Evangelii Nuntiandi 56: Non-Practicing Christians

The “new evangelization” seems focused on this other “sphere.” What Pope Paul VI said about it almost four decades ago:

56. The second sphere is that of those who do not practice. Today there is a very large number of baptized people who for the most part have not formally renounced their Baptism but who are entirely indifferent to it and not living in accordance with it. The phenomenon of the non practicing is a very ancient one in the history of Christianity; it is the result of a natural weakness, a profound inconsistency which we unfortunately bear deep within us. Today however it shows certain new characteristics. It is often the result of the uprooting typical of our time. It also springs from the fact that Christians live in close proximity with non-believers and constantly experience the effects of unbelief. Furthermore, the non-practicing Christians of today, more so than those of previous periods, seek to explain and justify their position in the name of an interior religion, of personal independence or authenticity.

I’m not convinced these characteristics are all that new. While it is true that people other than aristocrats have the means and freedom to be mobile these days, in previous eras, it was not unknown that wars would force whole elements of populations into the status of refugees. Did pogroms and other persecutions dilute Judaism over the centuries into irrelevance?

Church history is also full of success stories of missionaries working with whole populations resistant to Christ. Was St Patrick at a competitive disadvantage for attempting to convert an island of pagans? And it must be conceded that many Catholics have exuded qualities of interiority and independence in a search for authenticity–or more accurately, a search for the Living God.

Perhaps the erosion from a near one-hundred percent Christian veneer to ninety or eighty is insufferable to some Christians. I suspect some saints would chuckle at the “disadvantage” we face in fractional impurities. And given relentless human weakness and inconsistency, I suspect that unchristian witness has always found its way into even the highest and supposedly purest realms of earthly religion.

Thus we have atheists and unbelievers on the one side and those who do not practice on the other, and both groups put up a considerable resistance to evangelization. The resistance of the former takes the form of a certain refusal and an inability to grasp the new order of things, the new meaning of the world, of life and of history; such is not possible if one does not start from a divine absolute. The resistance of the second group takes the form of inertia and the slightly hostile attitude of the person who feels that he is one of the homily, who claims to know it all and to have tried it all and who no longer believes it.

The “new evangelization” will not be easy. The difficulties is presents are much more subtle than the opposition Christians face, say, in Muslim lands. Inertia and hostility? These happen in close human associations: families and workplaces come to mind. The solution? Forging relationships. Seeking reconciliation. Admitting fault. These would be among the “proper means and language” mentioned below.

Atheistic secularism and the absence of religious practice are found among adults and among the young, among the leaders of society and among the ordinary people, at all levels of education, and in both the old Churches and the young ones. The Church’s evangelizing action cannot ignore these two worlds, nor must it come to a standstill when faced with them; it must constantly seek the proper means and language for presenting, or representing, to them God’s revelation and faith in Jesus Christ.

Relationships. Authentic relationships with people–not the kind of stuff you can forge through theology or the new media so much. If the “new evangelization” gets bogged down in apologetics and information, I see a crash-and-burn in the future.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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