February 2010 Evangelization Exchange – DeSiano

Review: “Proclamation as Dialogue: Transition in the Church-World Relationship”

by James Gerard McEvoy (Theological Studies, Dec. 2009, vol. 70 #4)

Fr. Frank Desiano Fr. Frank DeSiano, CSP, Reviewer


James McEvoy, a senior lecturer at Flinders University School of Theology and Catholic Theological College in Adelaide Australia, provides some very important and provocative points in his essay on dialogue and proclamation.Most of his emphasis revolves around dialogue, but the conclusion he drives home points to evangelization and proclamation.

The backdrop of his talk is Christendom, the vision of the relationship of Church and world (Church and state) for almost a millennium. This vision saw Church (revelation) as the overarching perspective on all of life, including the role of state (king, emperor). As one thinks of it, most of our assumptions about Church and state (prior to John Courtney Murray’s work, and, of course, Vatican II) assume this vision of Christendom.

McEvoy argues that Vatican II, in Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) left the image of Christendom behind when it took up a new understanding of Church and world, that of dialogue. He sketches the three aspects which form our modern sense of society: an economic relationship between the members of society, a public sphere independent of political authority (media and communication) and popular sovereignty (with power resting in the people and not in some hierarchical system). Vatican II accepted the structures of modernity, particularly modern economy and popular sovereignty. In the process of doing this, it launched a new way for Church to relate to the world—dialogue, a relationship that emphasizes the personal agency of people. McEvoy, however, does not believe (as some theologians do) that dialogue leads inevitably to relativity because he accepts Jesus Christ as central to a Christian understanding of dialogue. Christ reveals what God is like and what it means to be human. Relativism is not the only perspective, even though it colors large assumptions of Western culture.

McEvoy next turns to Charles Taylor, whose extensive writings on modernity and culture have made him a standard for reflecting on modern life, to map an ethic of authenticity. Authenticity is not advanced by stances of supposed neutrality or the person as a disinterested observer. Relativist subjectivity ultimately undermines our sense of ourselves as moral agents, with broad moral assumptions about what is good.

So how does dialogue work? McEvoy points to the distinction between knowing natural sciences and human sciences. Art, literature, history—these are not understood with microscopes, but through the dialogue of committed people, in their shared world. McEvoy demarcates three aspects of dialogue as Charles Taylor outlines them:

  1. dialogue is bilateral;
  2. understanding is party-dependent (meaning that how a conversation is fleshed out depends on how the particular parties share); and /p>
  3. dialogue involves revising goals as one comes to new understandings of oneself as the dialogue proceeds.

McEvoy applies these dimensions to the task of evangelization, particularly as believers encounter others in today’s world through dialogue. Openness to the other in dialogue will inevitably shape the dialogue itself, how the Gospel is heard, and how the Gospel brings change to all involved in the dialogue. Such a venture assumes the power and openness of the Holy Spirit in the dialogue, because Spirit has to be seen not only in Christians but, according to John Paul II, in “society and history, peoples, cultures and religions.”

While McEvoy’s points may not exactly touch upon what happens in our R.C.I.A. process, they point to dimensions of Christian presence in media, in the political realm, and in apologetics. Can it be that we still carry assumptions of Christendom in our head while we try to address a modernity that we have only reluctantly acknowledged?