Evangelization, Ecumenism, Inter-Faith-and the Kingdom
By Frank DeSiano, CSP
We have to continue understanding evangelization in the perspective of the Second Vatican Council, particularly its important decrees on ecumenism and other world faiths. It’s easy to get the perspective, and the proportion, wrong. On the one hand, we can think that evangelization is proselytism; on the other hand, we can think there is no need to share faith.
“Evangelization and ecumenism are contradictory directions,” a bishop said to me when our committee was in the process of preparing “Go and Make Disciples” in 1991-1992. I was totally shocked by this, coming as it did from a bishop. Yet it’s a common error to find these directions contradictory. Evangelization seeks to make Catholics, ecumenism other seeks to dialogue. Aren’t they different? (St. Pope John Paul II didn’t think so in his encyclical “Ut Unum Sint.”) On top of this, since his election Pope Francis has made frequent invectives about proselytism, most recently in his remarks to Pentecostals.
Is there a way to sort this out, given the demand to share faith, but the need to respect the faith of others-and the work of the Holy Spirit.
The Kingdom of God
Much of our heritage reflection on evangelization, in the past half-century, is rooted in the Kingdom of God. Pope Paul VI opens “On Evangelization in the Modern World” with images of the Kingdom which he links up with a vision of evangelization that leads to the transformation of humankind. St. Pope John Paul II gives a much longer excursus on the Kingdom in “Mission of the Redeemer (ch. 2),” making that the backdrop behind all reflection on mission, evangelization, and, ultimately, conversion. In number 9 of that encyclical he says: “It is necessary to keep these two truths together, namely, the real possibility of salvation in Christ for all humanity and the necessity of the Church for salvation. Both these truths help us to understand the one mystery of salvation, so that we can come to know God’s mercy and our own responsibility.” While Francis does not devote a full section to the Kingdom in “The Joy of the Gospel,” as did Paul and John Paul, he certainly shares that vision:
The Gospel is about the kingdom of God (cf. Lk 4:43); it is about loving God who reigns in our world. To the extent that he reigns within us, the life of society will be a setting for universal fraternity, justice, peace and dignity. Both Christian preaching and life, then, are meant to have an impact on society. We are seeking God’s kingdom: “Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Mt 6:33). Jesus’ mission is to inaugurate the kingdom of his Father; he commands his disciples to proclaim the good news that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 10:7). (Joy of the Gospel, #180)
As a result, we can understand all evangelization as related directly and most broadly to the Kingdom of God, and we can understand the Church in relation to the King.
Church and Kingdom
Certainly before the Second Vatican Council, there was no light between the notion of “church” and “Kingdom.” They seemed identical. We were dominated by the various formulas (with different meanings) of “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” The Church was envisioned as a “perfect society” meaning it has the means to attain all its goals without reliance on any other institution or structure. In ecclesial discourse, the word “church” often seemed to refer to the hierarchy, with laity somehow coming along, rather than to the “pilgrim people” that Vatican II sketched.
Conspicuously, the Second Vatican Council articulated the relationship of Church and “Kingdom” (the Council uses a broad concept of Church for “Kingdom”—Constitution on the Church, #8) with the deliberately chosen word “subsists”—“The Church constituted and organized in the world as a society subsists in the Catholic Church. . . .“ Reams of ink have been spent explaining the difference between “subsist” and “is,” but it is clear, whatever the meaning, the Council did not come out and say “The Church IS the Kingdom.”
Therefore, it is possible to see the relationship of Church and Kingdom in this way: the Church is the center and sacrament of the Kingdom, but the sway of the Kingdom is not restricted to the visible Church and its sacraments or teachings. The Kingdom is broader than Church, although Church has the privilege of incarnating the Kingdom most fully in human experience.
As a result, it becomes possible to not only relate all Christians to the Kingdom, but even to relate all humans to the Kingdom—received to a greater or lesser degree—and also to relate other faiths in some way to the Kingdom. (Cf. The Constitution on the Church, #16.) There is no small debate as to how this happens. Much of it showed itself around the flack that the document “Dominus Jesus” created when it said that all salvation had to have its root in the saving work of Jesus Christ. Yes, this is true. But how does this happen? Certainly, Jesus gave the full means of the Church as the most secure way to bring about salvation. Sharing the fullness of these means constitutes the basic ministry of the Church, and obviously also the fundamental ministry of missionaries. But cannot the values inherent in world religions also be, in some way, expressions of the Kingdom? And if they can be expressions of the Kingdom, cannot God, in Christ, be working through them to relate humankind in different ways to the hoped-for Kingdom of God?
“The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those way of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims and ever must proclaim Christ “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:16), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God reconciled all things to himself (cf. 2 Cor 5:18-19).” (Nostra aetate, #2).
