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Report on New Evangelization Symposium

Yesterday, at the symposium on “Intellectual Tasks of the New Evangelization” sponsored by the USCCB, the day entailed three major talks, followed by questions and an evening discussion among all three speakers and the group of young theologians the USCCB invited to attend the symposium. Unfortunately, the organizers only allowed time for a few questions at the end of each talk, and the evening discussion was not open to the press. Nor were we invited to ask questions at the conclusion of the talks and, as you can imagine, I had several.

The first speaker was Dr. Janet Smith who teaches at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. Smith said that she had given this talk to the bishops and they had asked her to come and present it anew for the young theologians. The only problem, better to say, the major problem, was that her presentation, which addressed how classic Thomism and Personalism were interwoven by Pope John Paul II in his book “Love and Responsibility” and in his series of talks collectively known as “The Theology of the Body.” Her talk began at 9 a.m. and it was not until 10:12 a.m., in response to a question, that the phrase “New Evangelization” came up. I suppose one can argue that John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is “new” and therefore this talk had a place in the proceedings, but Lady Gaga is “new” also and her songs and antics have about as much to do with the New Evangelization as Smith’s talk did. Indeed, she made only a passing reference to the Gospel which is, presumably, the thing that needs proclaiming in a new way.

As I argued in these pages earlier in the week, moralism can easily get in the way of the New Evangelization. While it may once have been the case that natural law theory could be seen as providing a common moral framework, accessible to all regardless of their religious beliefs, natural law is today almost the exclusive provenance of Catholic philosophy. And, while it may be essential to understanding Catholic theology and its development since the time of Aquinas, natural law is not necessary to conversations with the culture of the kind called for by the New Evangelization. Pope Benedict made this point explicitly in his conversation with Jurgen Habermas, held before Benedict’s election and published as “The Dialectics of Secularization.” There, he said: “The natural law has remained (especially in the Catholic Church) the key issue in dialogues with the secular society and with other communities of faith in order to appeal to the reason we share in common and to seek the basis of a consensus about the ethical principles of law in secular, pluralistic society. Unfortunately, this instrument has become blunt. Accordingly, I do not intend to appeal to it for support in this conversation. The idea of the natural law presupposed a concept of nature in which nature and reason overlap, since nature itself is rational. With the victory of the theory of evolution, this view of nature has capsized: nowadays, we think that nature as such is not rational, even if there is rational behavior in nature.”

But, it was in response to another question that the problem of moralism getting in the way of proclaiming the Gospel anew. Smith recounted the way some people dismiss her because of her opposition to contraception and her views more generally. She said some conclude her views are so outlandish that, and her she changed her vocal inflection to suggest what these opponents think about her, “You are a moral monster. You drink blood.” I turned to a colleague and said, “I thought we Christians do drink blood at every Mass.”

The next presentation came from Professor John Cavadini of Notre Dame and it was quite wonderful. He, like Cardinal Daniel DiNardo who gave the keynote the night before, turned to the patristic age to capture some of what the New Evangelization must entail. He spoke about Origen and his work “Contra Celsum.” Cavadini noted that Origen wrote to Ambrose to say he was surprised at the request to refute the claims of Celsus, opining that the mere facts of faith are better than argument for refuting heretics and non-believers. Here, at last, was the right focus: the mere facts of faith. Too often, Christianity is treated as a nice myth, that supports a robust ethical system, and we all know that we need a strong ethical system if our American way of life is to flourish. But, at the root of our faith is a distinct historical claim made on behalf of this person, Jesus. We claim he rose from the dead. We claim he is the savior of the world. We claim that he who was once a clot of cells in the womb of the Virgin is the self-revelation of God. These are not myths. These are historical claims about a person who walked upon the earth as surely as you and I do. Unless we can affirm with certainty that the tomb is empty as readily as I can assert I am typing at my computer, we have missed what the New Evangelization is about.

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The return to the early Church fathers that both Cavadini and Cardinal DiNardo employed in their presentations not only links today’s Church with a time before Christendom in which we find useful lessons for our own post-Christendom epoch, but there is also here the link to the ressourcement theology that preceded the Second Vatican Council. I am not going to get into the whole debate about the hermeneutic of the Council here, but I will say that ressourcement theology had the most profound effect on the Council but that, once the Council closed, many people neglected this theological significance in the rush to engage the world. Admit it – when was the last time you heard a parish priest invoke Origen or Iraneus in a sermon? I had never heard Cavadini before, but I hope to hear him again. His presentation was not only erudite, it made you want to believe and that is a principal intellectual task of the New Evangelization.

In the afternoon, Archbishop J. Augustine DiNoia, O.P. gave what he styled a “Master Class.” Although the archbishop was kind enough to explicitly contradict Dr. Smith, he began by recalling an incident in which he was asked to speak to a group of hospital administrators about why sterilization could not be performed at a Catholic hospital. He recalled that he began by discussing the Trinity, and worked his way from this core doctrinal claim down to the specific point about sterilization. He said one of the hospital administrators came up to him afterwards and said that no one had ever presented a specific moral issue in this way. That is what the New Evangelization is all about.

In his recapitulation of the history of the Magisterium’s relationship to theology, Archbishop DiNoia noted the impact of nominalism in the Middle Ages, the 19th century critique of the sources of revelation, the erosion of what he called “theological realism” and the metaphysical warrants for that realism, but I would criticize him for neglecting a more proximate and pedestrian reason for the increasing role of the papacy in adjudicating theological disputes: Napoleon shut down the schools which had previously served as referees.

DiNoia’s most controversial remarks had to do with what he called the “internal secularization” of the Church. Here, some of the theologians in attendance discerned a more or less direct swipe at contemporary theologians. But, I concur with DiNoia both on the fact of internal secularization and on the need to overcome it if we are to achieve a New Evangelization. How often do we hear contemporary issues within the Church in terms of a rights language that is alien to the Catholic tradition? How often are the rights of conscience turned on their heads, affirmed by the Second Vatican Council as a sound juridical norm for the civic realm turned into a justification to believe whatever we want? To be clear, we can believe whatever we want in this free society of ours, but we cannot claim ecclesiastical warrant for everything? The tradition is normative not my desires.

I wish there had been more time for discussion. I am anxious to hear what transpired at last night’s session. And, I would have made sure that all the speakers were on point. But, the USCCB is to be commended for beginning a conversation with theologians. It is like the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians: Maybe nothing will come of the discussion, but it is harder to shoot someone with whom you just had breakfast. That alone made the symposium worthwhile. Finally, I promised to post this last night, but I was too exhausted to think let alone write. I apologize for any inconvenience.

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