“We must go out to meet them where they are.” So goes the theory of liberal ecumenism and evangelization, anyway. As we learn from the epistles and from Acts, we’re encouraged as Catholics to find common ground with alternative belief systems and slowly, deliberately attempt to convince their adherents that ours isn’t just congruent with theirs, but more correct than theirs.
That certainly seems reasonable enough, and given the rampant spread of Christianity in the first three centuries of its existence—prior to its legalization under Constantine and the development of a functioning administrative apparatus—it seems like it worked. The fact that its adherents were being fed to lions in the Coliseum, or were getting flayed alive with smiles on their faces certainly contributed to the impact the faith had on non-believers. They were either crazy, which seemed unlikely given the sheer volume of them, or they were right.
Fortunately, they were right.
But what of the contemporary view of evangelization? We live today at a time when the heresies against the Church are more numerous than at any other time in history, with beliefs like Arianism and Monophysitism, which were stamped out a millennium and a half ago, pulled from their tombs and given new clothes in the form of Unitarian, non-denominational, and various other off-mainline Protestant Evangelical congregations. Sixty years ago, the Second Vatican Council made the topic of ecumenism, or the bringing back together of the fractured Christian faiths, one of the main subjects of inquiry. And what is ecumenism if not some variant of evangelization?
Evangelizing the Pagan
In the history of the world, recognition of the divine hand and offerings to it—even if erroneously—is the norm. Thousands of years of recorded history, across all civilizations and cultures, reveals the same general trend: as commonplace as trade and language, religious belief could always be found at the core of just about every people on the planet.
In some cases, belief wasn’t taken too seriously, as evidenced by the decline in religious practice during the Roman empire of antiquity. And yet, even amidst the decline of public worship, attendance at temple services and public professions of religion remained relatively stable.
This doesn’t mean that early Christians had an easy time winning converts, as the various adventures detailed in Acts of the Apostles is quick to reveal. The gods of ancient pagans were mythological in nature, not metaphysical; the stories of, for instance, Zeus, were fundamental parts of his nature as a supernatural creature. They were characters in a narrative that was played out in real life.
By contrast, God is not some character in a meta-narrative play. He’s the unmoved mover, the first cause, the necessary being, all at once. The ancient Hebrews knew Him directly through revelation and prophecy, and some of them prepared for His incarnation and accepted Him when He arrived. The Greeks, perhaps by some strange grace, concluded that He not only must exist, but deduced several aspects of His being purely through the use of reason.
The sort of belief that God asks of us is not really of the same character as the belief demanded by Roman authorities in their religious services, nor the sort of belief demanded by the Norse. Belief in the supernatural might humble us, but belief in the one God, infinite in love and justice, who created everything out of nothing and who sustains the world with his being, demands of us a humility that mere spirits and superhuman archetypes cannot even begin to muster.
And that’s just the starting point. Christianity’s message has always been fairly simple, even if its metaphysics weren’t: the God that created everything loves you so much that he suffered for you in your place in order to redeem you from sin, opening the path to Heaven and conquering death in the process. It’s not a difficult message to sell to pagans who already believe in some kind of afterlife, already recognize that the order of the cosmos implies some sort of creator, and already appreciate the notion of prayer, sacrifice, and penance. At least superficially, all of these things can be reordered into a Christian framework, and upon baptism and regular reception of the sacraments, the mysteries of the Faith come into greater focus through practice and prayer.
For the early Church, conversion of pagans required zeal, strength of character, and conviction. As the Church aged into adolescence in the early middle ages, and as its doctrines became more systematized, the means of conversion became a little easier. Yet it remained the case that the peoples being brought into the Church were still fundamentally pagan, regardless of what religious tradition they were escaping.
Evangelizing the Modern
When people say we have entered a new paganism under modernity, they’re severely misdiagnosing the problem and underestimating its severity. Modernity, as evidenced by a quick stroll around the block, denies an afterlife, denies the supernatural, and denies that there is an order to the cosmos. The afterlife is a fanciful notion of wishful thinking confined to fairy tales and religious hobbies, the supernatural is much the same, and order is a projection of the ego against the chaotic tarmac of random particle fluctuations and incomprehensible wave forms.
I’m exaggerating of course, but you certainly get the idea. The popular culture is a mixture of know-nothing scientism, techno-consumerist idolatry, and guilt-ridden self-shaming. The only resemblance a modern man has with a pagan from antiquity is the general shape of his body, so long as the obesity, knee problems, and diabetes can all be forgiven. Where a pagan looked at the night sky and at least saw a great story being played out, occupied by spirits and giants of folklore, the modern man can’t even see the night sky past the bright lights of his city condo, and even if he could, all he’d be looking at are little white dots that are about as interesting as the dust on top of his television cable box.
What I’m saying is that the approach the Catholic must take to combat modernism, particularly in efforts of evangelization, is fundamentally different than that taken to combat paganism. The pagans had their temples and their backwards religious customs, but at least they were recognized as such. Modernity has its universities and its Carl Sagans and its coffee shops, but the nature of the disordered religious practice of modernity is so dispersed that it has no one centralized altar, and no standardized liturgy. St. Boniface could cut down Donar’s Oak and bring thousands of druidic pagans into the Church, but the modern world has nothing of the sort that could make such a statement.