Just as, then, other forms of Christian expression have saving power because of the ways they maintain, albeit often in a lesser degree, the structures of discipleship that Catholics uphold, so other religions have some kind of analogous potential to save insofar as they relate people to the Kingdom of God, to those values of a restored and redeemed humankind, living as one community, rejoicing in one source of absolute love and the final promise of redemption. Insofar as the proclamation and bringing of the Kingdom was the central work of Jesus’ redemption for humankind, all humankind is involved, whether known or not, with a relationship to the Kingdom and to Jesus Christ.
Conversion and the Kingdom
As evangelizers, our fundamental work concerns conversion: opening eyes, hearts, and minds to see the dynamic of divine love throughout history and in the drama of every human life—i.e., to see the Kingdom of God. We of course see the essence of the Kingdom in the ancient Church, Catholic and Orthodox, professing the Triune God, redemption in Jesus Christ, and Christian life in the Holy Spirit. We uphold that the gifts God has given to the Church—Word, sacrament, prayer, community, moral vision, charisms, and ecclesial structures—provide precious and optimal resources for entry into the Kingdom. When we invite people to consider the Catholic faith, we do so because of the redemption they will have as members of the Kingdom of God.
Nor should we kid ourselves into thinking that other analogues to these ecclesial gifts are readily sufficient or easy substitutes for the treasures of the Church. Nothing about professing the possibility of salvation outside explicit membership in the Church means that the resources of the Church are negligible or easily replicated in other forms. A fortiori, if the salvation of Christians is a struggle (church “militant”), how can it be easier for people who do not have the Scriptures, sacraments, moral, social and communal vision that flows from Catholic life? It cannot.
Hence, there is an essential purpose for mission. Sometimes in the past I would hear professors, when talking about “anonymous Christianity,” say that Catholicism added nothing but “explicit consciousness” to what most already have. I do not believe this is true. Catholic life, the life of discipleship, is far more than consciousness. It is an actual, explicit, anticipatory participation in the reality of the Kingdom right in the midst of history, of biography, of human life. It’s not a question of getting to salvation knowingly or not; rather, if one lives as a disciple, the whole meaning of salvation is already shaping our lives and eternal destiny. The meaning of the Kingdom, as shown by Jesus and proclaimed by the Church, shapes the salvation that people experience, partially now and fully in the eschaton.
Francis puts it this way:
It is impossible to persevere in a fervent evangelization unless we are convinced from personal experience that it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him, not the same thing to walk with him as to walk blindly, not the same thing to hear his word as not to know it, and not the same thing to contemplate him, to worship him, to find our peace in him, as not to. It is not the same thing to try to build the world with his Gospel as to try to do so by our own lights. . . . (Joy of the Gospel, # 266)
If we evangelizers have an obligation to invite as missionaries (and we surely do; we will be judged on the basis of how we lived out our missionary lives), we also have an obligation to respect the concrete ways the Kingdom comes into the lives of people. If people can see and accept only so much, if they have religious traditions that make Catholicism and Christianity almost unintelligible, if their self-understandings and histories leave them with the way faith, hope, and love have come to them, it seems that it is our job to support people in their state. All the better if Jews are good Jews, Hindus good Hindus, Muslims good Muslims, Buddhists good Buddhists. Our prayer has to be that God will use the structures and visions of these, and other world religions, to expand the “ray of Truth” that Nostra aetate mentioned. And our prayer certainly has to be that every human being attain salvation.
If, through the working of the Holy Spirit, in dialogue and respect—as Francis has been urging as he disparages the idea of proselytism—people are drawn to the Catholic Church, we certainly have to have welcome mats and open doors. That salvation may happen outside the Church does not contradict invitation and sharing faith. While we see humankind in various relationships to the Kingdom, we still do what we can to move people as close as they can come to Jesus Christ, but respecting and discerning the ways in which in which the Spirit is actually working in the lives of people.
Given the universal religious drift of many in contemporary society, as people flounder for values and meaning today, we have plenty of opportunities to do a lot of inviting—and also to give leadership to the Church as to how to invite—without targeting non-Catholics as a group, and without disparaging people for the level of faith they have. We have let the importance of the ministry of invitation to seekers and potential inquirers slip away. Most parishes are happy if they come to see themselves as a “welcoming” church; but this ignores the important ministry that must be done to reach beyond ourselves, expanding the range of the Spirit’s work, as we dialogue, share, engage, and love the other. As a recent document issued by the Paulist Community put it: “As missionaries, we impart God’s Good News with joy, affirmation, dialogue, and hope, helping others to attain the fullness God desires for them.”
Reflecting on our faith from the breadth of the Kingdom can help us access the many values of Vatican II. It’s a way to draw together the various strands that have emerged over the last seven decades, so as to maintain the importance of the mission of conversion, but doing so in a more nuanced context.