The new evangelisation: building bridges with a clear offer

Ask almost any cardinal what the priorities are for the next pope, and he’ll likely include the “new evangelisation” in his list. The term is a little bewildering for many journalists covering the conclave; John Allen here provides a useful primer, using the analogy of sales and marketing. But his focus on one aspect of the new evangelisation — reaching out to alienated, or non-practising Catholics — ignores the other, equally important aspect: making the Catholic faith credible to post-Christian, or secularised cultures. In both cases, however, the new evangelisation starts from the recognition that the laws and suppositions of western culture are becoming increasingly detached from the Christian moral norms in which they are rooted. As George Weigel puts it:

The challenge can be defined simply: Throughout the Western world, the culture no longer carries the faith, because the culture has become increasingly hostile to the faith. Catholicism can no longer be absorbed by osmosis from the environment, for the environment has become toxic. So we can no longer sit back and assume that decent lives lived in conformity with the prevailing cultural norms will somehow convey the faith to our children and grandchildren and invite others to consider entering the Church.

No, in our new situation, Catholicism has to be proposed, and Catholicism has to be lived in radical fidelity to Christ and the Gospel. Recreational Catholicism—Catholicism as a traditional, leisure-time activity absorbing perhaps ninety minutes of one’s time on a weekend—is over. Full-time Catholicism—a Catholicism that, as the Second Vatican Council taught, infuses all of life and calls everyone in the Church to holiness and mission—is the only possible Catholicism in the twenty-first century.

WuerlThe new evangelisation is arguably the greatest unfinished business bequeathed by Benedict XVI. Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who was relator, or chair, of the synod of bishops in Rome in October last year, is not alone in saying it’s where the new pope needs to focus his energies. Responding to the synod’s 58 proposals will be one of the biggest items in the new pope’s box.

When Pope Benedict XVI created the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelisation, he packed its council with an A-team of cardinals from across the world, most of whom — Marc Ouellet, Angelo Scola, Gianfranco Ravasi, Timothy Dolan, Odilio Scherer, and Christoph Schönborn — come up frequently in the list of papabili. They are cardinals on the western frontline, who have battled in Quebec, Milan, New York, Sao Paolo and Vienna with states seeking to redefine marriage or to de-legitimise human life.


In this new context, the Catholic faith is fast becoming a religion of conviction rather than convention. People belong out of choice.

But that makes even more urgent the task of reaching the many — the majority of the baptized in the west — who are nominally part of the Church, feel some connection to it, yet do not practise or belong in any real sense; who disagree with many of its teachings; and whose outlook reflects the surrounding culture.

In the United States, for instance, there are roughly 22 million Catholics who no longer practise. Were they counted as a discrete group, they would comprise America’s second-largest religious denomination. In the UK, four-fifths of Catholics do not go to Mass – the basic indicator of belonging — and have views indistinguishable from non-believers. Hence the many surveys which claim that most Catholics are “at odds” with the Church over this or that teaching; almost always the survey fails to distinguish between practising and non-practising Catholics.

In Ireland, for example, 84 per cent of people self-identify as Catholic. Yet an Irish Times poll last June indicated that just 31 per cent of Irish Catholics attended Mass weekly. Unsurprisingly, 62 per cent believed that the Eucharistic elements only “represent” the body and blood of Christ while only 76 per cent believed in the Resurrection. An earlier poll for the Association of Catholic Priests, which represents about a fifth of Ireland’s clergy, showed similar results.

S.E. Mons. Diarmuid Martin , Arcivescovo di Dublino

As Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin puts it, this is “a crisis of faith, a crisis of transmission of the Faith, and in many cases a lack of understanding of the nature of the Church. Ireland,” he adds, “is now a highly secularized society, and many look to the Church through a secularized lens, to the point that, in a sense, one could speak of what I call ‘a climate of undeclared heresy’ that pervades many dimensions of understanding of Faith among Catholics.”


Many of the media stories or discussions around the papal election start from the assumption that the Church and its teaching must in some way change or become more flexible in order to reach out to this disaffected majority of baptised.

But that is not how the cardinals who will gather in conclave this week see it. They believe the Church has to change and adapt to the changed circumstances of dechristianised culture, but by making the Catholic offer clearer and more compelling. As Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York puts it:

Some have the impression that we are electing a man who has a “platform,” who can decide new “policies” for the Church.  We Cardinal Dolanare not.

Yes, a new Pope can develop fresh, new strategies to better, and more effectively, teach the doctrines of the faith. In fact, this is a big part of what we call the New Evangelization: to express the timeless truths of the faith – – especially the message and mystery of the Person who called himself the Truth, Jesus – – in a timely, radiant, more compelling way.

