What happens when proclaiming the gospel is considered offensive? How do Catholics evangelize in a PC culture?
The teachings of Catholicism have always been offensive to some ears. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23). In any society, parts of the gospel message do not march in lockstep with the spirit of the age.
What are some of those teachings that are particularly offensive today? Consider these scenarios:
- Telling a Jewish friend that Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation for all people.
- Explaining to a campus director of “Diversity Affairs” that the Catholic Church is unique and divinely founded.
- Noting to a Catholic high school religion class that Islam is a false revelation.
- Talking to your extended family about marriage as a monogamous, lifelong relationship between one man and one woman.
- Discussing with your coworker that homosexual acts are sinful as well as destructive to the human person.
- Telling your adoption social worker that you believe a person is born either male or female and he or she cannot change that reality.
None of these statements should be controversial or even debatable to those who know and embrace Catholic teaching, but of course, each of them is politically incorrect and almost universally shouted down today. Boldly proclaiming any of these truths could get you fired from your job, shunned in your community, and ostracized online and in real life. Yet each truth is important to proclaim, and denying any of these truths keeps people from embracing the fullness of the gospel message of Jesus Christ.
Of course, among some Christians political correctness is often presented as part of the gospel message: being “charitable,” “welcoming,” or “inclusive.” Catholics who do this in the context of homosexuality, for instance, often cite one passage of the Catechism:
[Men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies] must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided (2358).
However, they usually ignore the passage right before that one:
Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity,tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved (2357).
Here is one example in which the cost of ignoring hard gospel teachings in order not to give offense can be high. Souls can be lost when, due to our silence for fear of being ostracized for unpopular views, people feel sanctioned to choose sinful and destructive lifestyles.
All of PC culture is designed to silence the full proclamation of the gospel. It pushes away the hard truths in favor of more palatable preaching. Yet Jesus embraced these hard truths and their proclamation, as can be seen in his encounter with the Pharisees on the issue of divorce:
Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away.” But Jesus said to them, “For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one.’ So they are no longer two but one.What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”
And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her;and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:2-12).
The disputes between the Pharisees and Jesus were public affairs—the Pharisees wanted to publicly discredit him in front of many witnesses. It’s likely that at least some of those in the crowd were divorced, as the practice was allowed under the Jewish law of the time. In spite of this fact, Jesus did not hesitate to proclaim an “offensive” truth, because it needed to be heard.
The purpose of evangelization is to bring people to conversion—to encourage them to change their lives and conform to the life of Christ. And since conversion requires change, and change requires the recognition and rejection of old errors and sins, true evangelization always risks giving offense.
Practically speaking, what does this mean for successful evangelization?
First, let’s get one thing straight: being “politically incorrect” does not give us license to be a jerk. Christian charity still demands that we treat all people with dignity and respect. The successful evangelizer is the gentle and loving one. Insulting another person in the name of truth-telling isn’t evangelization; in fact, it’s anti-evangelization.
But being charitable doesn’t mean accepting a lie as truth, for leading people to truth is the greatest charity we can perform. As our Lord told us, “the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). So there will be times we must say things that others consider offensive.
There’s a test you can give yourself when you’re hesitant to state some “offensive” teaching of Catholicism: ask yourself, “Why am I hesitating?” Is it because you aren’t sure it’s the right time or place to proclaim that teaching, and you think you will find a better opportunity? Or is it because you might be labeled a bigot? Or because you yourself are embarrassed by that particular teaching? If it is the former, then perhaps you should refrain from making the comment. But if it’s the latter kind of reason, remember that Christ himself often said things considered offensive to his listeners; in fact, becoming uncomfortable might be the first step in a person’s conversion.
Evangelization, like charity, is always focused on the other. But is the reason you refrain from stating certain hard truths wrapped up in what people might think of you? We can easily justify our silence by believing someone will be turned away if we are too blunt. However, at least in my own experience, I’ve found that to be an excuse I use to rationalize the sin of human respect.
In my book The Old Evangelization: How to Spread the Faith Like Jesus Did, I give three questions we can ask ourselves to determine if we are successful in evangelization. They include:
- Did I accurately represent the teachings of Christ and his Church?
- Was I charitable in all I said and did?
- Did I invite the person to draw closer to Christ?
Note that these three questions do not include, “Was it offensive?” or even, “Did the person accept what I said?” Ultimately, we cannot control the reaction of the person we are evangelizing; all we can control is how we proclaim the gospel—including the offensive parts—to them.
Catholics can’t help being offensive; due to original sin, the proclamation of the truth will always offend some people. Living in a culture where “offense” is the greatest, well, offense, presents challenges to evangelization. The Catholic Faith will always be a stumbling block and folly to many who hear it, but we can’t let the culture prevent us from proclaiming it all the same.