The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s latest edict, Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelisation has teeth. But you wouldn’t know that from reading Martin Teulan’s “summary” featured on Cathnews this morning.
Martin is the National Director Catholic Mission, a chap whom you would expect to know a thing or two about evangelisation. But one wonders if he actually gets what the Doctrinal Note was all about. He softens the whole statement to such a point that he seems to conclude “business as usual then”.
At one point he completely denies what the problem that the CDF is attempting to address, saying:
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.
More seriously he completely subverts what the document says by posing the question about evangelisation in the following manner:
Understanding that salvation is possible through other faiths and through other churches does not prevent us from taking up evangelisation. …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? …
It seems that Teulan has completely failed to read this latest Doctrinal Note in conjunction with its two older sisters, “Dominus Iesus” and “Responses on the doctrine of the Church”. Both these documents make it abundantly clear that one CANNOT be saved “through other faiths” OR “through other churches”.
Here we have to speak very slowly for fear of being misheard yet again. Vatican II stressed (and the Doctrinal Note quotes it on this) that “non-Christians can be saved through the grace which God bestows in “ways known to him”“. The Council never said that other religions are valid pathways to salvation. To put it clearly, when non-Christians are saved, they are saved through God’s Grace in Christ, NOT through their particular religion.
Something similar–but essentially different–could be said of other Christian communities. The Responses earlier this year made it clear that indeed the other Christian communities can be instruments of salvation, but precisely to the degree that the elements of the one Church of Christ (ie. the Catholic Church) are found in them. Thus, the sacraments, prayer, Scriptures etc., which are found in these groups (which cannot properly be called “Churches” in the sense that the Catholic Church understands the term) belong by their nature to the Catholic Church. Thus it is through sharing by faith in Christ in the patrimony of the Catholic Church that Christians in these communities are saved.
Evangelisation–whether of non-Christians, other Christians, or indeed of Catholics themselves (which is always necessary)–is always a matter of offering the fullness of the gift that we have been given in Christ to others who, like us, are in need of that saving gift.
There is a great deal about dialogue in the Doctrinal Note, as Teulan rightly notes. But he stops short of what the Note actually says about “proposing not imposing”. We not only want to “share” our faith in case anyone might be interested to learn more about it, we really and truly desire their conversion to the Catholic faith. The Doctrinal Note rejects the idea that in evangelisation:
it would only be legitmate to present one’s own ideas and to invite people to act according to their consciences without aiming at their conversion to Christ and the Catholic faith.
In this respect, Teulen makes the common mistake of thinking that evangelisation is simply offering “the truth about Christ” to others. In fact the task is much greater. Evangelisation is not offering a “truth about Christ”, it is not simply a “message”, it is, rather it is a perfomative act, as Pope Benedict makes clear in Spe Salvi:
In our language we would say: the Christian message was not only “informative” but “performative”. That means: the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known—it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing.
The Doctrinal note itself says much the same thing:
To evangelise does not mean simply to teach a doctrine, but to proclaim Jesus Christ by one’s word and actions… (par.2)
Likewise, Teulan gets the wrong emphasis when he says that:
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.
In fact, it is precisely this old and oft repeated idea that the Doctrinal Note wants to correct. It is true that “word and witness of life go together” (par. 11), but the essential form of evangelisation and the most effective will always be the witness of the Word. It is the witness of the Word that gives the reason for the witness of life. Without a witness of life, the witness of the Word’s “acceptance will be difficult” (par. 11), but
even the finest witness [of life] will prove ineffective in the long run, if it is not explained, justified…and made explicit by a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the Lord Jesus. (Pope Paul VI, cited. par 11)
Finally, over the last forty years or so, given that many have thought evangelism unneccesary (since it was thought that faith in Christ was uneccesary to salvation) there has always been the fallback position of “We do it because Christ told us too.” Cathnews’ headline for Teulan’s item (“Christ told us to evangelise”) repeats this idea. Teulan himself fails to do justice to the full reason for evangelisation which the Note put forward. What is novel about the Note is that it argues that others have a right to the truth of the Gospel, and that we therefore have a corresponding duty to evangelise arising out of this human right. That is the real novelty of the new document. It is an abuse of human rights–an INJUSTICE–to remain silent about the great gift that we have been given in Jesus Christ!
(* I have no idea what his source is for the O’Collins reference–if you can help me I would be very interested.)