13. Authority and Evangelization
There is more to be got from that pointed comment: "Where is the world?"
We have tried to show that the power struggle mentality is false to the ecclesiology of Vatican II regarding authority, on the one hand, and regarding the distinctive roles of both clergy and laity, on the other. It can be faulted on a third major count. It is apostolically sterile.
The important issue for the power mentality is, "How do we organize the Church?" The important issue for the service mentality is, "How do we evangelize the world?" The parochialism of the first mentality is as evident as the outward thrust of the second.
Nevertheless, it is at times claimed that a Church reorganized and restructured along more "liberal" lines will offer a better image to the outside world and so facilitate evangelization. This claim is no doubt also put forward because it appears to offer a broader justification for trends which in themselves look rather self-concerned and individualistic with no evident evangelizing angle to them: the rejection of celibacy by some priests, the demand for ordination by some women, the campaign by some lay people for a say in running the Church.... It is undeniable that a great part of our energies of the past decades has been consumed in these and similar concerns: theological dissenters, Catholics for the Pill or for Abortion, Catholics against the Magisterium, altar girls, sexist liturgical language, undemocratic episcopal appointments ... these are the "burning" issues that fill so much of our clerical or Catholic writing and debate.
Whether what is behind these concerns is a driving zeal for the salvation of the world or merely a preference for a different type of Church and especially a different personal life-style must remain a matter of opinion. Judging subjective motivations is never an easy thing. What is easier to judge is the effect of such concerns on outsiders. Some rumblings of these concerns reach the outside non-Catholic world. What impression do they make?
One does not have to hazard too much of a guess. They leave the world amused or bemused ... but in any case, unimpressed, unmoved, indifferent at what it undoubtedly dismisses as so much clerical or ecclesiastical infighting. What is there in all of this to impress the world, to reveal to it the spirit of Christ, to attract it to Christ?
Signs of the times
Be that as it may, some still defend the direction marked out by these concerns as one called for by the needs of the times. And they say, a major guideline given by Vatican II was that the Church must be updated, must be reshaped according to the "signs of the times
This four-word phrase appears in the opening paragraphs of the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Probably no other phrase from the Council documents has been so often quoted. "Reading the signs of the times" has become for many people the guiding principle for the interpretation and implementation of Vatican II.
The signs of the times, we are told, are that modern man wants more freedom, more equality, more room for self-expression.... The Church will therefore forfeit its credibility and lose all possibility of appeal for contemporary man unless it appears as a Church where there is true democracy, more individual freedom, more respect for personal rights, less exercise of authority....
One wonders whether those who argue this way have properly understood the sense in which Vatican II invoked the signs of the times. One also wonders whether the new image of the Church they wish to see emerge is in fact likely to carry "credibility" with contemporary man or impress or attract him.
Let us transcribe the passage in Gaudium et spes where the key phrase appears: "At all times the Church carries the responsibility of reading the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel, if it is to carry out its task. In language intelligible to every generation, she should be able to answer the ever-recurring questions which men ask about the meaning of this present life and of the life to come, and how one is related to the other" (GS 4).
So, it is not the Gospel which has to be interpreted in the light of the times, but the other way round. The signs of the times are indeed presented by the Council as a starting or reference point, but are suggested as a reference not for a secular re-appraisal of the Gospel but precisely for an evangelical appraisal of modern man.
Vatican II never for one moment thought that modern man is not ripe for the Gospel. Man is always ripe for the Gospel. The Gospel is Good News for all men.
What the signs-of-the-times criterion suggests is that we look at contemporary man and examine his existential situation so as to see which of his aspirations - i.e. his longing for values that he does not possess - can be satisfied, at a deeper level, in Christ.
It is true that modern man wants freedom. Men of all times have wanted freedom. Christ's law is the law of freedom. We have to show the world that we have found freedom, precisely within the law of Christ. Meanwhile we have to encourage modern man to ask himself what he wants freedom from, and what he wants freedom for; and then to see if he will accept freedom on Christ's terms, within Christ's law. Christians know it cannot be found outside.
It is true too that modern man wants equality. That again is to be found in Christ, in the equal dignity of being children of the same Father, enjoying our God-given rights under God-given guidance and authority.
A desire for freedom and equality? Is this all that our analysis of modern man can come up with? A deeper reading of the times is called for if we are to understand the peculiar situation of modern man and how we Christians are being challenged to bring him the Gospel.
A bad moment?
