Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in one of Connecticut’s largest news dailies. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
“Challenges to Proclaiming the Faith in a Secular Age” was the subject of the talk Archbishop Augustine Di Noia, adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, gave to an appreciative audience at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn., just before Thanksgiving.
It was somewhat of a homecoming for the archbishop to the parish administered by Dominicans. Himself a Dominican friar, Archbishop Di Noia had spent six happy years there while working on his PhD. The parish is where the fraternal order of the Knights of Columbus was born and where its founder, Venerable Michael J. McGivney, is interred in a granite sarcophagus in the church’s nave.
Considering the overabundance of challenges to the faith in this secular age, in his talk Archbishop Di Noia focused on a look at three main ones and firm answers to them
Setting the scene, he said we find ourselves today in this secular situation in “a process that stretches back over several centuries” during which the internal supports have been eroded. The archbishop said some specialists call it a religious decline or a religious change.
“Of course, wonderful Dominican Aidan Nichols keeps us hoping for the best,” Archbishop Di Noia said, despite the challenges.
There are situations we face “where some form of apologetics is called for,” such as when the challenge is intellectual in nature. He mentioned especially those situations where the persons “continue to be Catholic but in a sense begin to depart from the faith in critical ways.” Our response? “We have to be ready to engage” them. At the same time we would have to “avoid the challenge to adapt the Catholic faith to the secular challenges.”
With this approach “the Christian message becomes indistinguishable” from the secular marketplace.
The answer? Addressing the challenges demands a robust, vigorous form of evangelization. “We have to be convinced the Truth and beauty is attractive in its own right when delivered with conviction,” the archbishop emphasized. It can’t be watered down, “not compromised.”
Critical Areas to Address
There are three critical areas that “must be addressed,” Archbishop Di Noia said.
- Why we need the Savior and not just any savior,
- Why we need Christ to become authentically human,
- Why the moral law is good for us.
The first “Why” concerns the most fundamental step we face — “to proclaim Jesus Christ is the mediator of salvation.” Today, many say no religion can claim this since it’s an affront to other religions’ founders and “all religions express some of the transcendent ultimate.” This attitude of a culture of pluralism can be found in lots of places. Even in the Church.
To address this challenge we must make it clear the Christian faith is not only our search for God but, as St. John Paul II as said, God’s search for us. “God wants to share with us” in a particular way, “in the Trinitarian life,” the archbishop said. God wants us to share “as intimate as possible a union with him,” and that “cannot come from anyone but God himself.” Salvation in this sense is nothing that can be arranged by human beings. It’s communion with the Blessed Trinity that is made possible through Jesus because he is the unique mediator.
“God desires nothing less than to share his life with us,” stressed the archbishop.
Understanding this, then sinful obstacles must be overcome. “If Christians abandon Christ’s unique mediatorship, they will have no mediatorship to replace it” either “for ourselves or other persons.”
It comes down to this: the solution “is not denying the unique mediatorship of Christ.”
Critical Area Two
The second critical area deals with the challenge of what it means to be human. “This is the idea that somehow being a Christian means giving up or suppressing what it means to be a human,” goes the secularists’ thinking, rationalizing that each of us has a unique way of being human. This resembles moral relativism. “It’s a substitution for morality,” explained the archbishop. It makes for a true challenge.
But “to become sharers in the Divine life we must become like the Son,” Archbishop Di Noia noted. He put it simply: “The Father sees and loves in us what he sees and loves in Christ. That’s our ticket!”
Confirmation to Christ doesn’t suppress our being human. “God is not interested in us ‘disappearing,’” the archbishop confirmed. “If Christ is to be the pattern” then “being conformed to him means discovering our unique identities. One finds his or her true self only by being conformed to him…The more we are conformed to his image, the more we become uniquely ourselves.”
Critical Area Three
Here, Archbishop Di Noia said, the challenge is that the moral law is seen as a constraint as some things are permitted and some forbidden. But what came to be regarded and experienced as a sort of legalism has been rejected by Veritatis splendor [John Paul II’s encyclical The Splendor of Truth]. But there is a difference to see that certain acts are forbidden because they are bad for the agent, and certain are permitted because they are good for the agent.
As he continued first with example, Archbishop Di Noia then observed that “God uses the good things of the world to lead us to goodness itself, which is him.”
But there is always the possibility, not the correct one of course, that “we hang our hearts on the things that cannot bear them.” We have to be alert to this possibility or choice because our desires have to be rightly ordered. For the Christian faith the whole range of moral desire “finds its complete fulfillment in the love of God,” affirmed Archbishop Di Noia. The moral law really directs us “to seek sanctification, not suppression.”
During the conclusion of his talk, the archbishop noted that “what makes Christianity work for most of us is not doctrinal but emotional truth.” That helps us, but at the same time “in Christian faith there needs to be something more than comforting” emotions. Theology is also important.
He reminded us of the Apostle’s words in 1Peter “3:15-16) to be “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope [but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame]”.
During a short question and answer session, the archbishop added a vivid analogy of the need for apologetics to present the truth to today’s challenges. He set a what-if scenario of a doctor telling a patient with cancer that everything was fine and they were well instead of telling them the truth and how to treat it. Where’s the truth?
When we run across a comparable situation in a challenge to the faith situation, that needs to be answered and we should “tell people the truth in charity.” It’s “not necessary to condemn.” Rather, it’s “trying to help people understand what the heart of the Christian faith is about.”
The Church can’t be strident, he said. The key thing is to do so with a pastoral approach. “St. John Paul II was highly successful at this,” Archbishop Di Noia said. “He absolutely avoided confrontation.” Instead, he trusted in the power of the drama of the story. Why did John Paul show that way and give us example?
Archbishop Di Noia concluded that John Paul believed, “Presenting the face of Christ in full glory could not fail to attract.”
A video of the entire talk will be available in the near future and linked here.