08Oct The Synod: The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith, October 7 – 22, 2012.

The Synod: The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith, October 7 – 22, 2012.

Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC

The Synod of Bishops: “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith,” which will meet from October 7-22, 2012 is an important moment for on-going reflection on the meaning of evangelization today. 

The one great strength of the Instrumentum Laboris is that evangelization is centered on the person of Jesus.   “The Church as a whole and all her Pastors, like Christ, must set out to lead people out of the desert, towards the place of life, towards friendship with the Son of God, towards the One who gives us life, and life in abundance.” (No.8) 

Another strong point is that the Instrumentum Laboris refers to the documents of Vatican II 27 times.  As we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Council, it is important to reawaken in our Church an awareness of the evangelizing vision and spirit of Vatican II.  Also, I am encouraged by references in the Instrumentum Laboris to the themes of the social doctrine of the Church, including No. 28, 29, 57, 72 and 157. No 130 is the strongest:

Testimony to Christ’s charity, through works of justice, peace and development, is part and parcel of evangelization, because Jesus Christ, who loves us, is concerned with the whole person. (No.130)

Justice and Inculturation

However, from my perspective as a missionary who has worked in the area of peace, justice and the integrity of creation, there are aspects of the Instrumentum Laboris that I believe need to be strengthened.
The 1971 Synod: “Justice in the World” taught that “action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appears to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel.” (Justice in the World, No 6).  This affirmation of the connection between working for justice and witnessing to the Gospel of Jesus was very important for Catholics in the Philippines in the 1970s, because of the abuse of human rights perpetrated by the Marcos dictatorship. The same was true in much of Latin America. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church  (No. 66.) repeats this conviction clearly. The Church’s social doctrine is an integral part of her evangelizing ministry. (Paul VI Evangelii Nuntiandi).”

It seems to me that although there are references to the connection between evangelization and our Church’s social doctrine in the Instrumentum Laboris, the treatment of this essential dimension of our faith appears somewhat compartmentalized.  The constitutive relationship between evangelization and our proclamation of the Reign of God as “a matter of justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom 14:17)” is not emphasized in an integrated manner throughout the document.

It is primarily by her conduct and by her life that the Church will evangelize the world.
The Instrumentum Laboris recognizes that the Church herself must be evangelized. This call is stated in sections including No.37, No. 128. and No.158 makes clear the need for this conversion.

If the Church is to be credible in these times, individual conversion is insufficient.  Structures, systems and policies of the universal Church require transformation in the light of the Gospel.  Forty years ago, the Synod on Justice in the World recognized this same reality: “While the Church is bound to give witness to justice, she recognizes that anyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes”  (No. 40).  In his latest book Option For The Poor and the  Earth: Catholic Social Teaching, Donal Dorr recounts that many Vatican prelates were not happy about challenging the Church about its own record on respecting human rights and being just. At a preparatory meeting, Cardinal Pericle Felici who was secretary of the Council of the Secretariat of the Synod claimed that “the Church does not have any injustices.”  Philip Land had the courage to challenge this assertion.  He told the Cardinal that “if we cannot say that the Church has injustices, we should not have this document.”  The document goes on to recognize everyone’s right to suitable freedom of expression and thought including the right to be heard in a spirit of dialogue which preserves a legitimate diversity with the Church.” (No 44).  Furthermore, it insists that “the form of juridical procedure should give an accused the right to know his accusers and also the right to a proper defense.”  According to Dorr, in putting forward these principles or guidelines, the Synod participants were issuing a strong challenge to the practice and views of the Vatican.”  Unfortunately, these guidelines and commitments to follow fair procedures which are found in the legal systems of most democratic countries have not been taken on board by  the Vatican, especially by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when its challenges the orthodoxy of theologians and pastors. Dorr rightly points out that this is a challenge to respect the human rights of everyone that is still very relevant today (in the Catholic Church).”