The Council itself read the signs of the times of the early 1960s and drew from them a picture of modern man as a deeply dissatisfied being. Modern man "often seems more uncertain than ever of himself' (GS 4); he is in the grip of "spiritual uneasiness (5); "he feels himself divided" (10); he is "buffeted between hope and anxiety" (4); "every man remains a question to himself, one that is dimly perceived and left unanswered" (21); but he is "forced to look for answers" (4).
In the time that has elapsed since Vatican II modern society has in fact shown signs of accelerated wear and tear: drugs, dropouts, pornography, hooliganism, spiralling crime, international terrorism.... Something is happening to modern man. It is happening fast, and he senses that what is happening is not very good.
Beneath these signs of unrest one discovers a deep dissatisfaction, a sense of privation, in contemporary man. Things are missing in his life: vital human values. Among the privations that contemporary man is experiencing, I would suggest that three are outstanding: a lack of certainty, a lack of solidarity, a lack of joy. Man's feelings about life - about himself and about others - are becoming more and more skeptical and negative:
- life is a meaningless trip. There is nowhere to go. And if there were, no one can tell you how to go there.
- life is a rat-race. There is no honesty. There is no loyalty. You can't trust others.
- life is a con-game. it promises happiness, but does not deliver the goods.
It is a bad moment for modern man. It is a good moment for evangelization. The closer man comes to despair, the more prepared he is (perhaps without realizing it) for a message of hope.
Is this uncertain, disunited, joyless situation totally peculiar to twentieth century man? It undoubtedly has had precedents in history, and clearly had a precedent precisely 2,000 years ago.
Here let us develop a reflection which is not a digression. It is commonplace today among secular thinkers and commentators to acknowledge that western civilization is in crisis, in grave crisis. Paradoxically there seems to be in some ecclesiastical quarters a fear of admitting that the Church itself might be in any way affected by this crisis all round it. Some Catholic thinkers rigorously maintain that there are no signs of crisis in the Church. Others allow that there is a crisis in the Church and explain it as simply an overflow of the crisis in secular culture.
It may be that a world in crisis is bound to affect the Church. It is certain and more to the point that the Church is called to evangelize the world and has a particular opportunity to do so when the world itself is in crisis. It was precisely to a world in a similar situation - materially powerful but spiritually empty - that Christ sent his Apostles. And the young Church of those first centuries was strong and vigorous enough not only to protect itself from being paganized from without but to evangelize that surrounding pagan civilization from within.
The pagan world of 2,000 years ago was neither more nor less ready for evangelization than ours. It could at first sight have seemed closed to the message of Christ, with his call to come out of darkness into his wonderful but demanding light (cf. 1 Pet 2:9). Yet the early Christians, all of them apostles, led their pagan fellow-citizens to face up to their darkness and to freely accept the demands of that light.
What was it that gave such convincing - evangelizing - power to the life and leadership of the first Christians? I would suggest that, on the basis of their faith and prayer, it was precisely a combination of certainty, unity and joy. Their certainty in Christ's truth. Their unity under Christ's binding love and authority. And their joy in Christ's mercy and grace.
Certainty, unity, joy: the very qualities that are so lacking in the modern secularized world around us. Here we can get a true reading of the signs of the times and a clue to the challenge it poses to us. If modern Christians can show the same qualities as their brethren of the first centuries, modern pagans will also be drawn to Christ.
Christians uncertain of their own faith will not evangelize the world. Christians are meant to be leaders of the world. Uncertain leaders cannot lead. Why should anyone follow a leader who is unsure about the goals, about the road, about which is the right way and which is the wrong, unsure about the very directions that he is receiving and should be following, unsure therefore about his own leaders?
Why should pagans be impressed by the image of a church where nothing is certain, where, they are told, you will be "free" to think and do as you like? They already have that "freedom", and are beginning to discover that thinking and doing what you like easily ends in no longer liking what you think and do. They sense they are in a trap. Christians are meant to lead them out.
It is false to suppose that modern man does not want authority. He, as man of all ages, wants authority that he can trust. When he sees that Christians follow the authority of the Church trustingly and lovingly - because they see in it the authority of Christ whom they trust and love - then he may be drawn to wonder if the apparently hard way Christians try to follow may not indeed be Good News.
This is not to say that the image of authority in the Church does not need reshaping. If there has been any hint of dominance or exploitation or irresponsibility in the exercise of church authority, this must go. Authority as service: this is the image to be presented, and the reality to be lived.
But authority itself must remain. In other words, authority must remain authoritative. Only then does it project the image of Christ who leads us in truth and love and whom we follow in all certainty.
