The Gospel of Matthew ends in a striking manner. The last recorded instruction that Jesus gives to his disciples is found in Mt 28:18-20. He says, “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” This command is often referred to as the Great Commission, and it is worthy of special attention. It is possible that these were the last words Jesus spoke before ascending to his Father in heaven. At very least, they are the last words recorded by Matthew, which would imply that he wanted them ringing in our ears. It is not difficult to see why this would be the case. The Great Commission revealed to the disciples what the next step would be when their Lord no longer walked among them. With these words, the resurrected Christ gives the Church her task—her mission. As members of that Church, we must be striving at all times to baptize, teach, and make disciples of all nations. Our job as “the light of the world” (Mt 5:14) is to enter the darkness and let our light “shine before men” (Mt 5:16). In order to do this well, we must frequently step back and take stock of our situation. The sailor of a ship, if he wants to stay on course, often compares his heading to the stars in the sky or the needle on a compass. Failure to do so may result in being lost at sea, way off course, with little hope of ever reaching the destination. As Christians, our task is to make disciples of all nations. What follows is a theological glance at the compass and a subsequent effort to redirect.
This analysis will take form in four parts. Part 1 will consist of an examination of the state of things today with regard to the Church’s mission to make disciples of all nations. This investigation will be limited to the Catholic Church’s struggles in the United States, although it is likely that similar conclusions could be drawn more broadly. Part 1 is essentially the acknowledgment of a problem: the dramatic loss of faith among American Catholics. Part 2 will consist of an argument which locates the principal cause of the problem. Three possible alternatives will be considered, but ultimately a defect in Catholic preaching will be identified as the principal cause of the loss of faith. This argument will be theological in nature, as the subject matter, i.e. faith, cannot be understood apart from divine revelation. Part 3 will consist of a search for and eventual arrival at the specific nature of the cause. This will take the form of a detailed examination of the essence of preaching. This will require a theological dive into the economy of revelation, Christ’s role as the mediator between God and men (see 1 Tim 2:5), and certain observations about the current state of contemporary Catholic preaching. Finally, having identified the specific nature of the cause of the problem, Part 4 will present the solution that naturally arises from the previous conclusions. It is here that the argument will bridge from the abstract and theoretical to the particular and the practical. Since the Son of God is mediated by the humanity of Christ, the preacher’s/evangelist’s principal task is to mediate the humanity of Christ. This mediation is accomplished by recounting and explaining what the Tradition holds about the words and deeds of Jesus in history. In short, good preaching is Christocentric, but contemporary Catholic preaching in the United States is not. If we want to ignite and restore the faith of America’s lost sheep, then he must increase, and we must decrease (see Jn 3:30).
Part 1: The Problem
Key to this entire discussion is a basic understanding of what it means to be a “disciple” of Christ. The disciples of Christ are those who follow him and listen to him. They are the ones who have denied themselves and taken up their crosses to be counted among the followers of Jesus (Mk 8:34). The disciples are the ones who know who Jesus is. They are the sheep who hear his voice (Jn 10:27). Scripture tells us that “in Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians” (Acts 11:26). This is the name by which we know them today. They are the Christian faithful. The Greek word for disciple is “mathetes,” which means a student or apprentice. Students listen to their teachers and learn from them. The disciples of Christ are those who learn from him and believe what he says. This belief in the teachings of Christ is the belief that defines Christian faith even today. This shows us that the charge to “make disciples of all nations” is really all about faith. The Great Commission is a command for the disciples to share their faith with all people. We cannot speak intelligently about this until we know what faith actually is. Our primary Scriptural source in this area will be Hebrews 11. Our sources from the Tradition will include some selections from the writings of St. Athanasius and St. Thomas Aquinas. Our primary Magisterial source will be the Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated by Pope John Paul II. Finally, our scholarly sources will include Christian Faith and the Theological Life, a book by Romanus Cessario as well as the studies conducted by the Pew Research Center.
