When my wife and I were newlyweds and had just rented our first place, we were fortunate to find a friendly and vibrant parish nearby with a very evangelical pastor. Yes, he was Catholic! Maybe a better word would be “evangelistic”, and that’s because he understood the call our Lord Jesus gives us, reiterated by Pope St. Paul VI:
“[T]he presentation of the Gospel message is not an optional contribution for the Church. It is the duty incumbent on her by the command of the Lord Jesus, so that people can believe and be saved.”
My former pastor would often say in his homilies, “I pray that the whole world might become Catholic!” and he would exhort us to pray and work toward that end. This holy priest had a deep love for souls, welcomed all and exercised genuine charity for those in his pastoral care. He desired that all would come to know our Lord Jesus through the one, true Church he founded upon the rock of St. Peter. Notice this pastor didn’t wish for all to become mere “Christ-followers” who may be “spiritual yet not religious”, but Catholic Christians. Do we pray for the same?
Called to Evangelize All
Bear in mind that hoping for the reunion of all Christians in the one sheepfold of the Catholic Church does not entail uniformity or homogeneity. There are a variety of different liturgical rites and expressions throughout the Church, not to mention different schools of theology and spirituality as seen between the Franciscans and Dominicans, for instance. What is meant is that we are part of one body, with Christ as the Head, truly united to each other.
As St. Paul says, “I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10). This is where my former pastor, and the Church herself, receives with great concern the imperative to bring the whole world into the Catholic Church.
But I’m sure we can all admit that at one time or another, we have simply “gone along to get along”. We must rejoice and focus on what unites us to those that profess belief in God, especially non-Catholic Christians, but we cannot gloss over what sadly separates us. If we did gloss over that fact, we could never hope for real reunion. We should all take a step back as Catholics and ask ourselves if we are promoting the Catholic Church as the fullness of the Faith and as the one, true Church established by Christ Jesus, or as simply one of many different “paths”. Does it matter that one becomes Catholic?
Moreover, do we have a sense of urgency when evangelizing, truly acknowledging that “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” (CCC 846)? These are important questions to consider when it comes to the New Evangelization called for by popes of recent memory, and in this short series we’ll look at how the Catholic Church actually relates to Jesus Christ, by diving through various documents and pronouncements by the Church’s Magisterium, and how we as Catholics must witness and evangelize all, not just non-Christians, but non-Catholic Christians as well.
The Fullness of Truth
Over the last several decades we have seen our culture move to spurn people (or groups of people) that make truth claims. This spurning has been at least somewhat present throughout history, but never more so now than in the age of “standing up for your truth” instead of “the truth”. When truth becomes relative, it becomes difficult for one to proclaim the gospel in certain places as it’s easy to run into the mentality of “what may be true for you may not be true for me”. With that in mind, we see why so many people outright reject Christ and his Church. People do not want to hear that the Catholic Church is the “one, true Church”, or that Jesus is the only Name under whom we can be saved (see Acts 4:12).
So what is the evangelical-minded Catholic to do? Matters are made even more difficult when this mentality has even crept into the minds of our own Catholic brethren. Such a fact is made all the sadder when the Church has been very clear, especially into the twenty-first century, that leading people to the sacraments is of the utmost importance. For example, as one Catholic commentator put it:
“Many have reacted negatively to certain terms that have appeared throughout this debate, like fullness and defect, which suggest an enduring form of Catholic triumphalism.”
Is it really wrong or “triumphalistic” to say that the Catholic Church alone contains the fullness of truth, or that there are defects inherent in the theologies and practices of non-Catholic Christian denominations? Of course not!
No Position to Boast
The nebulous charge of “triumphalism” should not dissuade Catholics from preaching the gospel fully and unashamedly. Fr. Ray Ryland, a professor of theology at Steubenville and former Episcopalian priest himself takes down this charge masterfully:
“For decades, dissenting Catholics and lazy Catholics have used a bugaboo to inhibit or dilute authentic Catholic excitement about the Church and about the joy of being Catholic.
“The bugaboo is a vague, trumped-up sin called ‘triumphalism.’ Repeatedly we have been told by these bugaboo-ers that if you say positively the Catholic Church is the one true Church, if you enthusiastically speak of the inestimable benefits and graces of being Catholic, if you aggressively seek to bring others—Christian as well as unbaptized—into the Church, then you’re being ‘triumphalistic.’