 Although there is an essential relationship between charity and justice, they are not identical. The Instrumentum Laboris lauds “charitable works.”  The word charity appears 11 times, whereas the word Justice only appears 5 times.  However, working for justice involves changing systems, structures, institutions and public policies that are the root causes of social injustices.    Other Vatican II documents such as Gaudium et Spes, understand evangelization as “dialogue with the world.”  However, the Instrumentum Laboris emphasizes again and again “transmission of the Christian faith” to various groups and sectors. “Transmission” denotes “senders” and “receivers.” There is a clear contrast between “subjects” who act and “objects” who are acted upon. There seems to be little room for mutuality or inculturation of the Gospel in particular cultures. The documents of Vatican II and Evangelii Nuntiandi which emerged from the 1974 Synod emphasized the importance of evangelizing cultures. Pope Paul VI wrote:

It is necessary to evangelize, and to permeate with the Gospel, human culture and cultures. This has to be done, not superficially, as though one was adding a decoration or applying a coat of paint, but in depth – reaching into and out from the core and the roots of life …. The Gospel of evangelization can permeate all cultures, while being neither subordinate to any of them nor the monopoly of any. (No. 20).
Pope Paul VI was aware that unless the Gospel touches the culture, symbols and institutions of various societies it will not put down deep roots in that place. It will lead to the ‘split level’ Christianity which Filipino Jesuit Jamie Bulataw wrote about in the late 1960s and early 1970s. People might rattle off Christian formulae from the catechism or creedal statements but unless the Gospel is presented in the cultural idiom of that people, it will not capture the imagination or heart of individual Christians or the wider society.  In my own life I was aware that if my presentation of the Gospel in my home town, Nenagh, was similar to my presentation of the challenge of the gospel to the T’boli people in the mountains of South Cotabato in the Philippines, then there would be something very defective in my missionary work among the T’boli.  Christian preaching and witness must address the historical and cultural context of the people to whom the message is addressed in every situation.  In fact, of course, the drive to inculturate the Gospel in different societies did not begin with Vatican II. We find it in the pages of the Gospels.  Each of the four Gospels, especially John’s gospel presents the life and teaching of Jesus in different ways, depending on the audience to whom the gospel message was addressed. The  Instrumentum Laboris adopts an eternal verities approach to sharing the Gospel rather than the inculturation approach. This is particularly worrying at the moment since most of the vitality of the Catholic Church right now is to be found among people in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Are they going to be able to articulate and celebrate the faith in their own terms or will they be forced to adopt western ways of expressing and celebrating the faith. The lack of any real consultation before the recent grossly incompetent translation of the Latin missal into English was forced on local churches does not give grounds for optimism.

Good evangelization must always respond to the “signs of the times.”  One of the most important “sign of the times” came in September this year with the announcement that, at the ending of its summer melt, Arctic Sea Ice was at its lowest ever since the end of the last ice age 11,000 years ago.  The consequences for human beings and the wider earth-community of not addressing climate change was spelt out graphically in a document from the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences entitled “Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene in April 2011.”  The document concludes by stating that ‘warming and associated effects on the Earth System caused by the cumulative CO2 emissions that remain in the atmosphere for millennia may soon become unmanageable.’ With such dire consequences for humanity and the whole of creation, surely Pope John Paul II’s call to “ecological conversion” ought to be at the heart of the New Evangelization.

I would argue that in the light of the massive assault on the life-support systems of Planet Earth through the widespread extinction of species, the destruction of the oceans and marine ecosystems there is not sufficient focus on the integrity of creation in the Synod document. The Catholic Church’s teaching in this area is in its infancy.  For example, we are now in the middle of the 6th greatest extinction spasm since life began 3.8 billion years ago. Human beings are on course to cause the extinction of between 30 percent and 50 percent of the species of planet earth by the end of this century. This is a catastrophe for life on earth, nevertheless, there is one paragraph on the destruction of biodiversity in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. (No.466). At the Plenary Assembly of the European Episcopal Conference in St. Gallen Switzerland, the bishops discussed “several topics that are currently affecting the continent. Among the areas of discussion were the economy, the European Union’s difficult progress with respect to freedom of religion and respect for life.”  The rampant destruction of God’s creation did not appear to be on the agenda.  The Catholic Church’s pro-life teaching would be much more powerful if it was seen in the larger context of all life on earth, which is now threatened by human activity.