Fortunately the concept of Christian faith is not too difficult to understand because the term “faith” is even used appropriately in purely natural situations which serve as helpful parallels. For example, we often hear people say that they have “faith” in their friends, their co-workers, or their favorite sports teams. What they mean is that they have confidence in them—they trust them. To have faith in friends is to believe they will act as a friends. To have faith in co-workers is to believe they will do their work well. To have faith in a sports team is to believe they will play the game well. In short, to have faith in someone is to trust his word and accept what he says as true. For this reason, faith is described by the Church as a “response” or an “assent.” It exists somewhere in between knowledge and doubt. On one hand, we do not have faith that our team will win if the game is over and we know with certainty that they have already won. On the other hand, we do not have faith that our co-worker will do his work well if we doubt his ability to do so based on past experience. The author of the letter to the Hebrews defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). If faith is “conviction,” St. Thomas comments that it can be distinguished from “opinion, suspicion, and doubt.” If it is conviction of “things not seen,” then it can be distinguished from “science and understanding” which grasp the intrinsic intelligibilites of things. Using this framework, we can understand faith to be an assent to propositions that cannot be verified with scientific certainty.
This suffices for a definition of faith in general. Christian faith, more specifically, is an assent “to the whole truth that God has revealed.” Christian faith is not man’s response to his friends, co-workers, or a favorite sports team. It is man’s response “to God.” Therefore, the very notion of Christian faith presupposes the idea that God speaks to us. We cannot have faith in what God has revealed, in what God says, unless God actually reveals and says something. For Christian faith to really be faith instead of knowledge, it is also necessary that the things which God reveals be things which we cannot know with certainty by way of reason. This is included in the very word, “revelation,” which denotes a sort of uncovering or lifting of the veil. Christian faith, therefore, is man’s assent to God’s revelation as being true.
This hidden reality, inaccessible to reason on its own, which God has chosen to reveal by speaking to men is nothing other than God himself. The transcendent God “reveals himself and gives himself to man.” The Catechism teaches that “by his Revelation, ‘the invisible God, from the fullness of his love, addresses men as his friends, and moves among them, in order to invite and receive them into his own company.’ The adequate response to this invitation is faith.” Christian faith presupposes, therefore, that God speaks to man about himself. In response to these words of revelation, men can assent to them as being true, and this assent is called “faith.” God’s revelation of himself is one of the mysteries at the very center of the Christian religion. One could even say that this is the chief and most fundamental mystery of the Christian religion because all the other mysteries are contained within it. God’s revelation, his speaking about himself, is the very thing which birthed Christinaity. St. Athanasius writes beautifully about this great mystery of God’s revelation. In De Incarnatione, he writes that “when God the Almighty was making mankind through His own Word, He perceived that they, owing to the limitation of their nature, could not of themselves have any knowledge of their Artificer, the Incorporeal and Uncreate. He took pity on them, therefore, and did not leave them destitute of the knowledge of Himself, lest their very existence should prove purposeless.” We will look at this quotation in a little more detail later on, but for now it will suffice to say that Athanasius thinks God cannot be known via man’s natural reason, and so he chose to endow man with knowledge of himself.
If revelation is ultimately the unveiling of God, then Christian faith must be faith in the revealed things of God. This destination of the human mind in faith is rightly spoken of as the “object” of faith. In the classical understanding, objects are to be distinguished from agents. The agent is the one who acts. The object is that which the agent has an interaction with via that action. One can further distinguish between formal and material objects. Romanus Cessario teaches with great clarity that the material object “signifies the specifying reality, the thing, from the point of view of its givenness or facticity.” To use his example, if a man (the agent) sees an apple, the material object of the man’s act of seeing the apple is the apple itself—the thing which is seen. On the other hand, the formal object denotes “the psychological and formal interest that engages the action with the material object.” One does not glance at an apple and immediately know everything about it. Vision depends upon color, and so the act of seeing something is formally about the color that is seen. Thus the formal object in the act of seeing an apple is once again the apple, but this time, the apple considered precisely as red. This sort of breakdown can be applied to all sorts of actions: such as seeing, hearing, touching, knowing, and loving. It is very helpful to identify the formal and material objects of an act because acts are specified by their objects. We cannot know the significance of an action without reference to the object.
Christian faith is an act of the intellect. It is the human intellect’s assent to the revelation of God as true. Romanus Cessario again teaches with great clarity that “God also functions as the material object of theological faith: God himself is the de facto ‘thing’ reached by the act of faith.” Man receives God’s revelation of himself and assents to it. Since the thing revealed is God, then Christian faith could rightly be described as belief in God. Cessario also says that “God as First Truth constitutes the formal object of theological faith.” This is because Christian faith is belief that the revealed things of God are true. Christian faith is assent to revealed propositions as being true propositions. As the eyes perceive color, so the intellect perceives truth. Faith, therefore, as an act of the intellect, must be an assent to God considered formally as First Truth. The act of seeing has a material object of the apple itself, and a formal object of the apple as red. The act of faith has a material object of God himself, and a formal object of God as First Truth.