Good News must be certain in order to be good; and in order to appeal. Half-certain news - good rumors - is only half-interesting. It must be confirmed as certain before it really stirs interest.
On the basis of "one opinion is as good as another", there can be no evangelization. If my news is as good (or as bad) as yours, what should urge me to spread it, or you to listen to it? It is only the conviction that the Gospel is the Good News - the Best News - that spurs people to communicate it.
A Christian who is not convinced he has the truth is not convinced he has Christ. Only convinced Christians have any chance of convincing others. Half-convinced Christians won't even half-convince anybody. They won't convince at all.
Unity; and love. Disunited Christians will not evangelize the world. Why should anyone want to unite himself to people who themselves are not united, who do not love anyone, or who only love those they like (the pagans themselves do that; cf. Mt 5:47)? Christ said we must love even our enemies. He chose love as his Commandment, and said it must be the distinctive mark of Christians: "I give you a new commandment: love one another; just as I have loved you, you also must love one another. By this love you have for one another, everyone will know that you are my disciples" (Jn 13:34-35).
Something comes to mind that happened in London some years before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Jan had come from an Eastern bloc country to do a post-graduate course at the London School of Economics. Accident or God's design brought him to live at a university hall of residence with a strong Christian spirit. Jan, while a non-believer and an active communist, had a good heart and one could see how he became more and more drawn into that atmosphere of warmth and trust and understanding. He happened to strike up a close friendship with Frank, a fellow-economics student and a convinced Catholic. At the end of the year as Jan was about to return home, Frank told me (I was chaplain to the hall), "I'm going to have a good chat with Jan. He says he does not believe, but he could easily believe. Something has hit him here". Afterwards Frank told me how the conversation had gone. "Look", he told Jan, "you Communists and we Christians both want to change - to revolutionize - the world. But you want to do it through force. And we want to do it through love". Then he explained to him our Lord's New Commandment and some of the anecdotes that have come down to us showing how the early Christians lived that commandment and the effects it produced. The story, for instance, of St John in his old age at Ephesus, repeating time and again to his disciples, "My little children, love one another", and when one finally asked him, "But why do you always repeat the same thing?", his reply; "Because it is the Lord's command, and if it alone is fulfilled it is sufficient". Or the amazed comment of the pagans at the difference they saw in the Christians: "See how the Christians love each other!".... Jan listened intently and when Frank finished he remained looking at him in silence. When he finally broke it, it was with the simplest of comments: "Look", he said, "if you people really believe that, you can change the world". It is the testimony of a modern pagan impressed by the power and beauty of the commandment of Christ. A testimony which remains a challenge to us. The challenge is clear: "Let's see if you Christians are capable of living up to that. If you are, we are wasting our time. The world will be Christ's, not ours".
In a world where hatred seems to be gaining ground fast, the first Christian concern must be to live and spread love. Love saves and draws to the Savior. Love is the unanswerable witness to Christ.
When pagans see that we trust one another and others, that we are prepared to help and serve one another and others, that we do not bear grudges, that we know how to forgive, that we are not negative or critical, that we do not gossip or backbite, that we do not speak badly of anyone, neither Catholic nor non-Catholic, neither those "above" nor those "below", neither bishop nor Pope nor layman... then they may say: here are people with a difference. If they do not find something very special in the way Catholics treat one another and others, why should they even begin to suspect that Catholics may in fact be following Someone very special?
Our love and unity do not mean we cannot have differences. We are bound to have differences: not in essentials - otherwise unity is destroyed - but in accidentals. Our love and unity are shown not in our not having differences but in how we air them: without self-pity, without a tone of grievance, without a sense of victimization, without questioning the good faith of others, without attacks on personalities, without breaking fundamental ecclesial communion and discipline.
The Church is not a debating society. It is not a convention or a parliament. It is not a one-party or a multi-party state. The Church is a family. And one of the main witnesses it can give to the world is that of how brothers and sisters, despite differences over accidentals, can still find it good and joyful to live together in family unity (cf. Ps 132:1).
Concern for the poor. Yes, that is a particular area where Christians can show the spirit of Christ. That the world is moved when it sees a genuine Christian concern for the sick or the poor is evidenced by people's response to a Mother Teresa or a John Paul II. Whether the world sees a witness to Christ in the work of Christian Marxists is a much more debatable matter. The question is not whether Marxist theologians show a concern for the poor, but whether a Marxist inspired theology can bring about true liberation of the poor. That is the question which the Popes and the Magisterium have answered negatively at the same time as they point out true Christian ways of liberation from social and economic injustices and, more importantly, from sin. It is clear in any case that the witness that some liberation theologians give to the world is unquestionably a witness to Marx, and very questionably a witness to Christ.
