A tremendous challenge for all
Two main characteristics of post-modernity are secularism and relativism. These are diametrically opposed to the faith of the Church for whom two main characteristics are religiousness and God’s law.
The Church also believes that only in God’s way is there salvation, a reality that should not be limited to the afterlife. How can the Church evangelise today’s culture?
Theologian Michael Paul Gallagher, in his book, Clashing Symbols, suggests that there are three possible responses to culture: tense hostility, innocent acceptance, discernment and creation of culture.
The first implies ‘a strongly negative judgment often allied to a militant tone’. Evil exists in culture but it does not follow that sulking and sniping are worthy Christian responses. This attitude betrays the mentality of a Church-fortress that, to an outsider, probably looks like fanaticism. Such attitude recalls Pope John XXIII’s “prophets of doom”.
The opposite tendency is to be unaware of the flaws of culture and of its dangers. This ‘innocent acceptance’ can take at least three forms: passive resignation, thoughtless secularisation and indiscriminate embracing of pluralism. None of these is helpful in evangelising culture.
The obvious way to go is the third. Without ignoring the negative that is present in culture, one should also be able to perceive the positive. Gallagher suggests the story of St Paul in Athens as an example. Arriving in Athens, he is moved to disgust at the superficiality of the Athenian culture (Acts 17). However, touring the Areopagus, he comes to the altar to the Unknown God and in it he senses the Athenians’ inner desire to revere the true God. This gives him leverage.
The Church needs to believe that the Holy Spirit is still acting in culture and, consequently, there is no room for excessive pessimism. Besides, this would render culture more disposed to listen. The Church’s task would still remain difficult. Its message to the world is prophetic, and prophets were never looked at with sympathy by their contemporaries.
Indeed, they were often ill-treated and even killed. Ask Jeremiah and he’ll tell you about it. However, approach does make a difference.
Problems remain. The Church seeks to find the objective truth about the human person but, possibly, when expressing it, it does not get enough in touch with the recipients of the message and their suffering.
The truth comes across as cold, the result of a complex philosophical argumentation, condemning. I am not implying that the truth should be twisted so as not to be painful; I am simply asking whether truth in the abstract is the whole truth.
The Church speaks on the level of principles, but principles need to be applied. This is usually done in the confessional, in spiritual direction, or in pastoral counselling. In this milieu, technically referred to as the internal forum, the universal principle is applied to the particular person. A wise counsellor would know, for instance, how to also introduce the principle of gradualness and bring the individual to the truth gently, moving from his or her suffering to the truth, allowing time for growth.
This is not easy and not all who advise in the Church’s name are capable of doing it. Moreover, those who seek personal advice are few and the perception of what the Church believes continues to be what its official pronouncements state.
Without ever compromising its message, the Church needs to find ways and means to show that it is fully in touch with the complexities of life and its victims. Categorical statements are not a sign that such complexities are appreciated. Forming and explaining rather than pronouncing should be its preferred method. The choice of the right forum is also important. Not all occasions are appropriate for the pronouncement of statements.
I think this is a better way than stating principles with excessive vehemence. Prophets show the way without imposing. Not everybody will understand because some will continue to have their own agendas.
However, little by little, the contribution of the Church to the ethical forum will be appreciated.
Fr Micallef is a member of the Society of Jesus.