Our understanding of God as the object of faith enables us to see what St. Athanasius meant when he said that God “took pity” on us. Without revelation, we have no way of knowing about the hidden things of God. Without that knowledge, there is no way to have real faith in God. Without faith in God, there is no way for us to be united to him. This is why Christians speak of faith as “a personal adherence of man to God.” Faith is the first of the three theological virtues which “constitute the supernatural capacities given to the Christian that enable him or her to adhere personally to the triune God.” This personal adherence to God is so important because God is our ultimate end. Nothing else will make us happy and perfected. This is our whole goal in life because “God put us in the world to know, to love, and to serve him, and so to come to paradise.” Faith unites us to God, just like getting to know our friends binds us closer to them. This connection with the divine is constituted by “believing in God, hoping in God, and above all, loving God.” Loving is most important, but believing comes first, because we cannot love what we do not know. Therefore faith is the first step in the Christian life, and it underlies every subsequent aspect of that life on earth.
Because faith enables us to adhere personally to God, it is our faith, our belief in God, that saves us. We need to be closely united to God in every possible way so that, when we die, we are connected to the transcendent and are able to go on to eternal life. This is why St. Paul says that Christians are “saved through faith” (Eph 2:8). St. Athanasius says that God revealed himself to men “lest their very existence should prove purposeless.” This purposelessness would come from corruption and death, which are avoided only by coming to know God. Faith, therefore, is of singular importance for all people. It fulfills us, perfects us, and gives us life. It puts us in contact with God, our ultimate end in glory, thus making beatitude possible. In fact, “Christian revelation proposes no complete perfection for humankind other than knowing and loving the three-personed God.” When it comes to the question of sharing the faith, the stakes are as high as they can possibly be. It is not merely a life and death situation. It is an eternal life and eternal judgement situation. Without faith, an individual loses his connection with the one thing that can heal and perfect him. We can make no mistake, the Great Commission is a very serious business. The Church’s mission to make disciples of all nations is really a mission to save souls—to bring souls to the saving power of God. For the human person, everything depends upon this assent to God’s revelation that we call “faith.”
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With this basic understanding of what faith is, we can begin to look for it in the United States. This is a somewhat tricky task. It should not surprise us that it is difficult to know how many Americans have intellectually assented to divine revelation. It is true that we cannot measure faith scientifically, but there is something which we can do instead. Because the Catholic Church has the fullness of truth, and all other Christian denominations contain only some elements of what Catholicism possesses, we can simply look at how many people profess the Catholic faith. We can count how many people claim to believe what the Catholic Church teaches. We can trust faithful Christians to proclaim their faith because it is commanded by Christ. This means rather remarkably that a quick glance at reliable poll data can roughly tell us about something happening on the level of grace. The more Americans there are who proclaim the Catholic faith, the better the Church is doing with her mission to make disciples of all nations. This sort of method is not perfect, but it can be helpful, and the Church has always spoken of the conversion of nations as a somewhat visible process. This is because the Church itself is not an invisible reality, but something public and able to be seen. Put simply, we cannot see faith, but we can count how many people say they have it. As it turns out, the Pew Research Center has recently conducted several studies aimed at doing exactly this.
The first thing we see when we look at the data is that many Catholics are losing their faith. According to the Pew Research Center’s most recent “Religious Landscape Study,” there are now more than 6 former Catholics for every 1 convert to Catholicism. The same study also states that nearly 13% of all Americans are former Catholics. Here a “former Catholic” is counted as a person who was raised in the Catholic Church, but no longer claims to be a Catholic. The size of this group in the United States is enormous. It has been growing for decades, and it appears to be growing faster now than ever before. The sad fact of the matter is that many Americans who used to say they were Catholic now say that they are not Catholic. It is largely these former Catholics who account for the growing numbers in other religious demographics, most notably seen in what researchers have been calling the “rise of the nones.” This dramatic shift is far worse for Catholics than any other religion or Christian denomination. The researchers in the study conclude their analysis of Catholicism’s numbers by saying that “no other religious group analyzed in the survey has experienced anything close to this ratio of losses to gains via religious switching.” This is the first major red flag for the Church’s mission to share the Catholic faith with the world. Catholics themselves are losing their faith.
