New Evangelizers Must Teach Faith Step by Step, with Love

Recent experiences have motivated me to nuance the points of the recent column in which I suggested that one of the greatest needs in the Catholic Church is for education of a generation that did not receive much catechesis over the last thirty years. The generation trained before 1968, especially those who have experienced various forms of conversion in the renewal movements, are those with some background and with the motivation to engage younger people in this education. However, this religious education project entails balancing a number of points about the present day Catholic audience.

First, not only is the younger generation poorly educated about the facts of Catholicism, many of them are miseducated. Not only are the younger people misinformed about the faith and Catholic moral teaching, but their elders have often been taught many confused ideas about free will and morals, the Scriptures, the Person of Christ, the liturgy, etc. Therefore the education process will include a large number of older Catholics.

Second, when people accept an idea as religious doctrine, they commit themselves to it with vigor. This means that a challenge to a Catholic's faith, even if it is a challenge from the Magisterium against a heterodox notion, will be resisted. Many people defend heterodox ideas because they are sincerely convinced that it is the true Catholic position. They like the people who taught them the doctrine. They trust the priest, nun, or religious educator who has apparent Church approval. They now believe that they have a right as a Catholic to practice birth control, change liturgical rites, or deny the Virgin birth, resurrection, or second coming of Christ. As a result, various studies perceive the general run of Catholics as out of line with the official teaching of the Church.

Third, members of the Roman Curia are portrayed as uptight, rigid, power-hungry ecclesiastical functionaries. Such people are not as nice as the teachers who gave permission to have freedom of thought. These Roman curial types are the mean enemy opposing the modern Church driven by the spirit of Vatican II.

Fourth, both adults and young people are simply uninformed about very basic data of the Faith and Catholic life. For example, a young man in his 30s was baffled by my reference to the Catholic teaching of the Fathers of the Church. Seeing his puzzlement, I asked what was wrong. “What are ‘the Fathers’? I've never heard of that.” The conversation about the Patristic teaching on the Eucharist as a sacrifice and as the real presence of Christ had to back up a few steps.

Given these points, a gangbusters approach to the task of Catholic education by the orthodox may not be best. For some people, the temptation is to tell the whole Catholic story and all of dogma at one time. In particular, the temptation might even be to highlight the most commonly denied or challenged doctrines, which lets the denials, rather than the Catechism of the Catholic Church or the Bible, set the agenda. How does someone teach in this situation without compromising the truth, and yet without sabotaging the educational process?

The teacher will do better by presenting the whole line of the Catholic Faith, but doing it step by step. Starting off with the Catholic “hard line” may prevent listeners from accepting Catholic orthodoxy. This does not mean avoidance of the hard sayings of Christ and his Church. Rather, step-by-step explanation of the basics of the faith is the starting point. How can people understand the sinful aspects of contraception when they do not grasp the basics of Christian teaching on marriage? All they will hear is that Catholics put the Pope in their bedroom — despite his lack of interest in being there. How can they understand that liturgical abuse is wrong unless they understand the dignity of the Mass as an un-bloody re-presentation of the salvation won by Jesus Christ on Mount Calvary?

Orthodox Catholics are relegated to the conservative bin as a way to negate their influence as teachers of the Gospel. If orthodox Catholics teach over the heads of their audience or insult them by talking down to them, then the politicized conservative label will stick. However, if Catholics teach their fellows because they love God first of all and love their neighbors as themselves, then they can make a powerful impact on the lives of others. A deep devotion to Christ that is nourished by prayer, especially before the Blessed Sacrament, is the true motivation to teach others. Students need to witness this motive; a teacher's need or desire to be right is a poor substitute for love of Christ as the motivating force in catechizing others.

The new Catholic evangelists of fellow Catholics can better teach and serve the other sinners who do not know enough about Christ's truth, by remembering that Christ loves us sinners, who are as ignorant of his Gospel as were his first disciples. This time of great hope for a new evangelization is ripe with opportunities for the teacher who step by step feeds out the whole Catholic line, not the hard line.

Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa is a professor at the Institute for Religious and Pastoral Studies at the University of Dallas.