Let me be clear: I’m not advocating for wholesale, outward, radical evangelization by laymen here. The sort of conversion efforts exhibited by the likes of Mormon missionaries or Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t the best means of bringing people into the faith, and often serve more as a means to strengthen the missionary’s resolve than it does to actually win converts. There’s a reason you don’t see Catholics canvasing neighborhoods like some protestant sects do.
Evangelization is a tricky process. In general, converts aren’t won by open attempts to bring them into the fold. Steady, gradual processes, good examples, and a firmness of the faith often work much better in getting the wayward atheist or lapsed Catholic to reenter the sanctuary and sit before God in the pews. A great deal of this entails, of course, living the faith—and not merely in its outward vestments, such as upholding the moral tenants of God and going to Mass on every Sunday. It also entails a practice of active mental prayer and a continual, constant investment into one’s interior life.
We are called to defend the faith when it is necessary and possible, however, as stated in the Gospels and implied by the first three Commandments. For those Catholics willing to engage with the critics, even tempers and patience are of course necessary virtues, as these will aid in honing your minds in debate and keeping track of details when doing your own research.
The evangelist, regardless of his position in the Church, should keep in mind a couple of things when speaking with those outside of the Church. First, that everyone in the West is so inundated with modernism that the very word “salvation” holds little to no meaning anymore, as modernity has supplied the tools necessary to rationalize discomfort, pain, and suffering into being things intrinsic to the nature of Man rather than things attributed to the Fall and the distance we are from God. Second, that the notions of objective truth and objective reality, much less objective morality, are so attacked and confused in the popular world that most trapped within the modern framework will believe whatever it seems like the majority believe simply because there doesn’t seem to be any other option.
This makes arguing from logical points and pure reason to generally be a counterproductive exercise, as those who have poisoned the well of reasonable argument the worst are those fedora-tipping atheists who are the most incapable of identifying reasonable arguments. This also means that anyone who proclaims to have some idea of what the truth is—be it the truth in moral behavior, the truth in historical origins of Man, the truth in our final causes, etc.—will be met with arguments rooted in plurality and relativism, even though no serious person would ever argue from relativism as it’s openly self-contradictory on its very surface. But the average modern isn’t a serious person to begin with.
All of this means that Catholics have to establish the following when engaged in conversations like these:
- That design is a knowable, present, and obvious part of world (establish that there was a creator)
- That design implies purpose and intentionality (establish order is impossible without a creator)
- That the world, and Man, are not what they were intended to be (establish existence of fallen nature)
- That God is infinitely loving, and being infinitely loving, He most certainly would have made a way to redeem Man from his own fallen nature (establish need for Christ)
- That it is more reasonable to believe that Christ was exactly who He said He was than otherwise (establish historical validity of the Gospels)
- That the Church is the safeguard of His teachings and, likewise, exactly what He said it is (establish validity and universality of the Church)
Granted, that is a fair amount of stuff to sort out. And worse, it comes along with the added baggage of trying to cut through a pornographied culture, drug addictions, mental psychoses brought on by overwork or underwork, and worst of all, the complete loss of the knowledge of sin. It’s by no means a hopeless endeavor, but it’s certainly a difficult one.
So now we reach ecumenism. Unlike converting pagans or modern agnostics, the ecumenical approach requires connecting with people who already erroneously believe themselves to members of the Church, and who very often harbor deep resentment against the true Church while they support whatever heretical or schismatic faction that panders to their interests.
The Church is no stranger to combating heresies, given that it’s had to do so in nearly every decade of its existence. The writings of the Church Fathers in particular are rife with polemics against high-profile heretics. Some of the most well-known and oft-cited works of Sts. Ireneus of Antioch, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine—to name just a few—are works addressing specific heretics to in order to combat their wrongheaded ideologies. It wasn’t until the early medieval period that the Church found itself in a stable enough position to begin extensive efforts to crystallize what had been polemical works into a systematized doctrine of the faith.
But it’s painfully obvious that the problems of the Church in antiquity are distant memories of the institution at this point, and it’s also clear that outright denunciation of heretical sects is not going to mend the chasm between those who seek salvation and those who seek it but hold fast to the protesting cults.
What the liberals of the Church, and what those who espouse the Spirit of Vatican II, need to remember is that the Church is not a vessel of commerce that has to be marketed. Its product isn’t something that actually has competition in its marketplace. Its service has no equal. It is the singularly unique and supernatural institution of God’s love for us on Earth, created so that we may commune with him through sacramental grace while here in the world. But rather than recognize the Church for what it is, radical ecumenism and the liberal establishment prefer to treat the Church as a preferred option among many competing forms of religious belief. While there are certainly many different forms of religion, there is only one that was sanctioned, instituted, and founded by God Himself. You either believe this, and thus are Catholic, or you don’t.
It could very well be that other religions arrived at supernatural truths purely through the use of reason, as ecumenical proponents often claim, but they will always be lacking the full picture supplied by divine revelation. If truth of properly loving and obeying God were possible to arrive at purely through the use of reason, then the Church would never have been founded in the first place.
