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Beyond Dissent


Supreme Chaplain Archbishop William E. Lori

The mission of evangelization remains essential to the Church’s identity today

Archbishop William E. Lori

FIFTY YEARS AGO, Blessed Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae. In this prophetic encyclical, the Holy Father taught that artificial birth control is not permitted because it breaks the bond between two inseparable and God-given aspects of marital love: its capacity to express the exclusive and total love of husband and wife for each other and its capacity to beget new life. The document unleashed a firestorm of criticism for maintaining a teaching allegedly made obsolete by the advent of “the pill.” The pope’s warnings that the pervasive practice of contraception would open the door to promiscuity, abortion and the breakdown of the family went unheeded. Only a small percentage accepted this teaching, and many still dissent.

In 1975, Paul VI issued another landmark document, Evangelii Nuntiandi (On Evangelization in the Modern World). In it, he tapped into the deepest root of the Second Vatican Council, which his predecessor, St. John XXIII, had convoked to proclaim Christ anew “as the center of history and of life.”

Drawing together the teaching of the council, Paul VI described evangelization as the Church’s core identity and mission. In short, the Church “exists in order to evangelize” (14). This mission is directed both toward people who have not yet heard the Good News and those who no longer practice their faith. Pope Paul called on all members of the Church, not just clergy and religious, to open their hearts more widely to the Lord and to actively share the faith with the searching and the straying alike.

At the heart of the Second Vatican Council and the pontificates that have followed is the call to proclaim Christ in our time, so that people may open their hearts to the Lord and find salvation from their sins and the path to holiness in his Church.

FROM VATICAN II UNTIL TODAY Following his predecessors, St. John Paul II called for a “new evangelization” — not new in content, for “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8) — but new “in its ardor, methods, and expression.” He reaffirmed the Church’s mission to proclaim the Gospel, stressing the obligation of the Church to evangelize those whose faith had grown dim and to reevangelize nations where the faith is fading. St. John Paul II said no one is exempt from the duty of proclaiming the Gospel, and laypeople are the prime agents of the new evangelization.

Pope Benedict XVI likewise promoted the new evangelization. He called for “re-proposing” the Gospel in places where many no longer practice the faith and where new forms of secularism have taken hold. Pope Benedict, like those before him, emphasized that evangelization entails an opening of the heart. It involves becoming agents of the Holy Spirit, helping people have a profound experience of Jesus and his love — a love that opens them to the Word of God, the sacraments, virtuous living and ultimately their vocation to holiness.

Evangelization is also clearly central to the pontificate of Pope Francis, who penned Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). He speaks of the urgency of this mission and calls each one of us and our parishes and church institutions to “missionary conversion” (30). He challenges bishops and priests to take the lead in creating dioceses and parishes that are on fire with the mission of spreading the Gospel. He challenges religious women and men “to wake up the world” by their witness to the kingdom of God. And he challenges laypeople to engage robustly in this mission in their families and daily work.


What has been the response of the Church to this call for a new evangelization? One survey published in 2005 asked various Christian congregations whether spreading the faith is a high priority. In conservative Protestant congregations, some 75 percent answered in the affirmative; 57 percent of African- American congregations agreed. Among U.S. Catholic parishes, only 6 percent did — not exactly an enthusiastic embrace of the central thrust of the Second Vatican Council or the teaching of recent popes. Their warnings go unheeded as the number of practicing Catholics declines. This constitutes a kind of “soft” dissent, not so much from a specific teaching but rather from the Lord’s missionary mandate and from the Church’s very identity and mission. Relatively few Catholics reject outright the call to spread the Gospel; it’s more that they decline to participate, often because they themselves have not been evangelized and adequately catechized.

This month, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles. Their hearts and minds were opened so that they truly grasped who Jesus is, what he taught and what he did to save us. And they received the wisdom, strength and courage to go forth and spread the Gospel as the Lord had commanded. Their wholehearted witness to Jesus and their courageous preaching brought extraordinary results.

Let us unite in praying earnestly for a new Pentecost in our day. And the Knights of Columbus, as the world’s largest Catholic lay organization, can and should lead the way in bearing witness to and spreading the Gospel. In the power of the Spirit, let us open our hearts to Jesus, fully live his Gospel — including those teachings that are countercultural — and speak of him in love to others, so as to win them for Christ and his Church.