“The strategy of this bugaboo is to identify articulate, enthusiastic Catholic witness with self-aggrandizing boasting. It is a false identification. We know we can’t boast about the Church, because we didn’t invent the Catholic faith. All we can do is give thanks for our privilege and express that thanks in witness to non-Catholics.”
For the Sake of the Gospel
Scaring people from witnessing to their non-Catholic Christian peers, often in the name of a distorted view of ecumenism, does a great disservice to healing the wounds that have come into the Body of Christ since the time of the Protestant Reformation. Ecumenism always works to bring people back into the one sheepfold. That cannot be done unless we as Catholics let our separated brothers and sisters know that, yes, their traditions have certain defects that can only be remedied by coming into the fullness of Christ’s Church.
Although there are good elements in these other ecclesial communities, as the Second Vatican Council affirms (see Lumen Gentium 8), we would not be acting in charity and love by depriving them of the truth through our faithful witness to Christ. We would not be acting in charity by letting them stay where they are. It might take a lifetime of discussion, tailor-made to each person, engaging in much prudence, but we must not let that turn into a type of cowardice or timidity in speaking the truth boldly.
In fact, Lumen Gentium goes on to say:
“All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ” .LG 14
Like Fr. Ryland said, we have nothing to boast about. Everything has been given to us by Christ. But since we hold this “exalted status”, we must do what we can to give an effective witness to others. We must give them our “why” for being Catholic, giving a defense for the Faith that we hold dear (1 Peter 3:15). How could we not share the wonderful gifts Christ has given to us through his Church?! Of course, we must always do so with “gentleness and reverence”, as St. Peter puts it, never using the truth as a cudgel to beat people with. If we are antagonistic or looking to argue with someone for the sake of arguing, then we’re not acting in love, merely becoming “a noisy gong or clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1). We must be prudent in our speech, crafting our responses to those we are engaging with as St. Paul did:
“To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”1 Corinthians 9:22-23
Our Lord desires everyone to be Catholic, because that is where his one Church subsists, and for the sake of the gospel we must also do our part in being instruments of the Holy Spirit in bringing about conversions of heart.
Unfortunately, there have been some both outside and within the Catholic Church that have misinterpreted recent documents from the Magisterium on this issue of the one Church founded by Christ. In a 2007 commentary to some responses made in questions regarding the doctrine on the Church itself, Cardinal William Levada of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) made the following observations:
“In the post-conciliar period… the doctrine of Vatican II has been, and continues to be, the object of erroneous interpretations at variance with traditional Catholic doctrine on the nature of the Church: either seeing in it a ‘Copernican revolution’ or else emphasizing some aspects almost to the exclusion of others.”
‘Without Alteration or Deviation’
The Second Vatican Council had no intention of changing the Church’s doctrine, even though many people have thought that it has. Pope St. Paul VI, when promulgating Lumen Gentium, was very clear in saying:
“There is no better comment to make than to say that this promulgation really changes nothing of the traditional doctrine. What Christ willed, we also will. What was, still is. What the Church has taught down through the centuries, we also teach.”
The Church did not hit a “reset button” circa 1969. The Church maintains continuity with all previous centuries specifically because it was created by Christ. Doctrine may be developed, made more explicit or clarified, but infallible doctrine on the nature of the Church is not alterable. As Pope St. John XXIII affirmed as the Council got underway in 1962:
“The Council … wishes to transmit Catholic doctrine, whole and entire, without alteration or deviation … ”
The New Evangelization
The interpretations that say teachings such as Petrine primacy or “no salvation outside the Church” have effectively been done away with are precisely the erroneous interpretations Cardinal Levada was referring to in his commentary. We have come to a fuller understanding of these and other doctrines in the years since the Council, but they have not been reversed. This is also true regarding the doctrine of the Catholic Church being the one true Church. In the CDF’s initial responses to those questions in 2007, it stated:
“The Council wished to express the identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church. This is clear from the discussions on the decree Unitatis redintegratio.”
That same discussion came to the conclusion that “the Catholic Church alone is the true Church of Christ.”
So what does that mean for us today? How do we better understand these declarations in light of present-day ecumenical efforts? In the next part of this series, we will trace how this doctrine on the Church has been clearly defined time and time again. This has great importance for us living in the age of the New Evangelization because the Church’s call to bring all into her loving embrace is just as necessary in the twenty-first century as it was in the first.
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Nicholas LaBanca is a cradle Catholic and hopes to give a unique perspective on living life in the Catholic Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria.