When Lisa and I returned to the Catholic Church, a good friend of ours and member of our evangelical house church, decided to cross over the Tiber with us. Jacob went through RCIA and shortly thereafter moved to South Korea to teach ESL at a Christian school there. While he was in Korea he and a few of his friends felt God stirring their hearts for the families and children ensnared in the human trafficking rings of Southeast Asia. Around a year ago four of them moved to Thailand to minister to and share the Gospel with those vulnerable to the sex trade. Although they are a non-denominational ministry, he has remained committed to his Catholic faith and feels a particularly strong call to build bridges between Catholics and Protestants by uniting in ministry to those in need.
The other day Jacob contacted me on Facebook seeking some insight and advice regarding some frustrating experiences he’s had with other Catholics. As part of his ministry in Thailand, Jacob has been reaching out to Catholic missions and ministries in the area. He explains what he and his friends are doing and seeks out opportunities to combine their efforts and support each other. Two recent encounters served as prime examples of his frustration.
First Jacob met with a nun working with a group of missionary sisters. After discussing the various programs aimed at providing for the material needs of the local Thais, Jacob shared how he believes the only real way of breaking the cycles of abuse and solving the problems of human trafficking is by sharing the Gospel to bring about change in people’s hearts. To his dismay the sister, “seemed to stammer and then explained that their philosophy is that Buddhism is an equally strong path to walk and that as long as the people have strong faith in a higher power and follow it then the quality of their lives will improve and that is their aim, not to "convert” (quoting from his FB message to me). She went on to explain that while she has strong faith as a Catholic she insisted that the locals just needed to be encouraged in their own Buddhist faith and traditions.
Shortly after this encounter Jacob was having a conversation with a fellow parishioner abut evangelism. Unfortunately, that conversation did not go so well either. As he talked to him, it became clear that this man was not really Catholic, but a Universalist who had decided that Catholicism fit him best. When Jacob appealed to scripture, the Catechism, and quotes from popes, the man brushed him off by saying, “that's OUR tradition. What about those born outside of our tradition. When you say God only saves through our tradition, you are limiting God, and I don't believe in limiting God." Once again, the fundamental issue for this man was that as long as someone was finding the strength to live a moral life it didn’t really matter what faith or religion he or she followed.
As a convert to Catholicism this aversion to evangelism has been frustrating and disheartening to Jacob. When he wrote to me he said:
“Even just listening to Catholics talk about their faith, it's often with words like, "my faith is very important to me..." So many talk about "their faith, their faith, their faith" without ever really mentioning a real and true God. That doesn't necessarily mean they don't believe, it just sounds so weak. Even when the people seem true in their faith, often the idea of evangelizing is awkward for them. I don't know what to do. Do you understand this? Why is this so pandemic in the church? I read a lot about how much went wrong after Vatican II, is this one of those things? I just can't get my head around this. Any thoughts?”
I told him that I’d try to answer him by writing a blog about this, so here it goes…
First let me answer the question about Vatican II. Without a doubt the immediate aftermath of the Council made for a confusing time in the Church. The problem with Vatican II is not what it taught, but what people think it taught. So much has been done in “the spirit of Vatican II” by people who have spent precious little time actually reading the documents of the Council. Examples of this confusion can be seen in issues ranging from liturgical forms to church architecture to the idea of being a “cafeteria Catholic” on moral issues. It has also affected the missionary arm of the Church.
Many mistakenly thought and taught that Vatican II did away with the need for Catholic evangelization; that the Church had changed its teaching on who can be saved and how they can be saved. Many point to the following passage from Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church:
“Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.” (LG 16)
However, if you just keep reading the same paragraph you find this:
“But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasoning and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, "Preach the Gospel to every creature", the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.” (LG 16)
The Council wanted to set a pastoral rather than dogmatic tone. One of the purposes for calling the Council was to encourage ecumenical dialogue. Vatican II purposefully used language that fostered an attitude of reconciliation and healing rather than division. In Unitatis Redintegratio, the Decree on Ecumenism, the Council stressed that recognizing common elements of truth and beauty rather than emphasizing differences, should be the starting point for ecumenical discussions.
This desire to seek unity has wrongfully been interpreted by some to mean that there is little difference in choosing to follow a particular religion. Some have taken the Council’s appeal to the mercy of God, that God may not hold those accountable who have not heard the Gospel, to mean that we shouldn’t share the Gospel at all. But this is not the teaching of Vatican II, nor is it the teaching of the Church today.
“Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #846 quoting LG #14, emphasis added)
The simple truth of the matter is that faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. As Christians we have an obligation, a command, to spread the Gospel and invite all those who do not know Christ into relationship with him. While there may be extraordinary circumstances for people with invincible ignorance of Christ to be commended into the mercy of God, the ordinary means of salvation is only through Jesus. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. This is the teaching of the Catholic Church. It always has been.
So what about the encounters that Jacob had? What about the poor job of evangelizing done (or not done) by Catholics?
Simply put, there are large numbers of Catholics, even those who regularly attend mass or are involved in various ministries, who need to be evangelized themselves.
St. Pope John Paul II, in his 1990 Apostolic Letter entitled Mission of the Redeemer, said, “I sense that the moment has come to commit all the Church’s energies to a new evangelization...No believer in Christ, no institution of the Church can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples.”
The New Evangelization is a call to spread the Gospel to those who have never heard it, but also “invites each Catholic to renew their relationship with Jesus Christ and his Church.” Far too many Catholics go through the motions of their faith without allowing the power of grace to penetrate deep into their lives. Others have fallen victim to poor catechesis and don’t even understand the basic tenants of the faith. Still others have confused actively doing religious things (good in themselves) with having a relationship with Christ. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI often reminded the Church that the heart of Christianity is not a moral code, not a set of philosophical propositions, not an institution, but it is about a personal encounter and relationship with Jesus Christ.
Penn Jillette, atheist, comedian, magician, once said, “How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.”
We do God, ourselves, and others a great disservice by hiding the Gospel. Jacob is right. The only true Way out of the hell of Thailand’s human trafficking and sex trade is the Gospel of Jesus. There is, I suspect, within the people Jacob encountered a mixture of political correctness, fear, and materialism (refusing to acknowledge spiritual forces at work) that combine to create a mindset that really believes that only dealing with material needs and encourage faithfulness to any religion of your choice can free you from bondage to sin.
But this way of thinking and acting is not faithful Catholicism. It is not faithful Christianity. It is a neutered, impotent response. This is why we must embrace the call of the New Evangelization and boldly proclaim the Gospel, especially to our fellow Catholics. We must put off pale colored pastels of a bashful faith and show the world the vibrant beauty of encountering Jesus Christ. We need to allow the power of the Holy Spirit to transform our lives, free us from sin, addiction, and spiritual oppression.
If you’re interested in the work that Jacob and his friends are doing in Thailand check out their website: www.loveisaan.org. I know that they would certain appreciate your support through prayers or financial assistance.