The second thing we see when we look at the data is that, in addition to the U.S. having high numbers of former Catholics, it also has low numbers of converts. This is really the other side of the 6 former Catholics for every 1 convert statistic, but the study offers more direct data as well. Only 2% of all U.S. adults say that they were raised with another religion but have now converted to Catholicism. Not to be confused with new, incoming membership, this meager 2% includes anyone who converted 30, 40, or 50 years ago and has stayed in the Church up to now. In fact, it is not only Catholicism, but Christianity as a whole loses more members than it gains via religious switching. However, in terms of converts (and by almost every other measure in the study) Catholicism is doing the worst out of all Christian denominations in the United States. Tied with Hinduism, and more than any other religious group studied, “fully 90% of adult Catholics are ‘cradle Catholics’ raised in the Church.” This means that only 10% of Catholics are converts to the faith. This says nothing about the Church’s ability to retain its members (because it only pertains to those who currently identify as Catholics), but it says a great deal about the Church’s lack of ability to attract members from the outside. This is the second major red flag for the Church’s mission to share the Catholic faith with the world. Americans who do not have the Catholic faith are not finding it.
The third thing we see when we look at the data comes at the question from another angle. When trying to get a sense for how effectively the faith is being spread by the Church, we can actually do more than just look at the number of former Catholics and the number of converts. So far this is what we have done, and the results have been troubling. However, we must look deeper, because there is more to the Catholic faith than merely answering in the affirmative when asked about Catholicism. For any religious group, there will always be a number of individuals who claim membership for some reason other than true conviction and faith. We cannot merely look at how many people say they are Catholic. We want to know how many people actually believe what the Church teaches. Luckily the Pew Research Center conducted another study aimed at discovering this exact thing. When we look at the data, the results are not merely troubling—they are shocking.
Most self-professed Catholics do not share the mind of the Church regarding what is good and true. This is the case with even the most essential and important doctrines. For example, the Church says that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” If this is true, nothing is more important to Catholicism than the Eucharist. The Church professes that “by the words of Christ and the invocation of the Holy Spirit,” the bread and wine really become Christ’s Body and Blood. The problem for the Church today is that less than one-third of Catholics actually believe this. In the Pew Research Center’s study, only 31% of Catholics assented to the proposition that “during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus.” Not only the greatest sacrament, but Sunday Mass as a whole has been disregarded. Only 39% of Catholics say they attend Mass at least once per week. This of course contrasts starkly with the Church’s teaching that Sunday Mass is not optional but obligatory. The Church says that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life, but 7 in 10 Catholics say they do not believe in it. The Church upholds the Mass as the center of the Church’s community life and a necessity for the life of faith, but 6 in 10 Catholics say they do not attend. This is the first half of the third major red flag for the Church’s mission to share the Catholic faith with the world. Catholics themselves do not really believe what the Church says about the good and the true.
The second half is that most self-professed Catholics do not share the mind of the Church regarding what is evil and false. The headline to this section of the study is worth noting: “Roughly Nine-in-Ten Catholics Believe in Sin.” In light of the other numbers we were just looking at, nine-in-ten sounds pretty good, until we pause for just a second to think about the question. Put slightly different, this headline reads, “if you meet a Catholic in the United States, there is a 10% chance he is a hardcore relativist.” We do not mean he thinks God is merciful or that he thinks sin is no big deal. He literally denies the existence of the moral law. The specific question asked was, “do you believe in the concept of sin, that some actions are offensive to God?” A little more than 10% of Catholics said, “no.” This is a disturbing discovery, but when we look closely at the 90% who believe in sin, we find our last little stronghold of faith looking more and more “little” and less and less “strong.”
The data shows that 76% of Catholics say the Church should allow its members to use birth control. Similarly, 62% of Catholics say the Church should allow priests to get married, and 59% say the Church should allow women to become priests. When asked about specific actions, only 57% said abortion is sinful, 44% said homosexual behavior is sinful, 33% said living with one’s romantic partner outside marriage is sinful, 17% said the use of contraceptives is sinful, and 35% said to remarry after divorce without annulment is sinful. These numbers should jolt us. They display an extraordinarily widespread disconnect between self-professed Catholics and the Church’s Magisterium. These responses to basic questions about fundamental Catholic moral teaching seriously call into question the significance and legitimacy of the claim these Americans make to share in the Catholic faith. This is the second half of the third major red flag for the Church’s mission to share the Catholic faith with the world. Most self-professed Catholics do not share the mind of the Church regarding what must be rejected.
