In our attempts as Catholics to convince the wider world of the reasonableness and truth of Christian belief, we are often accused of being more adamant about what we are against than what we are for. The dustup over Pope Francis’ recent interview1 illustrates clearly how this is the case. Amidst the rush to come to grips with what Pope Francis was actually saying the headlines lit up, with many commentators giving the impression that 2,000 years of Christian moral teaching was about to be tossed out the window. Yes, the Church had finally woken up – it took a while, but we were finally going to have to admit that we’d gotten it wrong all this time, and that the voices of reason from outside and even inside the Church that had been telling us fundamentalist Catholics in the fold to lighten up had finally been given a voice through this remarkable new Pope.
A lengthy discussion as to why the Pope’s remarks in this interview were vastly over-stated and embarrassingly manipulated will undoubtedly be taken up by many Catholic commentators over the next few weeks, months, and possibly longer – so any lengthy commentary on the matter isn’t necessary here. My aim instead is to unite what I perceive the Holy Father to be saying with our mission as Catholics to evangelize. As such, I’d like to offer some thoughts on what I perceive to be the way forward in our efforts at evangelization; namely, a re-appreciation and reutilization of the Church’s teaching on Christian Anthropology.
What I think many of us Catholics need to realize is that an overuse of catch-phrases like ‘the human person,’ ‘humanity,’ ‘freedom and justice’ etc., have made these phrases stale and divorced them of their original context as rooted in the tradition of the Church’s moral theology and natural theology as a whole. We’ve become inebriated in a secular environment and are often unable to wed our professed faith with concepts such as ‘humanity’, or ‘justice’ or ‘freedom’ because those terms have been hijacked by the broader culture and have become either completely vague or have instead been used to advance ideas that are often antithetical to our professed faith. As a result, we tend to think of these terms in the context of how the broader culture chooses to define them instead of thinking of them in the terms as defined by the light of Scripture, the Church’s teaching and Natural Law.
Many of us have a tendency, along with the culture, to misunderstand the true meanings behind these concepts and to easily be led off-track with the culture when their application to real situations causes a conflict with professed faith. For example, the ‘right’ to abortion, or for same-sex couples to marry, is a matter of ‘justice,’ the ‘freedom’ of others is inhibited when people of faith attempt to insert their religious values into the discussion; ‘humanity’ has moved beyond opposition to both abortion and gay marriage, and so on. When concepts become divorced from any objective meaning rooted in a reality outside of ourselves then an inevitable manipulation of definitions is sure to arise, and this is true not only for the non-believer but for the believer as well. This is devastating to efforts at evangelization because the average Catholic feels that to stand up for controversial beliefs must somehow entail standing against noble concepts that both the believer and non-believer seek to embrace.
The remedy is to rediscover the true meaning of noble concepts such as humanity, justice and freedom, and to rediscover how those concepts relate to who we are as human beings created in the image of Trinitarian love. All that applies to us as human beings – our common family united in ‘humanity’, our obligations towards each other in the form of ‘justice’, and our rights and self-determination as expressed in our ‘freedom’, have their source in a God who loves that creation, and whose moral boundaries are not in competition with that creation. By rediscovering an emphasis on the beauty of God’s creation of man, and of the redemption of that humanity in Christ, believers need to make the effort to illustrate that the demands of faith are not in opposition to our humanity and freedom but are rather intrinsic to it. Too many outside the Church and inside the Church see the demand to assent to Christian beliefs and morals as something that is an obstacle to freedom and happiness; something that makes people rigid and cold towards others and results in a joyless and merciless existence for everyone involved. Until that misunderstanding is addressed by those of us who are seeking to evangelize, the Church will likely continue to wane in relevance and the broader culture that is hostile to the faith will continue to effectively control the discussion.
This is part of what I believe Pope Francis to be hinting at. The Church and her teachings are not going to change, but her effort to present them in a way that speaks to the needs of the human heart needs to be revisited. This can be done by showing how our human needs are met only in God and how our freedom and happiness are not inhibited by the moral demands of revealed faith but are, rather, dependent upon obedience to those moral demands. Rather than speaking of a ‘new focus’, we need instead to present the Church’s teaching on the relationship between faith and happiness it in a better way. In further posts, I’d like to show where to begin this discussion – by rediscovering who we are in God and how we are structured for happiness as beings created in His image.