A “New Evangelisation” requires a “New Apologetics”

I cheered (in a quiet way) the news that the Holy Father may be considering creating a new “Pontifical Council for the New Evangelisation”. That is so right. It reminds me of the fact pointed out to me long ago by one of my NT teachers that whenever Jesus suffered a set back, his very next act was to “up the anti” by making a significant move in his mission to bring the Good News to the world (cf. Luke 6:6-16). Pope Benedict seems to be following the same model. Amid all the criticism he is currently receiving, he will not allow the Church to be diverted from his primary mission of evangelisation.

In this light a recent speech made by Cardinal Levada in the US about a “New Apologetics” seems right on target. The whole speech is worth reading, but here are a few choice bits.

He starts by quoting Pope Benedict to the American bishops:

“In a society that rightly values personal liberty, the church needs to promote at every level of her teaching – in catechesis, preaching, seminary and university instruction – an apologetics [his emphasis] aimed at affirming the truth of Christian revelation, the harmony of faith and reason, and a sound understanding of freedom, seen in positive terms as a liberation both from the limitations of sin and for an authentic and fulfilling life.”

He goes on to cite Avery Dulles:

“The goals and methods of apologetics have frequently shifted. The earliest apologists were primarily concerned with obtaining civil toleration for the Christian community – to prove that Christians were not malefactors deserving the death penalty. Gradually through the early centuries the apologies for Christianity became less defensive. Assuming the counteroffensive, they aimed to win converts from other groups. Some were addressed to pagans, others to Jews. Subsequently apologetics turned its attention to Moslems, then to atheists, agnostics, and religious indifferentists. Finally apologists came to recognize that every Christian harbors within himself a secret infidel. At this point apologetics became, to some extent, a dialogue between the believer and the unbeliever in the heart of the Christian himself. In speaking to his unregenerate self the apologist assumed – quite correctly – that he would best be able to reach others similarly situated.”

That last bit about modern Catholic apologetics being addressed as much to the “unbeliever” in the hearts of Catholics themselves is spot on. It seems to me that this is what groups such as EWTN or Catholic Answers are aimed at this as much as at apologetics to the outside world.

He quotes the Second Vatican Council at length to demonstrate that apologetics are an important part of the evangelising mission of the Church, even while noting the change in attitude toward apologetics that followed the Council.

I was ordained in 1961 and returned to Los Angeles to work in a parish and teach religion, including apologetics, to high school seniors. When I returned for my doctorate after the Council, I took a course on revelation from Tromp’s successor Fr. Rene Latourelle, S.J. In the span of those few years (from before to after Vatican II), the shape of the theology of revelation taught at the Pontifical Gregorian University had changed drastically, to the point where I think it is fair to say that apologetics no longer made an appearance in the theological curriculum.

He notes that one of the reasons for this change in attitude toward apologetics could have been that “old apologetics” was seen as too agressive against those who believe differently from us. “Dialogue” was the new catch word. He quotes Fr Latourelle as having written

“renewed ecumenical impulse that changed the often aggressive and polemical attitude of the old apologetics into an openness for dialogue.”

Levada has some words advice in this regard:

Finally, a new apologetics must take into account the ecumenical and interfaith context of any dialogue about religious faith in a secular world. I do not agree with those who suggest that the time for a specific Catholic apologetics has passed. But questions of spirit and faith engage all the great religious traditions and must be addressed with an openness to interfaith dialogue. Similarly, our ecumenical progress has shown us the many gifts we share in common with fellow Christians: C.S. Lewis is but one, even if outstanding, example. Our apologetics will only be strengthened by common witness and testimony with our fellow Christians about the purpose of God’s revelation in Christ, for our own lives and for the world in which we live.

I agree wholeheartedly. As one engaged in both dialogue and apologetics, we must see that in the New Evangelisation there is a legitimate place for both – they are not mortal enemies, but rather two sides of the same coin.

And when it comes to apologetics, we really can learn something from our Protestant brethren and sistern.
Again, he notes Dulles:

“Many Catholic theologians, unclear about the importance of the faith that comes through hearing, have been reluctant to align themselves with the call to proclaim the Gospel. Conservative protestant groups, although they have a conception of the Gospel that I would regard as very inadequate, are far more committed to the task of evangelization. Having drifted away from the missionary commitments of their forebears, Catholics are only beginning to catch up with Pentecostal and Biblicist Protestants. Yet the Catholic Church, with its rich intellectual and cultural heritage, has resources for evangelization that are available to no other group. We need a more outgoing, dynamic church, less distracted by internal controversy, more focused on the Lordship of Jesus Christ, more responsive to the Spirit and more capable of united action”

Amen to that.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “A “New Evangelisation” requires a “New Apologetics”

  1. Paul G

    Thanks for these links, I’ll certainly be following them up. I do a couple of Scripture classes in public schools in NSW (primary and years 7 and 8), and I think the syllabus needs to take into account that the students are generally in a sceptical environment (perhaps in Catholic schools as much as public ones).
    The current syllabus is good, but sometimes it assumes the students have support from parents and peers and have easy access to other sources of religious education, and this is often not true.

    There is currently a trial of determinedly non religous ethics classes as an alternative to Scripture, and its supporters constantly claim that they are offering reason as opposed to mindless dogma from Scripture (see the supporters’ facebook page at
    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Towards-an-Ethics-based-Complement-to-Scripture-in-NSW-Primary-Schools/153383382362 )

    There is a lot of good material available, eg by Peter Kreeft, but the challenge, I think, is to put it into the format of an age-appropriate lesson plan for schools.

  2. GAB

    “Biblicist Protestants”. That’s a term I’ve not heard before.