September 2013 Evangelization Exchange – Ryan

The New Evangelization in Our Cultural Context

by Rev. Thomas Ryan, CSP


TomRyanThumbThe “evangelization turn” under Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI is one of the most surprising developments since Vatican II. But different parts of the world need different kinds of evangelization, so one size does not fit all. The approach in countries in an advanced industrial economy will be different from that taken in parts of the developing world.

Fr. Brian Hehir, professor of the Practice of Religion and Public Life at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Boston,  reflected on the new evangelization in our cultural context in a lecture at the 100th anniversary celebration of St. Paul’s College in Washington, D.C. on May 17.

“The 65-70 million Roman Catholics in the U.S. make up 26% of the population in the U.S.  But we’ve lost 30% over the past thirty years. The purpose of the new evangelization,” said Hehir, “is 1) to deepen the faith of church members; 2) to draw back and re-engage the 30% that left; and 3) to share faith with the culture at large.”

The drama of our times is the split between culture and gospel. There were historic periods in which the gospel was embedded in the culture, but those times are past. Catholicism’s institutional dimension, however, provides it with a way of maintaining stability over time and in changing times. The three great social ministries of the church exemplify this: education, health care, and the work for social justice.

In the big picture of our context, Hehir noted, the social ministry of the church must deal with four realities: a culture marked by secularity, pluralism, market economy, and global engagement. The new evangelization must relate to each of these.

Secularity is the product of 20th century social science which predicted the decline of religion in the Western world. The U.S., in remaining pervasively religious, has been more the exception than the rule. “Secular” by definition refers to that which is not sacred.  In many countries, the church had a bi-polar relationship with the state, a “dyarchy” rather than a monarchy. Each had its public space and intrinsic value. By and large, Hehir observed, Catholicism has been comfortable living with secularity.

Secularization or secularism, however, is something else. It’s a socialization process that seeks to push religion into a private space. In this context, the church’s three social ministries become more important than ever because they are bridge-building ministries to general society.

“The church is responsible for the largest health care and educational networks in the country and makes a significant contribution to work for the poor. These ministries are vital to the new evangelization.  They’re the face of the church”, said Hehir: “Teaching the young, caring for the sick and the poor.”

The second social reality the church must deal with is pluralism. After India, North America is now the most religiously plural region in the world. The challenge of a pluralistic society is disagreement on ultimate questions. So how do we go about fashioning common ground for laws and policies that will affect everyone? Public advocacy has a role to play, and the National Conference of Bishops deals with a broad range of issues. The Catholic conviction is that faith and reason are related. Physician-assisted suicide, for example, was recently defeated in Massachusetts on non-religious grounds.

The new evangelization, Hehir noted, also takes us into society with respect to a third social reality, the market economy, which produces aggregate wealth. Since 2007, 46 million people have fallen into the “poor” category (less than $25,000 annual income), with many of them experiencing long term unemployment. Poverty in a market economy is a place where the church can make a difference in people’s lives with its social services.

And as for the fourth social reality, global engagement, the way we live together in our pluralistic society is important, said Hehir, because it’s seen everywhere in the world. The church has a significant role to play in fostering relationships marked by respect and collaboration.

The presumption of the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, he observed, was: “Give religion no role in government or politics. Yet the Vatican is a city-state and the only religious institution in the world with a diplomatic corps that is continually promoting gospel values.”

“The new evangelization calls each of us to witness to our faith,” said Hehir. “And to be a witness is to live your life in such a way that it wouldn’t make sense if God didn’t exist.”


Fr. Thomas Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, D.C.