Editor’s Note: The following is adapted from the recently-published book The Old Evangelization by 1P5 author Eric Sammons, published by Catholic Answers Press.
One day, back when I was a diocesan director of evangelization, I was meeting with a pastor and some of his staff about launching evangelization efforts in their parish. The pastor had a sincere longing to bring people back to the Church, and he lamented the large numbers who had abandoned the Faith in recent decades. But during our discussion he repeatedly blamed the Church itself for this mass exodus, insisting that evangelization should consist primarily of apologizing to disaffected Catholics.
At first I assumed he meant apologizing for the clergy sex-abuse scandals, and naturally I agreed with him about that. After all, I knew that even lesser wrongs committed by priests can drive people away from the Church. Only after some further discussion did I realize that he wanted to apologize not only for the sins of Church leaders but for some of the Church’s teachings, particularly the most countercultural ones, such as those prohibiting contraception, abortion, and divorce.
Hardness of Heart
Unfortunately, this pastor’s attitude is widespread among Catholics—both lay and clerical—far too many of whom downplay or even deny certain Church teachings to keep the pews full; they want to lighten what they see as an impossible burden.
Things were similar in Christ’s day. Although in our day the word Pharisee is used to characterize a harsh “right-winger,” the Pharisees of Christ’s time in fact advocated relaxed laws regarding divorce and remarriage. In Matthew 19 we see them challenge Jesus on this issue, looking for ways to trip him up. According to the law of Moses, it was permissible for a man to divorce his wife (Deut. 24:1–4). But Jesus supersedes this law, harkening back to the time of Creation: “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matt. 19:4–6). As for Moses’ permission for divorce, he explains: “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery” (Matt. 19:8–9).
It’s important to remember that when the Pharisees challenged Christ, they did so as publicly as possible, hoping to discredit him. So when they asked him about divorce, they likely did so in front of a crowd, including Jews who were themselves divorced. Yet Christ didn’t hesitate to uphold the stricter law of marriage, and made it clear that to remarry after a divorce is “adultery” (Matt. 19:9). Such a “hard teaching” was surely difficult for some in the crowd to hear, and no doubt Jesus lost followers by insisting on it.
So, just as Jesus didn’t soften his teachings about divorce and remarriage in his own time, neither should we in ours. We have already seen how the modern acceptance of divorce has led to widespread suffering, especially on the part of women and children. So, while obeying the “hard teachings” of Jesus may sometimes be painful, obeying them is necessary to prevent even greater pain.
The logic behind avoiding the “hard teachings” while evangelizing is simple:
- We want to evangelize and bring people into the Church.
- The “hard teachings” will drive people away from the Church.
- Therefore, we must minimize, ignore, or even reject these “hard teachings.”
On the surface this logic is impeccable. In reality it leads to the Episcopal Church. No denomination has done more to soften its teachings and make itself socially acceptable than the Episcopalians. How did that work out for them? According to the Episcopal Church Annual, in 1965 there were 3,615,000 baptized Episcopalians. Every year following showed a decline, and by 2014, there were only 1,956,042 baptized members, a 46 percent decrease. The conclusion is inescapable: making its teachings more attractive led to a mass exodus.
Perhaps counterintuitively, then, the result of avoiding Christ’s “hard teachings” isn’t flocks of people coming through the church doors, but the opposite. After all, why would someone make the sacrifice of getting up early on Sunday and spending an hour sitting in a pew to hear a message they could hear 24/7 from the mainstream media? If a church says—either explicitly or implicitly—that the vows of marriage can be broken, what distinguishes that church from everyone else? Why bother listening to it?
This does not mean that proclaiming the “hard teachings” boldly will result in a massive number of conversions and full pews. After all, they’re called “hard teachings” because they are hard. Many people will find them too hard and reject them, and reject the messenger who preaches them. But what is the goal of evangelization? Just to have full pews? No, the real goal is making disciples. In his final words to his apostles, Christ said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20). Note these words carefully, for they are the marching orders of every Catholic evangelist:
- Make disciples. We’re not trying to get people to join a club; we’re inviting them to make a radical commitment that will change their lives dramatically. This makes evangelization fundamentally different from any membership drive or marketing program.
- Baptizing them. Becoming a disciple means entering the Church and living a sacramental life, which entails certain prohibitions. For example, one cannot receive any other sacraments until one is baptized, cannot receive Communion if not in a state of grace, and cannot get married if there are any impediments to marriage. To live a sacramental life, then, requires abiding by some strict rules.
- Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. Note that Jesus said “all.” None of Christ’s teachings are superfluous; in no instance do we find him allowing his disciples to pick and choose which teachings they will follow. He knows that we will find our true fulfillment only if we submit to all he asks of us.
What Catholicism teaches is far deeper, far more meaningful, and far more joyful than what the world does. Yes, it often demands more of us, but it also bears more and better fruit. By undercutting Church teachings to make them more like the world’s, we paradoxically make the Church less attractive, not more. When I was first exploring Catholicism, a Catholic friend compared it to a delicious seven-course meal: it has everything to delight the palate and satisfy your hunger. Anything less is a poor substitute—more like fast food. As Catholic evangelists, then, we should always follow Christ’s lead and proclaim all of his teachings—even the hard ones—with joy and confidence, knowing they are the path to eternal happiness.
Eric Sammons is the Executive Director of Crisis Publications.