Fallen human nature ensures that evangelization will always be difficult. “Quarry the granite rock with razors,” John Henry Newman wrote, “or moor the vessel with a thread of silk, then you may hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and pride of man” (The Idea of a University).
Given today’s conditions, the challenge Newman described is especially great. The Christian West has tasted the fruit of worldly success for longer than most of us can remember, and good times engender pride and debauchery.
We may not have reached the point of spiritual demoralization to which Christ referred when he asked, “When the Son of Man comes [to judge mankind], will he find . . . faith on the earth?” (Luke 8:18). But we seem to be well on the way, judging from the prevalence of several debilitating myths.
Myth #1: There is no absolute truth.
The day before he was elected pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told a papal conclave in Rome, “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires” (Homily, April 18, 2005). This aberration is called situation ethics, the notion that moral standards change with changing times and circumstances. As Hamlet says, “There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so” (Act 2, Scene 2).
Logically, relativism is self-contradictory, because its claim that there are no absolutes is itself an absolute. It also runs counter to Scripture. God tells us, “I the Lord do not change” (Mal. 3:6); Isaiah assures us “the word of our God will stand forever”(Isa. 40:8); and the testimony of the psalmist is equally clear: “All thy commandments are true . . . thou hast founded them for ever”(Ps. 119:151-152).
In the New Testament, Jesus teaches, “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35); also that “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law [i.e., the Ten Commandments] until all is accomplished. . . . My words [i.e., teachings] will not pass away” (Matt. 5:18, 24:35). Paul, echoing the Master, says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Heb. 13:8), and “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).
Yes, there are rules in both the Old and New Testaments that no longer apply: abstinence from pork, for example, and Paul’s insistence on head coverings for women in church. But these are non-essentials having little to do with the Ten Commandments or the moral law of the prophets. The question is how to distinguish scriptural prescriptions that are essential from those that aren’t.
And the answer is found in the sixteenth chapter of Matthew: Christ established a Church to act as a guide in these matters, and Peter (i.e., the pope), under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, speaks for the Church (see Matt. 16:18-19).
For those who are unmoved by logic, impervious to the dictates of common sense, or unimpressed with Scripture, there is history. Human nature has never changed, and there are moral principles that have been universally accepted: “Thou shalt not murder,” “Thou shalt not steal,” “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”
In 1928, anthropologist Margaret Mead published the book Coming of Age in Samoa in which she depicted the natives as sexually uninhibited and guilt-free. Her thesis: morals, being a function of culture, will vary, depending on time and place. Mead’s book became a bestseller, read by generations of college students, and she was invited to teach at Columbia University.
Only later was it learned that she knew little about the language of Samoans and next to nothing about their way of life. While on the island, she had stayed with an expatriate American family, and the natives she interviewed gave her the answers she seemed to want. In point of fact, the morality of the Samoan people at that time was remarkably similar to that of Americans: strongly in favor of virginity before marriage and chastity thereafter.
Myth #2: Your religion doesn’t matter.
Around the time Americans were embracing Mead as an anthropological guru, the U.S. entered its first phase of religious indifferentism. A slender volume titled Mere Christianity by Oxford don C.S. Lewis made a strong case for belief in Christ. It was a tour de force of apologetics, and it makes great reading even today. But it lulled millions, including many Catholics, into making light of sectarian differences. Suddenly, it was fashionable to be more interested in someone else’s religion than in one’s own. Words such as heresy and apostasy vanished from the popular lexicon.
G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), next to Newman perhaps the best-known English convert to Catholicism, called false ecumenism “the virtue of the man without character.” “We haven’t lost our pride as humans,” he observed, “but we are proud of the wrong things, such as modesty in matters of religion. . . . Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition [and]. . . settled upon the organ of conviction, where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed” (Orthodoxy). Long after Chesterton, John Paul II condemned religious indifferentism in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio (1990).
The demon, however, is still alive. Although knee-jerk acceptance of apostasy has no basis in Scripture, it often happens that when children leave the Church, parents fall silent in the interest of family harmony. Perhaps their progeny seem happier, even holier, as non-Catholics than they did growing up, and, as the argument goes, “If it works, why buck it?”
There is an element of truth in this. If our offspring, after an earnest search for the truth, are driven by conscience to embrace another religion, that may be exactly where they belong, at least for the time being. We know that all who seek the truth with a sincere heart will be saved.
But this should not be the end of it. Like Monica, who refused to let Augustine, her erring son, go in peace, we should pray for the return of our loved ones, knowing that Jesus wants everyone, without exception, to come to the truth (see 1 Tim. 2:4). Prudence may dictate what subjects we discuss over Thanksgiving dinner, but there are many ways of voicing concern. For example, we can hand our children tracts, along with books and CDs.