We will briefly conclude with the fourth and final thing we see when we look at the data. A 2019 Gallup poll shows that there are many Catholics who are considering leaving the Church. These questions were asked in the aftermath of recent news about sexual abuse of young people by priests. 37% of Catholics responded to the poll saying that they had personally questioned whether they ought to remain in the Catholic Church (up 15 points from the same poll conducted in 2002). While frustration and disappointment in the face of terrible scandal is not an indicator of a weakness in faith, seriously considering leaving the Church is. If someone really believes in Jesus Christ and the Church he established, then nothing should be powerful enough to make them leave. If someone really has faith, nothing should be powerful enough to make them abandon it. The fact that Catholics are thinking about leaving their Church and abandoning their faith is not proof of the contrary; it is proof that their faith itself is waning. This is the fourth major red flag for the Church’s mission to share the Catholic faith with the world. Many Catholics are on the cusp of leaving.
The conclusion to be drawn from these four red flags is a difficult one to accept, but it springs naturally from our analysis. Very few people are becoming Catholic. Even many who say they are Catholic do not actually believe what the Church teaches. Many Catholics are leaving the Church, and many more are thinking about leaving. It is hard to imagine anyone doubting these conclusions. We have all seen the pews. Outside of places like Ave Maria, FL, the Church is visibly hurting. It is worthwhile calling people’s attention to the poll data because this problem does not seem to be getting the attention it deserves. This glance at the compass shows that we are way off course. The Church in the United States is moving in the wrong direction with regard to its mission to make disciples of all nations. The data proves that something is fatally wrong, and yet the problem is rarely talked about with theological substance or academic rigor. Whether intimidated, confused, or in denial, many faithful Catholics seem hesitant to grapple with the elephant in the room. This timidity seems no less foolish than a son who will not take his suffering mother to the hospital because he is not yet certain that she is dying. In our search for a diagnosis, we cannot be hesitant to take a shot. Our fear of missing will only delay the matter, and it may even result in the loss of souls. As we said at the outset, this is our responsibility. It is time to sound the alarm.
Part 2: The Principal Cause of the Problem
Having established the state of things today with regard to the Church’s mission to make disciples of all nations, we now have a good sense of the problem. From here we will undertake a search for the principal cause of that problem. We must approach this question theologically because the problem is the lack of faith. We will never find satisfying answers to our questions with mere sociology, psychology, or political science because faith cannot be fully understood by the social sciences. Christian faith is supernatural, and so it cannot be adequately spoken of apart from divine revelation. In order to locate the principal cause of the problem, we must make a few observations regarding how faith comes to be in us. This will enable us to make a reasonable claim about where exactly the principal cause of the problem must lie. Our primary Scriptural sources in this area will be the inspired words of St. Paul in Romans 10 and 1 Corinthians 3. Our sources from the Tradition will include some selections from the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. Our primary Magisterial source will be Dei verbum, the Church’s “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.” Finally, for scholarly guidance we will turn primarily to the works of Guy Mansini.
The problem we are dealing with is the lack of faith—a privation. Everyone has the potential for faith, and so our task is to discover what is preventing that potential from being actualized. This means that, in order to find the principal cause of the problem, the most straightforward approach is to look at all the things which contribute to the presence of faith in those who have it. First we need a list of the actors involved. Then we need to examine the role each one plays. Finally we need to determine which one is most likely failing to execute their role properly. This will be our chief candidate for the principal cause of the problem. Before we can get there though, we need need a list of the actors involved, and St. Paul presents a dual analogy in 1 Corinthians 3:5-11 that can help. The passage is worth quoting in full.
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. According to the commission of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ (1 Cor 3:5-11).
We will come back to this passage a few times, but for now, we should note that Paul is using two different analogies to help explain the complexity of the growth of the Church. The first image he employs is laborers planting crops in a field. The second image is builders building a house on a foundation. Paul shifts fluidly between these two analogies, which implies that they overlap with one another and can really be treated as one analogy. In each case, there are three distinct parties involved—three actors at work. First there is God who is overseeing the project. He gives the commission and assigns the work. He owns the field and owns the building. God is the ultimate cause of the growth. Second, there are the laborers and the builders, like Paul and Apollos. They plant and water the crops. They construct a foundation and then build upon it. They are mere servants who follow the commission which they have been given to execute the will of their employer. Third, there is the finished product and the end goal, the faithful Christians who make up the Church. They are God’s field and God’s building. They receive the formation offered to them by God, through his “fellow workers.” So there are three parties involved: the employer, the workers, and the worked-upon.
