Why Catholics Are So Bad at Evangelizing—And What Has to Change

Image: The miracles of St. Francis Xavier (see full image here), by Peter Paul Rubens

Two good friends, fellow parishioners, are having coffee and donuts after High Mass one Sunday. 

Maximilian: I really enjoyed Father’s homily today. His explanation of the parable of the mustard seed and the yeast in the dough hit the nail on the head.

Roberto: I thought so, too. It was neat when he said it’s not just the kingdom of God that can be compared to a seed or yeast, but Christ Himself, who came into our world as a tiny baby in a manger, grew up in the middle of nowhere, and died as a convicted criminal—in the world’s eyes, this is all contemptibly small. His way of gathering disciplines, His itinerant preaching, it was all like that seed, seemingly insignificant but now grown over the ages into a tree that stretches across the world.

Max: He had that quote from Ratzinger, too—that Jesus not only preaches, inaugurates, and rules the kingdom of God, but He is the Kingdom, “in person.” And when we receive Him in Holy Communion, then His own words are perfectly fulfilled: “The kingdom of God is within you.” 

Berto: And then he said the same is true for individual Catholics: we should be those seeds that mature into great bushes to give protection and rest to others who are weary and searching. We should be like a yeast rolled into the dough of our society, lifting it up to God.

Max: Right around that spot, he said something terribly important. Let me see if I can remember how he put it. “You know, modern Catholics are not very good at spreading the Faith. In centuries past, we had missionaries who went from one end of the earth to the other, planting the standard of the Cross, preaching the Gospel, suffering and dying for it, bringing countless souls into the Church. Why are we so timid, so unwilling to stick our necks out? Why do we hide our light under a bushel, content to keep our faith a private affair? Jesus said the kingdom begins like a mustard seed, but it’s not supposed to remain there. It should grow, branch out, and get huge, changing the lives of many. The dough is supposed to rise and become delicious, nourishing bread.”

Berto: And he went on to say that this doesn’t seem to be happening much anymore. The Church is missionary by nature, but many live as though it’s enough to be a believer, and never think of speaking a word of invitation to anyone else around them who isn’t already going to church. In this way we are not growing and leavening as we should. Why aren’t RCIA classes packed, standing room only? Why isn’t the Easter Vigil everywhere full of baptisms, confirmations, and first communions?”

Max: This is something I’ve been puzzling over for many years.

Berto: Have you gotten anywhere in your thinking? Why is evangelization practically non-existent among Catholics?

Max: Well, I’m sure there are many reasons, but I can think of at least three major ones. The first is maybe the most obvious. We—I’m speaking of people in the modern West—we have completely bought into the error of the Enlightenment that religion is a private affair and that we should not “bother” anyone else about their faith or lack of faith in God. It’s “between a man and his Maker.” It’s just a matter of individual conscience. This comes from the fundamental error of thinking that man is not a social animal, as if his happiness, even his salvation, is purely individualistic. We’re all atoms floating in the void, and besides, we can’t know for sure if anything we’re thinking is objectively true. So we keep our big ideas to ourselves and muddle along as best we can, acting selfishly or altruistically depending on what seems to suit the need of the hour. It’s a depressing picture of human beings and their life together. It certainly doesn’t recognize that man is inherently relational and religious, and that he must find his fulfillment in communal worship of the true God.

Berto: If religion is just a private affair and you can’t even know for sure whether you’re right or not, why would you go out of your way to talk it up with neighbors, acquaintances, coworkers? You might “offend their sensibilities,” as people say.

Max: A second issue is this. Thanks to the unholy “spirit of Vatican II,” we have drunk the Kool Aid of universalism: everyone, or nearly everyone, will be saved. God is so merciful that He either sends no one to hell, or you have to work really hard to send yourself to hell—you’ve got to want it badly. So, basically, there’s no urgency to spread the Faith, because we just assume that most people are good willed and heading in the right direction.

Berto: Your point is proved by the auto-canonization that occurs at practically every Novus Ordo funeral. Looking back on my youth, I can’t think of a funeral I went to where we didn’t just hear about how great the deceased person was and how “he’s now in a better place” and “we’ll all get to see him again in heaven,” etc. The Vatican doesn’t need to simplify the process of canonization any further; all you need to do is die and you’re in!

Max: Right. It was the same where I grew up. I can’t recall a single funeral where we focused our attention on praying for the repose of the soul of the departed. That was what struck me most about the traditional Requiem Mass when I first attended it. For all intents and purposes, it ignores the faithful who are there, so intense is its focus on the fate of the departed soul. 

Berto: What you’re saying is perfectly summed up in the “Dies irae.”

Max: Now that’s a prayer that makes you want to get on your knees and stay there a while! But let’s get back to universalism. For the Church Fathers, the default assumption is that man is lost without faith in Christ, without His grace.

Berto: You don’t have to wait until the Church Fathers. It’s already all there in St. Paul, clear as day. Did you catch that last line of today’s Epistle? Something about “turning from idols to serve the living and true God, and waiting for His Son from heaven, Jesus, Who hath delivered us from the wrath to come”?

