The Pope's visit to Brazil last week generated a lot of attention to the success of Protestant evangelistic efforts there. Pete Acosi raised an important point last week in his comments on the “God is a God of the Present” post below:
"I think we can take two courses of action when we see God clearly working among our Protestant brothers and sisters - we can 1) react or 2) humbly learn (as JPII encourages us in Ut Unum Sint) and grow. Though it puts us in a position of "weakness" - I think that is a good thing. Listen to the words of Cardinal Avery Dulles:
“The Church therefore has one inescapable task: To lift up Christ. When she seeks to lift herself up she becomes weak, but when she acknowledges her own weakness and proclaims her Lord, she is strong.”
Or we can imitate St. Paul - who tells the Church in Philippi that some are preaching Christ for this reason or that ... and he goes on to say, "What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in that I rejoice!" (1:18)
In many ways Christ is being partially or fully proclaimed in many churches for many different sincere, insincere, or ignorant reasons ... but like St. Paul, I think we can learn to first rejoice as long as Christ is proclaimed... and then move from there... because, if our reaction isn't one of first rejoicing in the proclamation of Christ and him crucified - then we may need to allow God to purify our hearts..."
I think that there are a couple important issues here that are often conflated:
1) What is to be our response to non-Catholics who are effectively preaching Christ as they understand him?
2) How should we, as Catholics, preach Christ?
Issue number one: Our response to the evangelistic efforts of non-Catholics:
I think Pete is absolutely right. We should first be rejoicing that Christ is proclaimed, even if partially. (As will be outlined below, I don’t think this need be our only response.) Evangelicals are seeking to fulfill the “great commission” in Matthew 28 with great sacrifice and creativity and prayer and it makes no sense for us to grumble because they have been exceptionally faithful in this area in recent years and we have not.
(This wasn’t always the case. It was Catholics who were the great, creative, unstoppable missionaries of the 16th and 17th centuries when Protestantism was pre-occupied with other things. It was the great preachers of the 18th century – the Wesleys and Whitefields and the experience of the great awakening that began to change that. The evangelical missionary movement really didn’t get going until the 19th century and exploded in the late 20th century, just when Catholic commitment to the mission ad gentes imploded.)
Issue number two: How should we, as Catholics, preach Christ?
This is our real problem: We simply aren’t effectively proclaiming Christ to this generation. And so the evangelistically oriented among us naturally turn to those we regard as “experts” – evangelical-Pentecostal Christians.
I’ve spent time with Catholic leaders who were so frustrated with Catholic apathy and cluelessness in this area that they had come to these conclusions: 1) Catholics don’t evangelize; 2) the sacraments are only relevant to on-going, not initial conversion, therefore, 3) Catholicism has nothing to say about initial conversion and
4) therefore, we must think outside the “Catholic box” by following the methodology of our evangelical brothers and sisters.
We’ve got a problem when Catholics use evangelical evangelistic resources, approaches or programs, without vetting and amending them to reflect the fullness of Catholic teaching. That’s because evangelistic resources teach as well as evangelize.
Such resources explicitly teach the classical Reformation view of salvation – one’s personal faith alone is both the pre-requisite and the instrument through which one becomes a Christian, receives forgiveness for all sins, justification, adoption as God’s child, and eternal life.
We can’t expect them to teach the Catholic understanding that : “. . .the "good news" is directed to stirring a person to a conversion of heart and life and a clinging to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; to disposing a person to receive Baptism and the Eucharist and to strengthen a person in the prospect and realization of new life according to the Spirit “ (Catechesis in Our Time, 6).
When we use evangelical materials, the sacraments are presented, at best, as symbols of the real salvific event which has already happened in the privacy of one’s heart. Once you have absorbed the idea that work of salvation happens entirely through the disembodied, invisible, and interior means of one’s personal faith, the proposal that the grace of God is truly made available to us through the visible, physical, public means of the Church and the sacraments makes no sense at all.
If Catholics rely entirely upon evangelical materials, they may be making one of the most important parts of our faith not only obscure but practically unimaginable. At a point of tremendous spiritual openness – perhaps the first in someone’s life - we would not be taking the trouble to tell them the whole truth.
Catholics should be preaching both-and: personal faith in Christ and repentence in the context of the sacraments and the Church. Of course, if the folks doing the lion’s share of proclamation don’t possess the fullness of the faith, we really can’t expect them to proclaim it.
As Billy Graham famously quipped “I prefer the evangelism that I’m doing to the evangelism that you’re not doing.”
The man has a point. It’s our job and, for the most part, we haven’t shown up for work.