To really see Paul’s point, we need to apply this to the broader context of what Paul is talking about. The Corinthians have been splitting up into different parties based on whose preaching inspired their faith. Some claim to follow Paul, and others say they follow Apollos. Paul is using these two analogies to teach the Corinthians that his role has been that of a mere servant in their coming to have faith. This means that both of these analogies can be read as describing three distinct steps whereby faith comes to be in a human being, and three distinct actors who are responsible for the execution of those steps. This reading of 1 Corinthians aligns nicely with what St. Thomas says about the actors involved in the conception of faith. He says that “two things are requisite for faith. First, that the things which are of faith should be proposed to man: this is necessary in order that man believe anything explicitly. The second thing requisite for faith is the assent of the believer to the things which are proposed to him.” In saying that “two things” are requisite for faith, Aquinas is not excluding God’s agency. Instead he takes it as a given because he sees God’s activity underlying and intimately involved in the whole process as both the revealer of the things of faith and the first mover of every positive action that men perform. Aquinas’ view is really the same as Paul’s. God reveals and enlightens, the preacher (or evangelist) shares what God has revealed, and the people assent to that revelation. In order to more fully understand how faith comes to be in us, we will have to look at each of these three agencies in more detail.
The first actor who plays a role in the conception of faith is God himself. Faith would not be possible without God, and this should go without saying. This is not only because, as we saw before, God is the object of faith and so he provides its content. We also need God to reveal himself and to provide the interior illumination that makes our assent to his revelation possible. These are the two aspects of God’s agency in the conception of faith: revelation and illumination. Romanus Cessario gives us an insight into the real reason behind this radical dependence on God: “since human nature possesses no inherent operative capacities capable of theological loving, hoping, and believing, these virtues must be received as God’s special gifts to his creatures.” There is nothing we can do to give ourselves faith in something which we cannot know. It is only in the act of revealing himself that “the invisible God out of the abundance of His love speaks to men as friends.”
This describes our dependence on God’s act of revelation through the words of prophets, apostles, and Christ himself, but we also need him to give us an interior illumination that enables us to see his revelation for what it truly is. St. Thomas explains this in the Secunda secundae where he writes that “since man, by assenting to matters of faith, is raised above his nature, this must needs accrue to him from some supernatural principle moving him inwardly; and this is God. Therefore faith, as regards the assent which is the chief act of faith, is from God moving man inwardly by grace.” We are entirely dependent upon this interior movement of the Holy Spirit to have real Christian faith. This is why St. Paul repeats twice that “God gave the growth” (1 Cor 3:6). Not only does God send the workers into the field, but the field itself needs help to properly receive the seed. This means that everyone with Christian faith has God to thank for it. There is no way to have faith in God without God, and this is true on multiple levels. We need him to reveal himself, and we need him to help us accept that revelation through an interior illumination. If the crops are not growing, we will have to consider the possibility that God is simply not offering us his revelation and grace.
The second actor who plays a role in the conception of faith is the preacher/evangelist. A preacher, as we will use the term, simply indicates a person who teaches others what God has revealed. In St. Paul’s analogy, the preacher is the one who sows the seed and builds the building. Paul and Apollos are the preachers. As St. Thomas says in his commentary on Romans, “one cannot believe, unless he hears the word of the preacher.” Anyone who has Christian faith can make an opportunity of faith for another person by sharing the revealed propositions. This sharing of divine revelation happens first in the home, as parents form their children. It also happens in Catholic schools, where teachers instruct their students in the things of faith. It happens most formally in the priest’s homily at Mass, and in the Church’s sending of missionaries to faithless places. The preacher hears what God has spoken, assents to it, and then repeats it to someone else. In all its forms, the act of preaching is absolutely essential for faith. This point is made most clearly in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans where he says, “how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?” (Rom 10:14). The crops will not grow if the sower does not sow.