Max: Whereas in recent decades, the default assumption is that man is automatically saved unless he massively blows it. 

Berto: In fact, if we start to “disturb” people about Christ and His Church and their need for faith, grace, the sacraments, and so on, we risk unsettling them and diverting them from the path on which God was already leading them home.

Max: Our intervention might even cause them to lose their salvation by explicitly rejecting Christ, whereas before they were “implicitly” accepting Him! We can’t do that, right?

Berto: Have you noticed how this mentality goes hand in hand with forgetting about the rights of God and His just claims on us?

Max: Not to mention His ire towards those who do not respond to His call! The Bible—in both Testaments—is full of talk about divine wrath upon sinners. The old liturgy is the same way. To judge from the Novus Ordo and from typical Catholic homilies, and especially funerals, you’d never know anything about this stuff.

Berto: As if God had just decided to give up some of His attributes as too old-fashioned— 

Max: —or more to the point, as if some of His spokesmen made the decision for Him. It’s bad PR to be talking about vengeance, retribution, punishment, eternal death, hellfire, and so forth. As we were just saying a moment ago, no one really deserves these things, which makes several hundred verses of Scripture superfluous verbiage. 

Berto: It’s hard to believe that people who claim to be Christians, let alone Catholics, can fall for such lunacy. I suppose it comes of no longer believing in original sin and actual sin.

Max: What do you mean?

Berto: I only mean that if human beings are born in sin and prone to sin, “children of wrath” who are bound to be displeasing to God, then we urgently need God’s help to turn our lives around and start living for Him, as we were created to do. We have to be rescued, and Christ is the only Savior. If we don’t have all the marvelous aids the Church provides, especially the sacraments, we are goners.

Max: That’s exactly what all the old catechisms said. That’s what the old liturgy conveys, too. In the past few years I’ve come to see more and more how the Catholic Faith—in its consoling truths and its hard truths—is deeply woven into every aspect of the traditional Roman rite, and how it’s as if the new liturgy is embarrassed or ashamed or scared to tell the truth, and suppresses it, glosses it over, handles it with kid gloves, or whatever. You just don’t get the same doctrine, and it makes a huge difference in one’s spiritual life.

Berto: We are so fortunate to have the traditional liturgy here at our parish! I tell you, it has pounded into me the reality of God’s holiness, the gravity of sin, and the real priorities of life.

Max: I know what you’re talking about. As a Catholic growing up in a typical parish, I never even dreamed of wanting to become a “saint.” That kind of talk would have made me laugh, if anyone had ever said it. Now, I get it. I see that this is it, the whole adventure of life, the meaning of it all.

Berto: And, as the pastor has introduced over the years Sunday Vespers, Confession in the old rite, Nuptial Masses and Requiem Masses, all of it, I found myself falling in love with my faith. Can you imagine? It used to be going through the motions, or more focused on seeing my friends—I like seeing my friends, don’t get me wrong—but God is really at the center of everything. Traditional Catholicism makes you feel it, see it, hear it. 

Max: You even smell it when those acolytes get going with the incense!

Berto: But we are getting a bit sidetracked. You spoke about three reasons for the lameness of Catholic evangelization. What’s the third?

Max: It’s simply this. There has been and still is so much doctrinal and moral confusion in the postconciliar Church that it is becoming more and more difficult for people, whether on the inside or on the outside, to know what the Church actually teaches and how we are supposed to live it day to day. How can you preach a Gospel when you doubt or downplay or quarrel over half of what it says? How can you preach a consistent message if you’re constantly tinkering with your catechism or your liturgy?

Berto: Sadly, you’re right. Ask a sampling of Catholics about the Real Presence or whether the Mass is a sacrifice. Ask them if contraception’s okay, or abortion. You’ll get all sorts of incoherent, contradictory answers.

Max: How can anyone with half a brain take Catholicism seriously when it permits today what it outlawed yesterday, or vice versa? When it denigrates today what it proudly hailed in the past, and promotes ideas and practices that would have churned the stomachs of countless saints? When it now treats as intolerable the pious beliefs and customs that Catholics used to follow, sometimes for a thousand years or more?

Berto: I hear what you’re saying, but we have to recognize, don’t we, that all this stuff is not Catholicism—it is only the mental fever and fog of the people running the show, and that’s not the same thing at all.

Max: No, of course not, but I’m talking about the popular perception of confusion—of a Church running around in circles to play catch-up with the contemporary world. Think of all the feminism, the environmental­ism and globalism and what not. The advocacy of the United Nations. The Vatican’s invitations to pro-abortion and pro-euthanasia speakers. It goes on and on. No wonder even those who want to be faithful Catholics are getting totally confused. At the end of the day, it looks increasingly as if you can believe anything you want and still call yourself a Catholic.

Berto: That’s not entirely true. You’re not allowed to be traditional—that’s beyond the pale. But everything else is fair game.

Max: Ah, well, such is life in the Church today. But anyway, regardless of whose fault the confusion is, how far back we trace it, how much the Council is responsible, etc., the practical effect is clear. As St. Paul said: “If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” No one rallies to a confused army, no one marches to an irregular drummer. It’s as if Catholicism is a “process,” morphing with the world around it, instead of a firm foundation we can build on.