And yet, we have the words of Unitatis Redintegratio, from the Second Vatican Council:
“The term “ecumenical movement” indicates the initiatives and activities planned and undertaken, according to the various needs of the Church and as opportunities offer, to promote Christian unity. These are: first, every effort to avoid expressions, judgments and actions which do not represent the condition of our separated brethren with truth and fairness and so make mutual relations with them more difficult; then, “dialogue” between competent experts from different Churches and Communities. At these meetings, which are organized in a religious spirit, each explains the teaching of his Communion in greater depth and brings out clearly its distinctive features. In such dialogue, everyone gains a truer knowledge and more just appreciation of the teaching and religious life of both Communions. In addition, the way is prepared for cooperation between them in the duties for the common good of humanity which are demanded by every Christian conscience; and, wherever this is allowed, there is prayer in common. Finally, all are led to examine their own faithfulness to Christ’s will for the Church and accordingly to undertake with vigor the task of renewal and reform.
When such actions are undertaken prudently and patiently by the Catholic faithful, with the attentive guidance of their bishops, they promote justice and truth, concord and collaboration, as well as the spirit of brotherly love and unity. This is the way that, when the obstacles to perfect ecclesiastical communion have been gradually overcome, all Christians will at last, in a common celebration of the Eucharist, be gathered into the one and only Church in that unity which Christ bestowed on His Church from the beginning. We believe that this unity subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time.”
The document advocates for the drawing together of fractured Christendom by a common pursuit of unity, under the erroneous notion that all Christian churches strive for common unity with one another in the same sense that the Catholic clergymen of Vatican II did. Unitatis Redintegratio encourages dialogues with heretics and schismatics, avoiding judgmental expressions, and the belief that the study of false doctrines and improper liturgies will allow everyone involved—those in need of conversion and good Catholics alike—to “gain a truer knowledge and more just appreciation of the teaching and religious life of both Communions.” A Lutheran, who rejects the Real Presence, is capable of legitimate communion? A Baptist, who rejects the saints and defames the holiness of the Blessed Virgin is capable of legitimate communion? Is it not offensive to consider advocates of such radical heresies to be in communion with anything other than their own blasphemies?
What does the Church have to gain in learning about the heresies of those who reject it, other than more meaningful ways of deconstructing their erroneous philosophies? The Arian crisis was not resolved when St. Athanasius graciously and so-humbly submitted himself to their liturgies, communed with them in the spirit of unity, and subjected himself to their insane beliefs. The Albingensians and Cathars were not humbled before the presence of the Holy Spirit when the Church bent over backwards to appease them. Such tactics wouldn’t work in the past, so what reason does the clergy have in believing it would work today? We already know the answer to that.
The spirit of ecumenism, which at least on the surface seems to amount to the desire to save as many souls from the heresies of contrary faiths as possible, is obviously a noble one. The problem is that its distinct lack of teeth—the unwillingness of those who advocate ecumenism to recognize that the faiths they’re conversing with are actually in error—short-circuits attempts at general conversion. Certainly, some may be won over by so-called interfaith dialogues. All too many, however, will see instead a pathetic-looking institution compromising its own sense of righteousness in order to appeal to those who have positioned themselves outside of it.
What we should learn in our conversations isn’t how similar Catholicism is to other religions. These are things that are mostly self-evident from the beginning, if only because Catholicism is the only true religion and all religions, in order to be convincing to men with the capacity to reason, must resemble the truth to at least some extent. All religions and ideologies are divergent from the truth in order to be contrary to it; truth pre-exists fallacy for the same reason that order pre-exists chaos and good pre-exists evil. Evil, chaos, and fallacy are rebellions against what is actually real, and as is the nature of rebellions, they must begin with what they have in order to revolt against it.
What we should instead learn from our conversations is how Catholicism is that very truth. We should learn the various ways that other religions are wrong, and the same should be said for those who practice them. Too often, a man does not recognize the extent of his errors until he is taught them either by practical lesson or rational observation. Dialogues do little to reveal error.
Extra ecclesiam nulla salus. Outside of the Church there is no salvation. So wrote Saint Cyprian almost two millennia ago, and no matter how liberal your interpretation of the words, there is no getting around the core issue: the Church is necessary to the salvation of souls. Not any random church. Not any religious institution. Not any personal prayer service, or primitive ritual, or animal sacrifice. The one true apostolic and Holy Catholic Church.
Our Lord did not incarnate to write a book or to tell people to get along or to preach some convoluted heuristic of mysticism. He incarnated to save us. That entailed founding an institution that would endure through the ages. He promised us this much. He left specific people in charge of proliferating His teachings and administering His graces, and instituted a practice that established an unbroken line of such people that has descended all the way into the present age.
Modernity tells us all religions are comparable and it relegates religious teachings to the realm of hobbies and interests, rather than defining characteristics of a person’s life. What Catholics must reaffirm is that modernity is wrong. All religions are not comparable. Truth exists. The Church is the best way toward Christ.