Christ without ambiguity, without watering down and without reducing them to a notion of “liberation” which has more to do with social amelioration than eternal salvation. We must never lose sight of the essentially eschatological dimension of the Christian message. At stake is “not an immanent salvation, meeting material or even spiritual needs, restricted to the framework of temporal existence and completely identified with temporal desires, hopes, affairs, and struggles, but a salvation which exceeds all these limits in order to reach fulfillment in a communion with the one and only Absolute: a transcendent and eschatological salvation, which indeed has its beginning in this life but which is fulfilled in eternity.”

One will not find in Evangelii Nuntiandi the least effort to countenance the kind of relativistic thinking by which many Christian missionaries apparently have been infected, which holds that one religion is really as good as another and therefore the Christian exercises a kind of presumption by attempting to foist his religious views on those not already holding them. Obviously, the very idea of conversion is rendered obsolete by thinking of this sort. In point of fact, thinking of this sort is profoundly erroneous, is egregiously un-Christian, is indeed even anti-Christian. The Christian missionary is not transmitting just another cultural world view or philosophy of life; he is commissioned to spread the Truth of Christ, in relation to which the truths of the other world religions differ in their inferiority not only in degree but in kind. There is no room for a confused, false humility where the spreading of the Gospel is concerned, for there is too much at stake. “We wish to point out,” Pope Paul writes, “above all today, that neither respect and esteem for these religions nor the complexity of the questions raised is an invitation to the Church to withhold from these non-Christians the proclamation of Jesus Christ.”

Given the special emphasis he lends to the subject at the end of this exhortation, we would be justified in concluding, I think, that all the problems associated with missionary activity in the Church today can be traced to a single sad source: a lack of fervor. The lamps of Christians burn low, sputter in the dark. Christians are short on zeal. This, of course, is ultimately interpretable as a commentary on the quality of our faith. If we do not, as a matter of practical fact, believe that we are in possession of the pearl of great price, then we can hardly be expected to feel any imperative to share the incomparable riches which are ours with those who lack them. Those who have abandoned (or at least backed off on) the imperative to go forth into the entire world and labor for the salvation of souls for Christ, have abandoned the very idea of salvation. The lack of fervor which Pope Paul saw in the Church manifested itself in “fatigue, disenchantment, compromise, lack of interest and above all lack of joy and hope.” Furthermore, this lack of fervor has given rise to the prolific manufacture of excuses which impede missionary activity, the “most insidious” of which, according to Pope Paul — and this is worthy of special note — is that which claims to find justification for the demotion of missionary activity within the Church in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

Though the focus of Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Catechesi Tradendae is narrower than that of the two documents already discussed, its subject matter is intimately related to evangelization. This document is directly linked to the other two by the fact that John Paul II explicitly refers in his opening comments to Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi. But even had this not been done it would be evident even by a cursory reading that it contains nothing of content or direction that in any appreciable way departs from what we have been told in the Conciliar document and in Pope Paul’s exhortation. It is obvious that the Holy Father has in mind here simply to restate what he deems to be certain fundamental constants concerning the Church’s attitude toward missionary activity. This he does with characteristic clarity and forthrightness.

Naturally, a good deal of what he has to say applies specifically to catechesis, which he distinguishes from “the initial conversion-bringing proclamation of the Gospel” which is evangelization, by adverting to its “twofold objective of maturing the initial faith and of educating the true disciple of Christ by means of a deeper and more systematic knowledge of the person and the message of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Here I want to focus on his points of emphasis that pertain to evangelization as well as to catechesis, chief among them what he says about the absolute need for a Christocentric orientation. This is the sine qua non, for at the heart of missionary activity there is “a person, the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and the single-minded task of the missionary is “to transmit not one’s own teaching or that of some other master, but the teaching of Jesus Christ, the Truth that he communicates, or to put it more precisely, the Truth that he is.” Pope John Paul sees reason especially to emphasize the paramount need for preserving the integrity of Christ’s teachings in their transmission, and he warns against the “danger and the temptation” of mixing those teachings with “overt or masked ideological views, especially political and social ones, or with personal political options.”

“It is useless,” the pope states, “to play off orthopraxis against orthodoxy: Christianity is inseparably both.” And he is not about to allow short shrift to be given to orthodoxy. If the missionary and catechist are to show creativity in their efforts, they are to show vigilance as well, so that they might always be found faithful to the teachings of Christ. Theirs is the task to communicate the “simple but solid certainties” that constitute the foundations of our faith. The Christian message is unique and utterly revolutionary; it is what might be described as intrinsically unaccommodating to the world and its ways. The Christian message, in its unspoiled integrity, stands as a stark, clear counterstatement to the babble of murky messages that the world manufactures. The missionary is not offering an addendum but a distinct alternative; the plan that he follows in evangelizing “should continually separate itself from the surrounding atmosphere of hesitation, uncertainty and insipidity.”

There is no doubt but that the “hesitation, uncertainty and insipidity” which, most unfortunately, is found today among Christian missionaries themselves, finds no support of any kind in what the Church actually teaches concerning the role of the Church’s missionary activity. However one might choose to explain the disorienting and debilitating crisis of identity cum collapse of confidence that besets many of our missionaries, it is simply not tolerable to pretend that this sorry state of affairs qualifies as a Christian norm, and that it is even applaudable because it supposedly represents an advance over benighted attitudes of the “pre-Vatican II” past. The simple, and profoundly disturbing, truth of the matter is that much which is being put forward today as a proper Christian attitude toward evangelization is in point of fact diametrically opposed to the very essence of Christianity. It is, to say the least, a troubling state of affairs, and it is impossible not to be discouraged when one contemplates its possible devastating implications.

But the discouragement must be temporary, for it is a luxury we cannot afford. Our task, though by no means easy, is wonderfully simple. We need but be faithful to Christ. And what that means, principally, as we are reminded by Romano Guardini, is that we must be obedient to Christ, heeding most especially His injunction to “Go into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mk. 16:15).


  • D.Q. McInerny

    D.Q. McInerny taught philosophy at the College of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota when he wrote this article.

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