Apostates may seem happy, but appearances can be deceptive. Again and again, we read about serial killers who were regarded as genial and well adjusted before they killed. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that apostates are happy. They could be even happier, as well as healthier and more productive, as reverts. To argue otherwise is to embrace relativism.
Early Christian leaders were unanimous when it came to the urgency of belief in Jesus and the Church he founded. Paul’s message to those who refused his invitation to convert could not have been more emphatic: “Your blood be upon your heads!”(Acts 18:6). Luke states that those who were on the road to salvation were also on the road to Christian affiliation (see Acts 13:48)—a telling assumption.
As for Peter, he told his listeners, including many who may have been happy as Jews, that if they wanted to save themselves from a perverse generation, they must be baptized (see Acts 2:37-40). Later, standing before the high court of the Jews with his life on the line, the first pope warned an irate audience that there is no salvation through anyone but Jesus (see Acts 4:12).
There is an answer for indifferentists who point to the existence of an estimated 30,000 Christian denominations, all claiming the guidance of the Holy Spirit and all differing in what they teach. Tell them to imagine two scenarios:
- They are back in school. An essay question on an exam elicits fifty different answers from fifty different students, and the teacher grading the exam finds that all of the answers save one are poor to mediocre. The one that gets an “A” is the Catholic answer!
- They are at a racetrack. Well-informed spectators place bets on different horses, but only one horse wins—the Catholic horse!
Disagreement among the many, even many who are wise and well informed, does not preclude the existence of absolute truth. The consistency of Catholic teaching on faith and morals for 2,000 years, along with its resistance to the forces of division that were anathema to Paul, is nothing short of miraculous.
Myth #3: Religion is a private matter.
The airing of religious views at social events usually raises eyebrows. But the current notion that faith is a private matter goes a step further. It is a spin-off from the idea that there are no moral absolutes. Sex, which should be private, is everywhere on display, while religion, which is nothing if not societal by nature, is kept under wraps.
How preposterous! Remove the missionary element from Christianity, and it is gutless. Just as there can be no salvation for those who don’t seek it, neither can there be salvation for those who don’t seek to share it. We spread the good news because Our Lord commanded us to, but also because faith is a perishable commodity—as with happiness, it will not keep unless it is shared. As Scott Hahn says, “When we evangelize others, we evangelize ourselves” (Evangelizing Catholics, 38).
Myth #4: One mustn’t argue.
Closely related to the myth that religion is a private matter is the notion that one shouldn’t argue—“Live and let live,” as the saying goes. In his bestselling book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie held that the best way to win an argument is not to have one—“Win an argument, lose a friend,” he maintained.
Carnegie had a point. But when something as vital as religion comes up in casual conversation, people should not only be permitted to speak their minds, it should be expected, provided that they do it in a friendly, non-confrontational way. Candor need not lead to acrimony!
An intellectual tug of war can be invigorating. We may have to listen to some blather and settle for not making all of our points, but folks need to know that we are willing to go the distance. Avoidance of confrontation eliminates the element of risk. But it may also convey the impression that we are on shaky ground intellectually and that there’s no such thing as objective truth, only “your truth and mine.”
Jesus was nothing if not direct when he told the Samaritan woman at the well that her people had lost their way religiously (see John 4:21-24). He let the Sadducees know that they were “quite wrong” (Mark 12:27), and by the time he went to the cross, he had argued all of his adversaries into silence (see Mark 12:34; Matt. 22:34, 46).
Granted, we’re not Jesus. But we are supposed to walk as he walked (see 1 John 2:6). Peter converted 3,000 by means of argumentation; Stephen “disputed” with naysayers (see Acts 6:9-10); and Paul, who harangued every Jew willing to listen and debated in every synagogue willing to grant him admittance, told a hostile audience that they were “unworthy of eternal life” (Acts 13:46).
Every day, Protestants who are well versed in the Bible make converts by means of argumentation. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons do the same. Why should we Catholics hold our tongues?
Myth #5: One mustn’t ‘impose’ one’s ideas.
Evangelization imposes nothing on anyone. It merely offers ideas, much the way Ford Motor Company offers cars. In the marketplace of ideas, the customer is free to choose. Ask your skeptical friends what happens when Congress passes a bill or when lobbyists use their influence. What happens when a president issues an executive order? There would be no political parties if folks forswore democratic methods of persuasion.
Voting is nothing if not an attempt to realize one’s vision of a just society; the struggle for political and commercial dominance is an integral part of American life, and truth-bearers should not opt out.
