The Social Dimension of Evangelization (Part 1)

New Evangelization synod, October 2012

New Evangelization Synod, October 2012

Few Catholic commentators would deny that the New Evangelization has become one of the–if not the–most important ecclesial policies of the  Catholic Church today. Influential Catholic reporter John Allen suggests that the term itself has “become the buzzword par excellence in Catholic circles. Books are being published, lectures given, conferences organized, diocesan offices created, and whole courses of study put together, all devoted to the ways and means of the New Evangelization.”[1] Many have also noted Pope Francis’ deep concern for the poor and the social implications of the Gospel and questioned how his papacy will shape the meaning of and conversation about the New Evangelization (NE).

This is the question I’d like to explore in a series of posts.Building upon the important sociological research of two of our contributors, Mike McCallion and Benjamin Bennett-Carpenter, on this topic, I’d like to ask the following: What is the place of Catholic social teaching and liberation theology in the ongoing conversation about and vision of the NE in the U.S. and beyond?  Pope Francis’s brand new apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, will be a suitable place to end this discussion. But first…

The history of the question

Before exploring Evangelii Gaudium, it should be considered how previous Popes have understood the social dimensions of sharing the Good News, that is, of evangelization. In Paul VI’s Evangelii nuntiandi, he affirmed the importance of denouncing oppressive and dehumanizing social structures, which are antithetical to the gospel itself. Importantly, however, the Pope warned that priority must always be given to the religious finality of evangelization and to the interior conversion that is required for salvation, without which “no social structures can assure a truly human culture” (n. 32-36).[2] John Paul II frequently took up social dimensions of evangelization as well. “Authentic human development,” he wrote in Redemptoris misso, “must be rooted in an ever deeper evangelization” (n. 58). Yet, as contributors to our blog Mike McCallion and Benjamin Bennett-Carpenter have noted in their recent research on the NE, John Paul II stressed that concepts such as “liberation” should become a part of the conversation about evangelization, but “evangelization” must not be reduced to, or viewed as merely a part of, “liberation.” They write: “In the pope’s articulation, the Good News… is liberative, but liberation is not the Good News, that is, does not constitute its totality.”[3] Even more striking, perhaps, are Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s comments on the topic. Moreover, his entire encyclical Caritas in veritate pivots on the idea that “charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness” is absolutely central to Christian discipleship and “the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity” (n. 1). Certainly, Pope Benedict viewed such social advances as improved science and technology, the widening of individual freedom, and profound economic growth as key factors in promoting human dignity globally.  Yet importantly, he warned elsewhere that precisely these same social advances have been among the “variety of factors in the weakening of religious faith in the West” (a decline in faith, we should note, which was the very reality that sparked John Paul II’s call for the NE in the first place).[4] Moreover, while some people of faith have viewed these changes as a “liberation,” the Pope Emeritus stands with others who have seen the “interior desert” that can accompany such social advances, when people try to live without more essential values and religious faith.[5]

McCallion and Bennet-Carpenter highlight this perceived tension between evangelization and social justice in various bishops’ statements as well, such as a 2004 address by Cardinal Angelo Sodano to Catholic peace and justice organizations: “When Christians undertake action and neglect their personal relationship with Jesus Christ, they do not do more for the good of society but less…. Only someone who has been made new in Christ is able to bring about the authentic renewal of social institutions and …a serious contribution to the development of justice and peace.”[6] As those authors note, there are dozens of other such examples at the local, national and international levels of NE proponents’ prioritizing concepts and language such as “interior conversion,” “personal relationship with Jesus,” and of course, “new evangelization,” over rhetoric such as “social justice,” the “common good” and “liberation.”

In my view, there is a clear desire among Church leadership that the NE be seen as vitally including work toward social justice. Yet, it is noteworthy that there seems to be a certain ambivalence about such terms as “liberation” and the insistence that priority must always be given to the religious finality of evangelization and that personal conversion as required for salvation be acknowledged explicitly.[7]

In my next post, I will explore some counter-tendencies to this prioritization of personal conversion (and ambivalence about “liberation”) within the Church (especially in Latin America), which I think speak to Pope Francis’ own orientation towards this issue.

[2] See Avery Cardinal Dulles, S. J. “The Program: Paul VI, John Paul II, and the New Evangelization,” in Evangelization for the Third Millenium (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2009).

[3] Bennett-Carpenter and McCallion. “Specialized, Ecclesial Ideography,” Michigan Academician 41.1 (Winter 2012), 9.

[4] “New Vatican agency to combat ‘de-Christianization’.” National Catholic Reporter 29 Oct. 2010: 4. Expanded Academic ASAP. Web. 22 Sept. 2013.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Angelo Cardinal Sodano. “The Church’s Commitment to Justice and Peace” (Address to the Opening Session of the first World Congress of Ecclesial Organizations Working for Justice and Peace). 27 October 2004, § 6. Accessed at on 10 September 2013.

[7] See, for example, the U.S. Catholic Bishops, Disciples Called to Witness: The New Evangelization. Accessed 20 September 2013. They write: “Increasingly, we recognize that generosity of spirit and commitment to charity and justice are vehicles to bring people into relationship with Jesus and his church. Social justice and direct service opportunities provide powerful experiences with the person of Jesus, especially for adolescents and young adults. Service, when understood as serving Christ in others and as a means to share the Gospel, has the ability to bring the server and the one being served closer to Christ.”


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