Our love for the poor has to bear in mind that all men are poor. Christ's own preferential option is for sinners, and that means all of us. When no one is excluded from our love, then we are witnessing to Christ.
Gloomy and discontented Christians will never evangelize the world. Why should anyone be attracted to a sad Church?
In Christ's followers, the modern non-Christian or post-Christian world must meet Christ, the servant and suffering Christ, who serves and suffers in joy. If the image Christians present to the world is not one of joyful service but one of protest, bad temper and self-pity, there can be no evangelization.
Christian joy has a surprising basis. As Chesterton suggests, it is joy not because we are in the right place, but because we are in the wrong place. We were lost, but Someone has found us and is leading us home. It is joy not because we are alright - we are not - but because Someone can put us right. Christian joy comes from facing up to the one really sad fact of life, which is sin; and countering it with a joyful fact that is even realer and stronger than sin: God's love and mercy.
Some critics of Christianity accuse it of having soured humanity by introducing the sense of sin into what had been an untroubled and happy world. The accusation is absolutely false; the opposite of the truth. The pagan world of 2.000 years ago was deeply troubled and deeply unhappy. As anyone knows who is familiar with the classical literature of the period, the pagan world was dogged by a sense of guilt and sin. Christianity did not bring the sense of sin. It brought the reality of forgiveness. The disease was always there, ravaging man's heart. Christ brought the cure.
What really takes away man's happiness is not poverty or hunger or disease. One meets many poor or sick or even hungry people who are still happy, just as one meets many rich and well-fed people who are miserable. What takes away a man's happiness is not what other people do to him, nor what life or luck do to him. It is what he does to himself. It is his own deliberate choice to be selfish and sinful.
In order to recover happiness he needs to let God do something for him: to forgive him. For his part all he needs is to ask for forgiveness.
"Repent and believe the Good News, the Gospel", is how Jesus began his preaching (Mk 1:15). Until modern man recovers his sense of sin and until he repents, all the "good news" in the world - all the money and power and pleasure that may come his way - will not make him happy, because the roots of his unhappiness remain within himself.
Without repentance, the good news will not be really good. And without faith, the bad news - sickness, pain and above all the inevitability of death - will remain as bad as ever.
Do Catholics today reflect the image of people who find joy in repentance? I wonder. I am afraid that the image projected by some is that of people who would like to have the veto removed from sin so that we Christians can be as pagan as anyone else.
The Church, they say, must keep abreast of the times, and the only way it can retain credibility is by declaring that contraception is not a sin, divorce with remarriage is not a sin, pre-marital sex is not a sin, abortion is not a sin....
Is that a Gospel way? Is that a way of faith? A way of joy? A way of evangelization?
Now - the liberal message goes - look at our new Church. Now if you become a Catholic, you can continue as you are.... "But", the reply might well come, "I would expect a church to show me how not to continue as I am. Surely that is what redemption is about?"
Why should our modern pagan be drawn to the Church because he is told: now in the Catholic Church you will have the freedom to follow your every sexual impulse without any qualms of conscience or anyone telling you that what you are doing is wrong?
Is this the joyful news that is supposed to attract him? Will he not turn away in boredom? Or perhaps reply: "I already have that freedom ... though I do have qualms about many things, and my conscience (when I listen to it) more than half suggests they are wrong. What I want is someone - someone I can trust - to tell my why it is wrong and above all to stop those qualms, that lack of peace inside, by telling me that though it is a sin it can be forgiven, if I repent. I need someone to help me repent. I don't want to be told I'm not a sinner. I want my sins forgiven".
A pagan world does not want to hear that sin no longer exists for Christians, but that forgiveness of sin exists for all men.
For that matter, why should people be attracted to the Church because Christians, like Marxists, say that structures should change? Maybe structures should change. But that is not a saving message. The saving message is not that "society" will be saved if structures change, but that I will be saved if I change. The saving message is to be told how I can change even though I feel that by myself I cannot. The saving message is to be shown that I am not "by myself'; that Christ, who is God, is with me with his divine mercy and strength; and to be led to the sources of that mercy and strength.
It is only on the surface of his being that man wants to hear, "You are OK". Deep inside, in the sincerity of his heart, he knows that the real fact is, "You are not OK".
Christians need to have the elementary psychological insight to realize that this is so. They need to have the more challenging ability to get to people's hearts and stir their inner sincerity and truer self-awareness. And then they need to be able to communicate the full Christian message: "We are not OK. But there is Someone who loves us despite all of that, and forgives and cleanses and strengthens us.... Let's go to him". It is above all by the joy of their own forgiven lives that they will communicate this.
