Vatican Files N. 1

Article by   February 2011
[Editor's Note:] This is the first of a seven-part series on Roman Catholicism in the 21st century. A new entry in the series should follow every three weeks].

Setting up a new Pontifical Council is not something that happens often in the Vatican, given the conservative nature of the institution. Yet Pope Benedict XVI has just released the motu proprio document (entitled Ubicumque et semper, "everywhere and always") that establishes the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization. One of the reasons why this recent move deserves careful consideration is that it is going to be a long term initiative. The central concern that gives name to the Council is also of great significance, especially for Evangelicals who like to think that they "own" everything that is related to evangelism-evangelization. Here is a Vatican office devoted to foster the new evangelization of the West. Another feature that would ring some Evangelical bells is a long quote from Evangelii nutiandi, a 1975 Vatican document on mission that many observers have seen as the Roman Catholic counterpart of the 1974 Lausanne Covenant. So mission to the Western world is right at the heart of the Vatican agenda.

Facing the challenge of the secular West is a typical concern of Pope Ratzinger. In many ways, his first years of being Pope can be read as an attempt to deal with this issue. The newly established Council is the "institutional" way to confront it. The letter contains reference to some themes which are dear to Benedict XVI: he points to the progressive loss of Christian practice in the First World as well as the on-going abandonment of Christian values in Western society leading to indifference if not harshly anti-Christian attitudes. In one word, the Pope thinks that "secularism" is the big spiritual enemy of the Church. He calls the Church to a phase of re-vitalization of its inner life to respond to secular trends.

The Ubicumque et semper papal letter does not contain a full-orbed theology on the new evangelization. Yet there are hints that perhaps deserve a comment and that puts this Vatican move in perspective. 

1. The rhetoric of the progressive de-christianization of Europe has been a persistent feature of papal pronouncements since the French Revolution. "There is good reason to fear lest this great perversity may be as it were a foretaste, and perhaps the beginning of those evils which are reserved for the last days; and that there may be already in the world the "Son of Perdition" of whom the Apostle speaks (II. Thess. ii., 3). Such, in truth, is the audacity and the wrath employed everywhere in persecuting religion, in combating the dogmas of the faith, in brazen effort to uproot and destroy all relations between man and the Divinity!" These words seem Ratzinger's but were written by Pius X in 1903 in his encyclical E supremi apostolatus (n.  5). In a sense, there is nothing new under the sun. Churches have been engaging forms of secularism for at least the last three centuries. What is perhaps new is the danger that the institutional churches may lose their privileged status in a pluralist society. It seems that present-day secularism cannot cope with pre-Revolution settlements between church and state. Is this what Ratzinger fears most?

2. In assessing the danger of secularism, Benedict XVI charges it with all kinds of evil. In many ways, his evaluation is accurate. Yet, something of importance is missing. There is not a single word on the responsibility of the Church for the poor state of Western Christianity. Has the Church really worked hard to proclaim the Gospel with integrity to the observing modern world? Has the Church been faithful to the Word of God? Is the Church somewhat responsible for causing, at least in part, the disturbing secular trends? Does the Church need to look at her own sins before pointing the finger at the world? The document does not address this. It does not even ask the question!

3. The encouragement given to the Church is to promote the new evangelization and to re-ignite her mission to shape society. The document does not hope for conversion to the Gospel, as the Lausanne Covenant would say. It rather points to the recovery of a Christian society where Christian values are honored and practiced and where the Church is recognized for being a shaper and upholder of society. What does evangelization hope for? Does it foster a nostalgia for the "Christian society" of the European past? But were these societies Christian in the Gospel sense? Should we not accept the challenge of evangelizing the West without wanting it to simply go backwards?
 
4. A final comment on the tools that Pope Benedict XVI sees as crucial for the task. Prominent is "the use of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as the essential and complete formulation of the content of the faith". It is perfectly legitimate for the Head of the Roman Catholic Church to support the use of the Catechism. Yet, Gospel people would have expected the Pope to encourage people the read, study and share the Bible. Evidently, for him the Catechism contains the Bible, not vice versa.


Leonardo De Chirico is lecturer in theology at IFED (Istituto di Formazione Evangelica e Documentazione) in Padova, Italy, and editor of the theological journal Studi di teologia. After twelve years of church planting and then pastoring a Reformed Baptist church in Ferrara, since 2009 he is involved in a church planting work in central Rome. He has degrees in history (Bologna) and theology (ETCW, Bridgend, UK). His PhD was obtained from King's College, London, and subsequently published as Evangelical Theological Perspectives on post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism (Frankfurt-Oxford: Peter Lang 2003).  
His recent works include the editorship of the Dizionario di teologia evangelica (2007) together with Pietro Bolognesi and Andrea Ferrari and the editorship of the exchange of letters between John Calvin and the Duchess of France (2009). He is married to Valeria and they have two teen-age boys: Filippo and Akille.


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