Here again, Rome should be listening to the voices of the poor, especially from the global South. In the last chapter of my recently published book Fukushima: The Death Knell for Nuclear Energy, I point out that, that the Bishops Conferences in the Philippines, Korea and Japan were opposed to civilian nuclear power because of the host of dangers associated with nuclear reactors and storing highly radioactive nuclear waste. Rome, on the other hand was constantly promoting nuclear energy, even in countries where technological expertise was low. At meetings of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna each year the Vatican representative supported the transfer of nuclear technology to developing countries where population levels were increasing dramatically.  The argument was that nuclear power would provide the necessary energy for these countries.  In the eyes of Rome, people like myself who oppose nuclear power were considered ‘naïve idealists.’  It would appear that after the Fukushima disaster Rome has changed its position and has now joined the ranks of ‘naïve idealists!


12 Responses

  1. Pól Ó Duibhir

    I don’t follow all the number stuff at the beginning, but the central message of this contribution should be on the desk of every school child in the land. Not to mention their teachers, administrators and anyone with an ounce of responsibility for where we are going, or not, as is more likely the case.

    Seán McDonagh can always be relied on to bring us back to earth.

  2. Anne

    Just to let you know in relation to Human Rights, there is a Prayer to protect Life at its most vulnerable stages that can be found on the website http://www.chooselife2012.ie. This is being promoted by our Bishops especially for this month. It is important that we respect the right to life in the womb until the moment of natural death. As Catholics and Christians we have a duty before God to protect Life. I notice there is nothing on your website about it. Where do you stand on the issue of Abortion and Euthanasia ?

  3. Sean O'Conaill

    This is a powerful critique of the instrumentum laboris for the ongoing synod. I especially welcome the linking of internal church concerns, such as structural reform, with the ‘new evangelisation’, and the emphasis upon the social teaching of the church.
    Developing the social responsibility of all Catholics will be especially important in the context of Ireland’s deepening social crisis, as well as the background global environmental crisis. We need an ethical revolution in Ireland to ‘remoralise’ public service in the wake of the epic national demoralisation we have suffered – and all the churches have a vital contribution to make to that.
    Insofar as the synod’s final documents provide scope for it, could the ACP and the ACI consider approaching the Irish Bishops’ Conference with a view to organising some kind of conference on the application of Catholic Social Teaching to Ireland’s secular crisis? This would be a conference that no bishop should have difficulty promoting and attending.
    I have a strong feeling that an exclusive focus on internal controversial church reform issues will guarantee endless enmity and frustration – and a continuation of the current sterile standoff. With the scale of real want and social injustice set to escalate in Ireland, shouldn’t this be a discussable priority for all concerned in the current Catholic church crisis?

  4. Brendan Butler

    Sean Mc Donagh’s incisive article should be read widely by all. While the document from the 1971 Synod of bishops ‘Justice in the world’ does not have the same canonical standing as the Vatican 2 documents yet both combined present a powerful message of good news to our world. The Vatican 2 documents may be open to nuanced interpretation at times there is a clarity and directness about ‘Justice in the World’ that leaves us in no doubt about its content. Just as the higher echelons within our church continue to frustrate the implementation of Vatican 2 so the implications of the synod’s document continue to be ignored. Instead we hear about individual metanoia and the importance of personal conversion but little about structural and social sin with our holy mother church. While Pope Benedict’s encyclical ‘Deus caritas est’ emphasised the supremacy of love there is little about structural sin in it . Yet love and justice for Christians cannot live without each other on this earth. Justice is the bedrock of love and guarantees integrity to love but they cannot be divorced one from the other without contradiction as when St .Augustine in his attempt to justify killing in war argued that if Christians killed out of love and with love then it was justified.
    While any new emphasis on evangelisation is welcome we must be credible witnesses to the revelation of Jesus that justice is the passion of God . That is why the Cross is so important for us Christians not so much to emphasise the atrocity involved in his suffering but that crucifixion was reserved only for those who challenged the injustice of their society. Jesus and injustice are anathema to each other . So until we our church structures are models of a just society we have little chance of convincing our world of the message of jesus.