It would be possible for God to sow his own seed without utilizing preachers. He could leave out the middle man and directly speak to each and every one of us if he wanted to, but he has not chosen to do this. Evidence for this can be found in the Great Commission, “go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). Jesus tells Simon and Andrew, “I will make you fishers of men” (Mt 4:19), and later he sends them out with the other Apostles to preach the kingdom of God (Mt 10:5-15). These verses from the Gospel of Matthew depict God sending his laborers into his field to sow seed. He laments that “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Mt 9:37). Even so, he does not change the plan, because he knows that his Father’s will is to work through the disciples. He wants faithful men to share with other men the gift they have been given. The Magisterium affirms the role of preaching in Verbum Domini where we read that “it is the preaching of the divine word, in fact, which gives rise to faith, whereby we give our heartfelt assent to the truth which has been revealed to us.” Theologians such as Guy Mansini attest to this role of preaching in the communication of divine revelation. In his essay on ecclesial mediation, Mansini writes that “[Jesus] is confident of the ‘portability’ of his word. He places it into the mouths of others, even as he makes their hands convey his healing power.” The entire book of the Acts of the Apostles is probably the best proof for this. There we see the early Church acting like Jesus, speaking like Jesus, and preaching the name of Jesus. If preaching is an essential part of God’s plan for the spreading of faith, a failure in preaching must be a serious candidate for the principal cause of the problem. If the crops are not growing, we have to consider the possibility that the preachers are not preaching, or else, not preaching well. St. Paul tells us that “faith comes from what is heard” (Rom 10:17). The presence of faith in the United States depends, therefore, on what American Christians say.
The third actor who plays a role in the conception of faith is the people—those who hear the preacher’s word. In Paul’s analogies, the people are the field and the building itself. It might seem like they are passive and merely acted upon, but this is shown to be false when we look at Christ’s parable of the sower. It is likely that Paul had this parable in mind when he wrote to the Corinthians because it serves as a near-perfect parallel. The seed in Christ’s parable is the “word of the kingdom” (Mt 13:19). The seed is sown in various places: on the path, on rocky ground, amongst thorns, and on good soil. The seed cast on good soil bears fruit, but the seed in other places does not. When Jesus explains the parable, he says, “what was sown on good soil, this is he who hears the word and understands it; he indeed bears fruit” (Mt 13:23). The point of the parable then is that not everyone is receptive to the Word of God. Some people hear the message of revelation, but they ignore it, get distracted, or simply do not take it to heart. This gets at what St. Thomas identifies as the second thing which is requisite for faith. Faith requires the “assent of the believer to the things which are proposed to him.” It is clearly true that faith depends in part on our own agency—our own choice. If it did not, then it would not really be our own faith, and there would be no merit in it. We will consider man’s act of choosing to assent under two different aspects: the movement of the will and the natural formation of the intellect.
First, the fact that our intellectual assent to faith depends upon the movement of our will is evident from observations we can make about people’s responses to revelation. St. Thomas points out that “although one cannot believe, unless he hears the word of the preacher, nevertheless, not everyone who hears believes.” In other words, faith cannot be an automatic result of hearing the words of revelation. It is not some sort of mechanical necessity that works on us like the laws of physics. Such a thing would violate man’s own nature as a free being. As Mansini puts it in his book, Fundamental Theology, “faith is free. That is, it is something we freely do; we choose to believe; we choose to trust the person speaking to us; we choose to assent to what he is saying. Faith is evidently dependent on the exercise of our freedom, since we see in the gospels that some believe the Lord, and others do not.” Those who hear revealed truth are themselves agents of their own believing in it. Admittedly, this opens faith up to a realm of deep mystery. A very complex process underlies every single one of our free choices. The intellect is the part of us which assents to revealed truths. The intellect is moved in part by the will. However, there is also a sense in which the will is moved by the intellect. St. Thomas argues that the will is also moved by God, the sensitive appetites, exterior objects, and the will itself. At a certain point, we must choose to have faith, even though we cannot do this all on our own. Our assent to faith depends upon the mysterious, complex, and ultimately free movement of the will.
Second, a further layer of complexity is added when we consider what St. Thomas says in another place, that “faith presupposes natural knowledge, even as grace presupposes nature, and perfection supposes something that can be perfected.” Those truths about God which can be grasped by natural reason are “not articles of faith, but are preambles to the articles.” These preambles include things such as God’s existence, his unity, his intelligence, and his incorporeality. All of these truths about God can be demonstrated by reason and known naturally apart from divine revelation. The preambles of faith are classically understood to be aids which can bring men to the edge of faith as well as remove obstacles that might hinder men from giving their assent to divine revelation. In other words, if a man’s intellect is well-formed by good philosophy, his assent to matters of faith might come more easily. On the other hand, bad philosophy can be a serious obstacle to man’s assent. Aquinas helps us to understand the way in which the preambles are necessary for faith when he says that “there is nothing to prevent a man, who cannot grasp a proof, accepting, as a matter of faith, something which in itself is capable of being scientifically known and demonstrated.” In other words, a man cannot have faith in God’s existence if he is convinced that God does not exist. In this way, the preambles are logically necessary. However, a man who believes that God exists as a matter of faith does not need to understand rational proofs for God’s existence before he can rightly say that he has faith in God.