Standard of Life
Joy in repentance. And joy in faith: believing that we are forgiven by a good God, by an "incredibly" good God whom we precisely believe to be that good .
The joy of Christians is therefore also the consequence of our having found God who is Goodness Itself and who calls us to him. Faith and hope are the basis of Christian joy. God is good. He loves me. He cleanses me and calls me to share in his infinite happiness.
A desire for a higher standard of living: there perhaps is another sign of the times. If it is what man wants, then Christians can tell him that he is offered God's own Standard of Life. That is the life that Christians already share in and hope to possess in all fullness for always in heaven. The joy that this faith and hope give is a joy which is proof against all vicissitudes. Unlike other joys, no man and no earthly thing can take it from us (cf. Jn 16:22).
Along with this cure of sin, Christ brought the conquest of death - that other great joy-spoiler. The thought of death mars all pagan joys. No philosophy, no ideology, can give man real happiness if it cannot cure the joy-killing character of death. That is the power of the Christian message. Christ has overcome death. If we follow Him, we need not fear death. We will pass through it to eternal life.
Like Jesus Christ Christians have to lead the world with authority (cf. Mt 7:29). Certainty about Christ's truth gives authority to the work of evangelization, while doubts de-authorize it. The unity lived by Christians gives authority to the Christian message, just as dissent and disunity de-authorize it. The joy of Christians gives authority to the message they bear, just as grumblings and discontent de-authorize it.
More certainty, more unity, more joy: that is the formula for evangelization. It is a formula not for structures but for persons. What modern man needs, in order to be drawn to Christ, is not a restructured or remodelled Church - he never meets "the Church" - but remodelled, renewed, Christians; he meets Christians every day, though he is often unaware of it. It is we who have to be renewed, and then we will draw men to Christ.
Self-knowledge - taking stock of our own weaknesses - leads to repentance, and so to the "joy of salvation" (cf. Ps 51:12). Once we have discovered that intensely personal character of the Good News, we are in a position to spread it.
Enough therefore of clamoring about structures or morbidly highlighting the weak points of the Church. My weak points - that is what I have to change, using the strength of the Church to do so.
Then each one of us will be able to help contemporary pagan man in his soul-searching, to help him face up to his weak points and to see that precisely the strong points of Christianity have the answer for his weaknesses.
The Gospel is not a social manifesto and still less an organizational program. It is the Good News of personal salvation and destiny. The Church has been commissioned to carry this message to all men. The ship of the Church - whatever the seas or the times it sails in - is therefore always on a rescue mission. The power-struggle syndrome threatens to obsess the ship's crew with totally secondary issues - "Who will run the boat?" or "What course should we take?" - and blinds them to the fact that the sea all around is full of drowning people.
The early Church also had to survive rifts and rivalries that undermined ecclesial communion and paralysed evangelization. St Paul's letters to the Corinthians show his concern lest the intellectualizing tendencies of those as yet immature Christians separate them from the unity of the Body of Christ and pre6vent them from incarnating the Christian message and spreading it.
Paul makes no bones about defending his own apostolic authority before them. It is no concern for power or personal privilege which moves him to do so but simply his sense of responsibility for the God-given constitution of the Church. Right from the start he speaks to them in the "language of the cross" and reminds them that while the Cross may seem illogical and even mad to a human outlook, it in fact represents the power and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:18-25). With deep affection and with forceful reprimands he urges them to overcome their dissensions, their exclusivisms, their tendency to conform to pagan ways...
His apostle's heart seems impatient as well as worried about their self-concern and small-mindedness. He is not happy with them as he was with some of the other Christian communities he had founded. If he urges them "to be united in belief and practice" (1 Cor 1:10), one feels it is also so that the Gospel message can spread out from them as forcefully as it did from, say, the Thessalonians (1 Thess 1:7-8) or the Philippians (Phil 1:4).
If Paul were present with us today I think he would be no less forceful in urging us to unity in the faith and to integrity in the Christian moral code. He would remind us that Christ did not tell us to spend our energies arguing about new church structures or new approaches to church government; Christ told us flatly to get out and evangelize the world. Paul might well remind us that we will start evangelizing when we stop jostling for a place in the Church and make up our minds to serve - each in his or her own proper way - in the world, fully accepting Christ's authority, Christ's yoke, Christ's Cross, so that our lives, despite all our personal weaknesses, can mirror his spirit and convey his saving message.