  5. Joe O'Leary

    The effort to reduce justice to charity chimes all so well with the trickle-down mentality of plutocrats like Romney. Benedict XVI is very weak on the justice-and-peace aspect of the Gospel (notably in his Jesus book and his first encyclical). Intelligent thinking on society cannot flourish except in a constant interchange, discussion, consultation with people on the ground. I fear this Synod will be just another empty show, with the Curia calling the shots as always.

  6. Joe O'Leary

    Sean, thanks for your Fukushima book — terrific and terrifying.

  7. Fr John Wotherspoon (Hong Kong)

    Thank you Sean for excellent article.

    Synod might like to look at Mission articles by your confrere Hugh McMahon:

    One theme Hugh continually stresses: a totally European-model Church is a stumbling block in many cultures

  8. Kevin Walters

    Unity of Purpose.
    Hope spring’s eternal or so the saying goes’
    Doe’s the church present a weed?
    When it should present a rose
    A light set on a hill
    All men shall know and see
    God’s Holy Will
    No word need be spoken all mankind shall see
    God’s lovers as they bend their knee
    Justice and Love reflected from above
    The missionary shall call
    We would have this for one and all
    A crystal (Rome) on a hill
    Manifesting our Fathers Holy Will.

    In Christ

  9. Sean McDonagh

    I find it interesting that text of the 1972 Synod on Justice in the World is not available in English on the website of the Holy See.

  10. Sean McDonagh

    Opps!!Meant the 1971 Synod

  11. Martin Murray

    “If the Church is to be credible in these times, individual conversion is insufficient.”

    While individual conversion is insufficient there is no doubt it is foundational and if Jesus is to believed, most probably indispensible, if the gospel is to be effective in our personal and corporate lives.

    Having said that, if our understanding of evangelisation is simply about individual conversion, then the matter of church reform is of little relevance and no more than a hobby for those interested in church politics. If however if evangelisation is about individual conversion AND embedding people in the church, the body of Christ, then the matter of church reform is critical. Not to treat reform with the urgency it deserves, leaves a very big hole in the evangelisation bucket. Synod take note! (www.churchauthority.org/ would be a good place to start).

    Interestingly for me, it is American Evangelicals of the emerging church variety who are leading the way in the new evangelisation. They are doing this by asking a new question. No longer is the leading question “How can I get to Heaven?”, but rather, “How can WE bring Heaven to Earth?”. Basically what they are saying is, Heaven can wait, or Heaven can and will look after itself. Meanwhile we have enough to be getting on with, as Sean so eloquently and consistently reminds us; we have a planet to ‘save’. (and maybe this goes some way in addressing Gay Byrne’s ‘The Meaning of Life’ question to Mary McAleese regarding salvation).

  12. Darlene Starrs

    I’m just going to aim for the bullseye……….There are two necessary ingredients to evangelization………a. you need a human being, perhaps, a scriptural example…..the woman at the well……….who is thirsting for living water and living bread, and Jesus Christ (to be found in the gospels) Bring those two elements together, and you have “love”………and if all goes well at that stage……….then you have growth in that love, or growth in Christ……………….until, as St. Paul says, you have someone who has been brought to maturity in Christ. I was always a believer, even as a child, however, I remember the exact moment, when, I was in grade three, and Mrs. Wilger was reading us the scriptures…..I remember saying to myself……”Oh, I love this man named Jesus”……And I did…….and for the rest of my life I yearned for Christ, found Christ, or He Found Me, and followed Christ, and I still live with Christ…………Bishop Diarmud recently told the Folk Group of Dublin….that Evangelization has two elements: Scripture and Contemplation…..that evangelization is when a persons encounters Jesus Christ in the gospels and comes into a personal relationsip with Christ………The starting point for evangelization is Jesus and the scriptures……….I say, “Let me into you kitchen, I and the Lord” “Let’s talk and share” I’m sure that not only evangelization can happen…….but all our concerns about the Church will be addressed and you will find quite by “grassroots” impetus……….a new church, because the “new wine” created from the “new evangelization” will create a “new church”, one that full manifests a Vatican II church.