Softly, softlyGerald O’Collins
- 15 December 2007
A teaching document published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith yesterday provides a seasonal wake-up call to evangelise. But it maintains a more conciliatory tone than its ‘One True Church' document issued last July that upset leaders of other Churches
Evoking our final vision of God, Dante's Divine Comedy celebrates the divine love "displayed through the universe" (33:87). This verse is cited by a "Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelisation" (n. 11), just published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). The quotation from Dante finds its place within the theme of divine and human love that runs through the document.
While honouring the non-negotiable claims of truth (how could the CDF do otherwise?), this doctrinal note highlights the centrality of love. It calls "the love of Christ for the eternal salvation of all" the "primary motive of evangelisation" (n. 8). The note quotes the Second Vatican Council's "Constitution on the Church in the Modern World" and declares: "Love impels the followers of Christ to proclaim to all the truth which saves" (n. 10). The document brings love into its conclusion: "The love which comes from God unites us to him ... and makes us one, until in the end God is ‘all in all'" (n. 13).
In calling Catholics to commit themselves generously to spreading the Good News, the CDF puts Christ right at the centre: "The Lord Jesus Christ, who is present in his Church, goes ahead of the work of evangelisers, accompanies it, follows it, and makes their labours bear fruit" (n. 1).
The note describes in similar terms what evangelising entails: "It does not mean simply to teach a doctrine, but to proclaim Jesus Christ by one's words and actions: that is, to make oneself an instrument of his presence and activity in the world" (n. 2). His Christ-centred holiness made St Francis of Assisi one of the most popular saints of all times. He is remembered as saying to his followers: "Preach the Gospel and sometimes use words." The CDF follows suit: "The witness of holiness is necessary, if the light of truth is to reach all human beings" (n. 11).
Happily the CDF does not let the presence and activity of the risen Christ involve playing down the inseparable role of the Holy Spirit. The note recognises how, in anyone's "search for the good and the true, the Holy Spirit is already at work, opening the human heart and making it ready to welcome the truth of the Gospel" (n. 4). The CDF quotes a phrase which Thomas Aquinas used 18 times: "Every truth, no matter who says it, comes from the Holy Spirit."
When speaking to the Roman Curia on 22 December 1986, John Paul II applied this dictum to prayer: "Every authentic prayer is called forth by the Holy Spirit who is mysteriously present in the heart of every person." The late Pope was pointedly defending what he had done the previous October in going to Assisi with leaders and representatives of world religions to pray for global peace. Four years later, in his 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio ("the Mission of the Redeemer"), John Paul II described the Holy Spirit as operating "at the very source" of everyone's "religious questioning" (n. 28).
The CDF could have cited such teaching to support what it says about the role of the Holy Spirit in any human being's "search for the good and the true". In the lives of all men and women, the Spirit is "already at work", before any evangelisation takes place. The Spirit, like Christ, "goes ahead" of the evangelisers.
The central concern of the doctrinal note is, however, with evangelisation itself. In a paragraph on cultures and the task of embedding in them the Good News, the CDF's note develops the theme of the Holy Spirit as "the principal agent of the inculturation of the Gospel" (n. 6). It then declares that "the Christian mission resides in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the truth itself which is proclaimed" (n. 12). The note ends by drawing together Christ and the Spirit and confidently stating: "The Church's commitment to evangelisation can never be lacking, since ... the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit will never be absent from her" (n. 13).
Two further features enhance this doctrinal note: the themes of sharing and fullness. First, the note recalls the desire to "have others share in one's own goods". Christians naturally want to share with others the "tremendous benefit" they have received in knowing "the true face of God and the friendship of Jesus Christ, God-with-us".
They wish "everyone to share in these goods, so that they may possess the fullness of truth and the fullness of the means of salvation" (n. 7). Hence the CDF's note declares: "The sole desire of authentic evangelisers is to bestow freely what they themselves have freely received" (n. 8).
Secondly, this theme of sharing the benefits of Christian faith is repeatedly specified as a sharing in fullness. Those who have not yet heard and accepted the Gospel already enjoy some grasp of truth and some means of salvation. What they have not yet received is "the fullness of the gift of truth" and the "fullness of [the means of] salvation" (n. 10).
That "fullness of the means of salvation" comes through a "full communion" with the Catholic Church (n. 12). The CDF does much better than it did in the "One True Church" document of last July, which failed to use the terms "full" and "fully", and spoke of the Church of God continuing to exist "only in the Catholic Church alone". That statement disturbed Cardinal Karl Lehmann, the president of the German bishops' conference, and Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (The Tablet, 1 December).
One can understand their disquiet not only from an ecumenical but also from a doctrinal point of view. If the July document had said, "it is only in the Catholic Church that the Church of God continues to exist fully", it would at least have been compatible with Vatican II's teaching about all the elements of truth, goodness and holiness with which other Christians and other believers have been gifted. It is pleasing to find the CDF now employing repeatedly the essential qualification of "fullness" when it presents the truth and means of salvation available in the Catholic Church.
Finally, the CDF's doctrinal note (n. 7) quotes from Pope Benedict XVI's homily in the Mass inaugurating his pontificate: "There is nothing more beautiful than to know him [Christ] and to speak to others of our friendship with him." Regrettably the CDF did not include "beautiful" when it wrote of the human "capacity to know and to love what is good and true" (n. 4). The text would have been more in line with the Pope if it had mentioned the human capacity to know and to love what is good, true and beautiful. Beauty can be a key factor in evangelisation.
Despite any quibbles, the CDF's note clarifies and encourages the essential Christian call to evangelise - a valuable wake-up call at Christmas and the New Year.