Remember the way Good Pope John explained it on the eve of the opening of the Second Vatican Council?  The faith of the Church is a gift that cannot be altered, he remarked.  But, the way this gift is “wrapped” can!  That is always a challenge for a Pope.

In other words, the how of our teaching can change; the what of it cannot.

There are many ways of developing strategies for the new evangelisation, encouraging a clearer sense of Catholic identity and purpose, a new emphasis on adult faith formation, and a more energetic, and imaginative, sense of mission. It is an initiative that builds bridges to the alienated, but by clarifying, and deepening, what the Church offers.

This doesn’t mean ignoring the need for reform; it means making sure that that reform goes hand in hand with greater fidelity. The 2011-2012 Apostolic Visitation into the Irish Church, for example, tackled both clerical abuse and its mishandling, as well the issue of ‘dissent’:

Since the Visitators also encountered a certain tendency, not dominant but nevertheless fairly widespread among priests, Religious and laity, to hold theological opinions at variance with the teachings of the Magisterium, this serious situation requires particular attention, directed principally towards improved theological formation. It must be stressed that dissent from the fundamental teachings of the Church is not the authentic path towards renewal.


The new evangelisation requires especially of those who officially represent the teachings of the Church to be accountable for what they communicate on behalf of the Church. Just as, in almost any walk of life, those who speak on behalf of organisations are accountable to those organisations for what they say about them, so, too, are priests and theologians and anyone who teaches the Catholic faith.

Normally, this accountability is exercised by a bishop in the case of a diocesan priest, or by the religious order. Rome only needs to step in when that oversight has not been exercised.

This is what lies behind the ‘disciplining’ and ‘silencing’ of priests such as Fr Tony Flannery and Fr Brian D’Arcy. Fr D’Arcy explained to RTE’s Marian Finucane last April that he had been asked to pass to another priest in his order – at his own discretion – newspaper articles he’d written. This is normal practice in religious orders, and something Fr D’Arcy says he would have done anyway. At the time he said this, not one of the articles he’d ever passed over – regardless of the topic – had been blocked from publication.

FlanneryFr Flannery,  whose brother is a close confidant of the Irish Taoiseach, claimed that the head of his order had last year presented him with an ultimatum from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:

Either I sign a statement, for publication, stating that I accepted teachings that I could not accept, or I would remain permanently banned from priestly ministry, and maybe face more serious sanctions. It is important to state clearly that these issues were not matters of fundamental teaching, but rather of church governance.

Fr Flannery has admitted his unwillingness to accept the whole teaching of the Church on moral issues. Fr Michael Brehl, head of Fr Flannery’s Redemptorist order, has confirmed that his writings were ambiguous on “fundamental areas of Catholic doctrine, including the priesthood, the nature of the Church, and the Eucharist.”

The issue at stake here is not whether Fr Flannery has the right to believe and teach whatever he likes. He does. The issue is whether he has the right do so as an official representative of the Church.

It falls to Rome, as it would the central office of any large organisation, to hold those representatives accountable. Once Fr Flannery’s writings were brought to Rome’s attention, it had to act — by asking his order to hold him to account.

In responding to the CDF, Fr Flannery appealed to the rights of conscience, appealing to Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom. But as he himself noted, the Declaration is concerned with the freedom of religion that should be recognised by civil authorities, not with how religious organisations should regulate themselves. No organisation, whether political, commercial, or charitable, company, survives for long if its messages are mixed; unity is all the more important for an organisation which is entrusted with handing on the precious treasure of divine revelation.


It is not a violation of someone’s human rights to declare, as Rome sometimes does,  that a theologian’s opinion doesn’t correspond to the doctrine of the Catholic Church. Everyone has the right to express their own view; that is a freedom strongly upheld by the Church. But people do not have the right to have every opinion recognized as Catholic.

One of the great themes of Benedict XVI’s pontificate has been that the Church exists to offer friendship with Jesus Christ, the acceptance of which leads to truth about God, a rich human existence based on love, and a more humane and dignified society. Friendship with Christ is found in the Church, where the teaching is handed on, and the Body of Christ broken and shared. The way of life which follows from this is the Church’s response to the misery and suffering inflicted by a way of life based on the demands of the autonomous self, and the lust for power and possession.

That is why doctrinal clarity is essential in the new evangelisation. It leads to, and encourages, conversion. It makes authentic Christian service possible. What Christians believe are not ‘theories’, but life-changing revealed realities.

The Church, in short, exists to evangelise, and those who speak with the authority of the Church can legitimately be held accountable by that authority when what they say is not in accordance with the Church’s tradition.

The use of that authority is part of a pope’s job specification, and it will be exercised by whoever is elected later this week.

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