Pope Paul VI, in his 1975 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, put it succinctly:
Is it then a crime against others’ freedom to proclaim with joy a Good News which one has come to know through the Lord’s mercy? And why should only falsehood and error, debasement and pornography, have the right to be put before people and often unfortunately imposed on them by the destructive propaganda of the mass media, by the tolerance of legislation, the timidity of the good and the impudence of the wicked? (80).
The Episcopalian socialite Elizabeth Ann Seton, who was received into the Church in 1805 at age 30, was canonized for her role as founder of the parochial school system. What is interesting is that members of the Filicchi family, who took her in and comforted her after she lost her husband to tuberculosis on a trip to Italy, leavened their hospitality with evangelical zeal.
In addition to showing kindness, they provided her with Catholic reading material, including proofs for the Church’s teaching authority written out in Filippo Filicchi’s own hand. When she asked Filippo, “If there is but one [true] faith and nobody pleases God without it, where are all the good people who die out of it?”
Filippo replied, “It depends on what light of faith they had received. But I know where people go who can know the right faith if they pray for it and inquire for it and yet do neither” (quoted in Mrs. Seton by Joseph Dirvin, 135).
Bishop Jean-Louis Cheverus of Boston is another example of a saintly person who didn’t hesitate to lean on Elizabeth, advising her to join the Catholic Church “as soon as possible, and when doubts arise, say only, ‘I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief’” (Mrs. Seton, 166). Such directness may be abhorrent to the present generation, given Elizabeth’s grief and loneliness. But seen through the evangelical lens, it is simply an act of charity.
St. Francis of Assisi risked his life to cross enemy lines in time of war to preach to Al-Kamil of Egypt. After instructing the sultan for a full two weeks, he gave him a choice: convert or suffer the loss of his soul. Accounts differ on whether Al-Kamil was ever received into the Church. One thing, however, is certain: Francis won permission for his Friars Minor to evangelize the sultan’s entire realm.
Filippo Filicchi, Bishop Cheverus, Francis of Assisi: all three were high-pressure salesmen. Then there is St. Francis Xavier, arguably the greatest of all missionaries, who served notice on the people of India, after preaching to them at length, that they must convert or suffer damnation. Tens of thousands chose baptism.
In Japan, where Francis encountered widespread sodomy and divorce, along with polygamy and polytheism, he condemned all four, and within fifty years the Land of the Rising Sun was well its way to becoming Catholic. Later on, the Japanese would apostatize, but not for reasons having anything to do with Francis’s methods.
Several years ago, New York subway cars featured an ad for a job placement firm that read, “If you’re really good, you should always be looking.” Just so. If people are what they ought to be, they will search out the truth and, on finding it, will embrace it at any cost. In the words of Redemptoris Missio, all men without exception have an “obligation to seek the truth, above all religious truth . . . [and] hold to the truth once it is known” (14).
The argument is sometimes made that conversion requires grace from on high. And indeed, it does. But such grace is always on tap! St. Augustine, who is known as the “doctor of grace,” taught what the Church has always taught: that God’s enabling power is never denied to the earnest seeker. If it were not so, why would Jesus have demanded conversion? The Gospel message was “repent and believe,” not “repent and, if possible, believe.”
The appointment calendar of a doctor may be filled months in advance. But not so with the Holy Spirit. The third person of the Trinity is available 24/7. No matter that one’s livelihood, along with one’s inheritance, could be imperiled by a change in religion, as is often the case.
Given the sustaining power of divine providence, it is hard to justify the postponement. Legitimate excuses for making God wait are few and far between. Christ waits for each of us with open arms, and, as mentioned earlier, he wishes all men to come to the truth (1 Tim. 2:4).
The Faith Is a Serious Matter
If you’re surprised to find that two saints by the name of Francis (Xavier and Assisi) told their listeners to choose between Catholicism and the loss of their souls, you shouldn’t be. This was the choice Jesus gave to Jewish leaders and was the one given by the apostles to those who heard them preach (e.g., Acts 13:46-49).
Our Lord told his seventy-two disciples when he sent them out that it would be easier for the people of Sodom on Judgment Day than for those who refused to give them a hearing (see Luke 10:12; see also Mark 16:16; John 8:24, 15:22; 1 Cor. 15-17; Matt. 10:15).
For the need to listen, see Matthew 13:9, Luke 10:13-16, and Acts 3:22-23.
For the need to believe after having listened, see Mark 16:16; John 3:18, 15:22.
For the need to act on one’s belief, see Luke 6:49, Romans 2:6, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 2 Corinthians 5:10, James 2:14, 1 Peter 1:17, and 1 John 2:4.
This article is adapted from Mr. Marks’s book Confessions of a Catholic Street Evangelist.