College of Fellows

Remarks on the New Evangelization

Dr. Kevin Starr, DSPT Fellow

The remarks below consider the New Evangelization in response to an article by Marie-Dominique Chenu, OP, “The Need for a Theology of the World”.

I found the article by Dominican Father (later Cardinal) M. D. Chenu “The Need for a Theology of the World” very useful in the distinction Father Chenu makes between faith and religion. It brought upon me the realization that I was more a product of religion – meaning Catholic culture – than faith, which I possess but need more of. It is an occupational hazard for an historian, perhaps, to be heavily concerned with religion and its chronicle of the Church Militant than with faith, which is more properly a matter for theologians and scripture scholars.

Not that Father Chenu sees a disjunction between faith and religion, only a distinction. Without faith, Father Chenu argues, religion becomes too much of this world: a social construct, that is, anchored in power, authority, an effort to control the secular, even the bureaucratic. Conversely, faith – that is, the faith described by St. Paul in his epistle to the Romans, as well as psychologically described as the illative sense by Cardinal Newman – this faith requires religion because human beings must live in the world and in community, and since man is a social being it is impossible to keep faith strictly on a private basis.

On the other hand, as much as I benefited from Father Chenu's essay, I also saw it pervaded by, not the faith behind Vatican II, but the secular optimism in the matter of the compatibility of the world and religion. While not exactly writing from Camelot, Father Chenu is writing in response to, among others, Harvey Cox's The Secular City, the Ur-text for the appreciation of modern secular culture that underlie the efforts of Vatican II to read the signs of that culture and to update the Church accordingly. As far as Father Chenu is concerned, this optimistic point of view is reinforced not only by his own temperament but by the pervasive optimism of the Dominican Order, as anchored in the optimism of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose apprehension of being as intrinsically good confers on Dominican formation and practice a fundamental faith that evil is only a deficiency of being and hence can be corrected.

Fifty years later, I ask myself, can we be as optimistic as Father Chenu? And I see in this question some of the disquiet experienced by portions of the Church Militant, those living in the world of religion as well as of faith, with the optimism of the Second Vatican Council. Father Chenu was writing from a Golden Age of French Catholicism, from the vantage point of the Dominican Order, then itself in a Golden Age. Throughout Western Europe, the United Kingdom, and North America, the religion of Roman Catholicism was at a highpoint as far as the culture of Roman Catholicism was concerned and, most importantly, the acceptance it was being accorded by the non-Catholic world.

This is history, I realize. This is religion, not faith; but this highpoint of Catholic culture – which included an acceptance of Thomism as a form of shared lingua franca – reinforced faith because at every moment, in each instance – as in the case of a medieval cathedral – it bespoke and reinforced faith.

Now I realize that you can't find faith with religion alone, but it helps. It helps when great Catholic writers are writing. It helps when the liturgy is conducted with the dignity befitting great mystery. It helps when the only cafeteria in Catholicism is the school cafeteria and not a make-shift cafeteria of random selectivity and personal preference. It helps when great abbeys and churches are being built, when the New Catholic Encyclopedia is being published, when Bishop Sheen is preaching on Sunday night television. It helps when Thomas Merton is climbing his Seven Storey Mountain, when the Carthusians are establishing themselves in Vermont and the Camaldomese are arriving at Big Sur.

On the other hand, Father Chenu warns us of the seductions of hyper-religiosity, with its ability to establish distractions, miss the point, even bow down before the golden calf. Yet for some of us of a certain age his charge to the laity, as well as the charge laid down by the Synod of Bishops in its call for a New Evangelization, is a charge to have faith at a time when – as far as the contemporary First World is concerned – the culture of religion, and its social bonds as well, are in a state of what we can hope is only creative confusion.

Can the laity really do this? Can the laity truly leverage the world without the reinforcements of culture? In the case of the United States, can the laity maintain its self-esteem when all about it is criticism, rejection, mockery, and attributions of irrelevance?

The answer is Yes! if there is faith. The new evangelization as expressed in the Lineamenta, at least as I have read it, demands first and foremost
Faith, Faith, and even more Faith in the midst of a world, a secular order, that does not seem as favorable as Father Chenu saw it to be a half-century ago. No wonder, then, that the Pope of the new evangelization, John Paul II, had as his favorite encouragement from scripture, “Fear not, be not afraid, for I am with you.” And in paraphrase of the final lines of the New Testament, we can add to this: come now, Lord Jesus Christ, and with thy Holy Spirit see us through these troubled times, see us forward to new vistas of faith and even more glorious expressions of that shared communal journey of faith that is religion.