Berto: I’d agree with that. (pauses) But I wonder…

Max: About what?

Berto: Your three reasons are very much to the point, but I think we need to bring in a fourth one as well.

Max: Which is…?

Berto: Let’s say we do convince someone to listen to us, and we get them to see that Catholicism is a consistent belief system that gives meaning to life. What are we inviting them to, once they decided to check us out? We are spoiled at this parish with the High Mass, the beautiful sacred music, the orthodox preaching, the altar server guild, and so on, but frankly, this is one in a thousand, a diamond in a heap of coals.

Max: You’re saying, if we overcome the other factors, there’s still all the byproducts of the liturgical revolution to deal with—the abuses and novelties in the Mass, the banality of the music, the ugliness of so many churches…

Berto: Right. And these are a formidable obstacle to people searching for the one true religion. Surely this religion, above all, should be characterized by the beauty and splendor of its worship, an atmosphere of mystery and prayer, an intense conviction of supernatural realities. This is why the traditional worship of the Church used to be the cause of so many conversions. It was the living and breathing animal, compared to which all other religions were like shadows or cartoon sketches.

Max: Indeed, though it pains me to say it, the new Catholic worship itself is like a shadow or a cartoon of the old.

Berto: At least the old worship is still attracting converts in a place like this.

Max: Thanks be to God for that.

Berto: But you know how it is: the entire infrastructure is against us. We can’t help looking like extremists to the outside world, and to our fellow Catholics, because everyone else is so far gone in the other direction. They call us “rigid fundamentalists” and things like that…

Max: And I think one could connect a related point to yours: there is almost nothing demanding about being a Catholic nowadays. Fasting is mostly gone; abstinence is no longer required; the precepts of the Church are unknown or ignored; sexual discipline is passed over glibly. How is anyone looking for a tried-and-true way of life—the “people of good will” we are supposed to be spreading the Faith to—supposed to buy into this charade? Almost all of the false religions demand more. Catholicism used to demand of us everything—and it promised us everything. It gave meaning to one’s entire life. It permeated the day, the week, the month, the year, with signs of the sacred. It asked us to sacrifice good things for even better things. It offered us a narrow path to holiness and heaven, in the company of Our Lord, Our Lady, and a host of saints. Where is all that now?

Berto: Sure, we try to live it among ourselves as best we can, and we know it’s the truth, but it is not the institutional norm any more—indeed, the all-too-human institution largely rejects it.

Max: No wonder Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the West. It takes God and religion seriously.

Berto: And we will have to do that too, if we ever expect to be mustard seeds or leaven again. It goes back to what we heard Father preach about on the last Sunday of October: we have to make Christ King of everything—our hearts, souls, and minds, our families, our cities and nations.

Max: Dare I say, of our Church, too?

Berto: That goes without saying.

Max (after a pause): We’ve made quite a big circuit in this conversation, haven’t we?

Berto: Shall we try to sum it up so we can remember it better?

Max: Sure. The Church, and individual Catholics in it, are supposed to be mustard seeds and leaven in this world. Or, as some prefer to say, “salt and light.” We have a missionary imperative from Christ to convert the world. But there are at least five serious obstacles to evangelizing today, any one of which would already deal a serious blow to the endeavor. First, the privatization of religion. Second, the rejection of original sin and the assumption of universal salvation. Third, the widespread doctrinal and moral confusion in the Church. Fourth, the banality and irreverence of mainstream Catholic worship. Fifth, the utter lack of ascetical demands. When you put all these together, you get Catholics who don’t think they should bother other people about religion, who assume that most people are already fine, who are not even quite sure they know what they believe, have nothing especially attractive to invite people to, and are not living and promoting a way of life that would respond to the needs of any serious searcher.

Berto: So, let me guess at a grand conclusion. You’re saying that all this “New Evangelization” rhetoric is pretty much hot air? And that it can’t possibly work?

Max: Yes, that’s right. It’s premised on the assumption that basically “all is well” inside the Church, and we just need to “invite” and “welcome” people to “share” the love feast with us. As Ratzinger once said, it’s the dead burying the dead and calling it renewal.

Berto: Or to put it more sharply: where there is novelty, there is disease and death; where there is tradition, there is health and new life.

Max: What we actually need is—

Berto: —let me guess again: Old Evangelization.

Max: Spot on. The stuff the saints used to do. The reason they converted the entire world to the Faith once upon a time. That’s what we have to do today: real worship, real doctrine, real morals, real demands. Then the Lord will give us real results. We can’t expect any knights in shining armor to ride in to our aid. We’ve got to do the Lord’s work or no one will. And there’s no time to waste…

Berto: Oh my, look at the time! I have to get going—we’ve got company coming over for dinner and I promised my wife that I’d prepare all the dishes, to give her a break. She’s cooking all week long, and homeschooling all our kids on top of it…

Max: You and your wife are doing the Lord’s work, that’s for sure! God bless you both. Thanks for the good conversation.

Berto: I’ll give you a call later in the week. Pray for me.

Max: Absolutely. And you for me. See you soon.

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