The CDF’s ‘Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization’ (14 December 2007): some reflections by Martin Teulan
Just as the recent Encyclical on Hope might be seen to address the recent arguments by prominent atheists against religion, this Doctrinal Note on some Aspects of Evangelization is addressed to real and current issues facing the Church at a very practical level.
In particular this Note addresses a lack of confidence in evangelization today, and in doing so examines three major issues:
A lack of confidence in evangelisation today.
A common question for many in the community today is: Why Evangelize?” The Note argues that Church has always evangelized, and in doing so is following the instructions of Christ. “Go out into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved, but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16: 15-16). This evangelization is not seen to simply “teach a doctrine, but to proclaim Jesus Christ by one’s words and actions, that is, to make oneself an instrument of his presence and action in the world” (2).
In essence, if we do not evangelize then we are not living out what Christ asked us to do. Though the Note claims that many people believe that to evangelize is to limit the freedom of others, this is, as Gerald O’Collins has noted, a rather doubtful perception. It might be more often heard in conversation and in the media that to share your faith is an imposition on other people or an intolerance of other beliefs. Rather than being an imposition, the Note argues that every person has a right to hear the Gospel, just as they have a right to hear the truth on any topic.
Understanding that salvation is possible through other faiths and through other churches does not prevent us from taking up evangelisation.
This is a very difficult aspect for evangelizers today. A very reasonable question to ask is: if someone belongs to another religion and through it can gain eternal life, why would the Church seek to evangelize that person? Why wouldn’t the Church, as Gandhi requested, seek to help that person become a better Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim etc.?
The Note provides the answer that evangelization offers “the gift of truth” (10). The Christian message offers “tremendous benefit in this world: to know the true face of God and the friendship of Jesus Christ, God-with-us. (7)”. Many Christians are insensitized to the amazing belief in Christianity that God came to earth, that God is no abstract or distant being, but a real part of human history. There is tremendous interest in the understanding that God came to earth, and this claim of Christianity is of great interest to people of other faiths. All Christians can do is to offer the truth about Christ, both by explaining what they believe and, more importantly, living out the Christian ideal in their lives.
Certainly my experience has been that with rare exceptions, the more involved people are in their own religions, the more interested they are in what Christianity has to say and has to offer.
In a similar way, in talking and working together with members of other Christian churches, we should be happy to share our own beliefs, this “fullness of the gift of truth,” which we believe to be held in the Catholic Church. At a practical level, we can also expect members of other churches to share their beliefs with us.
Respectful evangelization is not a passive evangelization.
The Note explains very clearly that “the heart of another person can only be approached in freedom, in love and in dialogue...” and that “the Church severely prohibits forcing people to embrace the faith or leading or enticing them by improper techniques” (8).
So “the primary motive of evangelization is the love of Christ.” It must not be an attempt to build up power, but aimed at the good of every person, who needs God and the Church to have the fullness of life.
Catholics are encouraged to engage in dialogue with people of other faiths but more often in Australia with people with a limited faith experience, formally where that occurs, but more often around the dinner table, or a university, or when meeting friends. There needs to be a ready confidence in this, partly because a person is equipped to do so, but mostly because there is a confidence in the person sharing that a relationship with Jesus and being a member of the Catholic Church is a opportunity that should be offered as a gift to other people.
It is not enough to only strive for justice and human ideals.
Two elements are addressed here. The first is the false understanding that the Kingdom of God is separate from the Church, therefore any and all religions may be equal contributors to the building of the Kingdom. The Note argues that the Kingdom and the Church are inseparable, and the missionary activity which builds the Church at the same time is building the Kingdom (9).
The second is a common issue for Catholics involved in a wide range of organised and informal care for those in need. There can be no doubt that witness, the living of a life of goodness and of service to others, is the most effective form of evangelization, and the Note draws on Paul VI’s wonderful Evangelii nuntiandi to express this. However at the same time even the greatest witness by itself is not enough and must be explained “by a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the Lord Jesus” (11).
Many Catholics experience conversations with members of other Christian churches who are far better equipped and as a result far more ready and to explain their faith. There is no lack amongst Catholics of caring service for others, no lack of witness, but few Catholics are able to explain their faith succinctly and effectively to others. They need to do so, as this is a crucial element of not only sharing faith with those outside the Church, but also of handing on our faith to our children.
In conclusion, this Doctrinal Note on some Aspects of Evangelization aims to address key issues in evangelization today. It is meant to provide the intellectual basis, which, translated into more common language, will encourage and equip every Catholic to share their faith with sensitivity, but also with confidence. This is both the duty of every Catholic of every age, and the means of survival and growth for the Church.
Finally, as an inspiration, might I quote from Joseph Veneroso MM:
Every person on earth has right to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Everyone deserves an opportunity to respond to it, and the freedom to accept or reject it.
Every Christian has a duty, not to impose our belief on others, but to proclaim our faith through our words, actions and lives.
The Spirit invites us to listen to the poor, the powerless, the oppressed, even to those of different or no faith, and to hear what God is saying to us through them.