Cardinal Levada’s call for “a new apologetics” is timely not only for the reasons he stated, but because of reports that the Holy Father is about to establish a Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization. The two projects share more than the word “new” in common, but that is also, in a profound sense, the most important thing they share in common. Let me explain.
For the past few years, I have participated in the RCIA at our parish. This is the process by which those wishing to become Catholics, or to complete the sacraments of initiation, join or re-connect with the Church. Veteran Catholics like myself are engaged to give presentation on various aspects of the catechism, the history of the Church, etc., to instruct the unwashed (I like to call them ‘heathens’) in the great truths of our faith. But, a funny thing always happens on the way to the Easter Vigil. It is we, the already catechized, who always seem to experience the most profound growth in our faith. I think this derives from two facts. First, when you are explaining to someone else about the thing you love most in the world, you learn to love it more deeply. A mother speaking of her children, a husband of his wife, an artist of his greatest opus. Second, the unwashed ask really honest questions, they utterly lack the defensive postures and the cynicism that often characterize discussion among those already in the fold, and they challenge any balkanization of faith from life’s other claims. This last, I think, is the most difficult challenge for a lifelong Catholic because it is so easy to set apart parts of our life, the dark parts, the sinful parts, and keep the light of the Gospel from shining upon them.
Cardinal Levada also pointed the way past the defensiveness, and the frequently anti-ecumenical quality, of earlier attempts at Catholic apologetics, by pointing to the need to focus on beauty. “For this apologetic to be credible, we must pay greater attention to the mystery and the beauty of Catholic worship, of a sacramental vision of the world that lets us recognize and value the beauty of creation as a foreshadowing of the new heavens and the new earth,” the cardinal said in his talk. This echoes Pope Benedict’s call, which seems lost amidst the fog of scandal, for the Church to present her teaching as a great “Yes” to life rather than a catalogue of “No’s.”
The focus on beauty also allows us to attain a more thorough, challenging, powerful – and, in the event, culturally effective – way of speaking about sin. On the day when he would teach his students about sin, Father Luigi Giussani, founder of Communione e Liberazione, would place a large bouquet of flowers on the table at the front of the lecture hall. He would ask the students, “What is sin?” Then, he would take the flowers out of the vase, throw them on the floor and stomp on them. “That is sin; the destruction of the beautiful.” Bless her heart, that is not how my Irish Catholic mother explained it to me. But, it raises the issue in a way that causes our libertarian, permissive culture to think differently about what we Christians call sin. And that is a necessary precondition to getting that culture to think about redemption. And, the redemption won for us by Jesus Christ is truly the only "new" thing in the world.
I have not found the full text of Levada's speech, but I hope too. Even the fragments reported in the press reminded me why I like him so much.