It would seem then that our ability to assent to matters of faith can be influenced by the formation of our intellect in reason. This philosophical formation of the intellect is not necessary in an absolute sense, but it could be conditionally necessary. Within all of this there are distinctions, controversies, and further complexities about which many books could be (and have been) written. For now, we simply need to be aware that these discussions exist and that those who hear revealed truth are themselves agents of their believing in it. This was important for us to note, because we cannot adequately treat the role of man’s assent in the conception of faith without serious consideration of that which aids him in his assent. The crux here is that if the crops are not growing, we must consider the possibility that, for one reason or another, the field is bad, unreceptive, and lifeless. If people have no faith, they might simply be rejecting it. Their rejection of it could be attributed directly to the free choice of the will or indirectly to poor philosophical formation.
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With this, we have concluded our in-depth analysis of the different actors contributing to the conception of faith. First there is God who reveals and illumines. Then there is the preacher/evangelist who shares what God has revealed. Finally there is the man himself, who freely assents, aided (or at least unhindered) by his philosophical formation in reason. This tri-actor framework can now be be used to locate the principal cause of the problem. Either the laborers were never sent, or they never sowed their seed, or the field is unreceptive. Either God has not revealed and enlightened, or the preachers have not shared that revelation, or the people have freely rejected it. If we can determine which of these three is the most likely, then it will give us the direction we need to dig a level deeper and determine the specific nature of the cause. Once we define the problem, we will be able to work toward a solution, because we will know precisely where the defect lies.
One possibility can be dispensed with quite easily. The cause of the problem cannot be God. As we saw before, God contributes to the conception of faith by revealing himself and by giving men the grace to accept that revelation. We know that God will not fail to reveal himself because he already has revealed himself. This is not something we need to wait for or hope for. It is already done. Dei verbum teaches that “we now await no further new public revelation” because revelation has been completed and perfected in Jesus Christ. The Church confirms this again in Verbum Domini where it is written that “no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is why the author of the letter to the Hebrews speaks of revelation in the past tense: “in many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Heb 1:1-2). Therefore, Christians do not hope that God will speak; they profess that he “has spoken.” God’s Word can now be found in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, guarded and interpreted by the Magisterium of the Church. Dei verbum teaches that “Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God,” and the task of interpreting revelation “has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church.” Anyone seeking to hear God’s word, to see what he has revealed, need only look at Tradition and Scripture through the lens of the Magisterium. This means that the loss of faith cannot be caused by God failing to reveal himself.
It also does not seem wise to attribute the cause of the problem to the other aspect of God’s agency: interior illumination. By definition, grace is God’s free gift to mankind. God is in no way obligated to give us his grace, but instead, he chooses to give it to us out of love for us. We do not want to risk presumption by saying that we know for a fact that God will give us grace to accept his revelation, but we also do not want to risk undue incredulity in light of divine promises. We have been taught to call God our Father (Mt 6:9), to ask him for gifts with confidence (Mt 7:7-12), and to “receive the kingdom of God like a child” (Mk 10:15). Without presumptuously reducing God’s agency to an automatic guarantee, we can trust in him as we trust in a friend, and thus say with confidence that he will give us the help we need. After all, we have been assured that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). If this is true, then we can have confidence that God will graciously illumine our minds and draw our hearts when we hear his word proclaimed. Therefore, it does not make sense to say that the cause of the problem is located in God’s agency. There can be no defect there. God’s wills that all men will come to have faith, and so our own lack of faith must be our own fault. He has revealed, and he has promised to give us aid, so the owner of the field has done his part. He has sent out his workers, and he desires to give the growth, but either he who sows the seed or the field itself is resisting him.
For the time being, we will pass over a consideration of the preacher and move on to look at the free assent of the people. We must consider both the mystery of the will and philosophical formation. To begin with, we can never deny the real possibility that people are freely rejecting divine revelation. The movement of the will is mysterious, and so the intellectual assent to faith which depends on that movement is also mysterious. While man’s free choice will always remain a “possible cause” of the lack of faith, it does not seem that we can rightly call it the “principal cause” of the lack of faith in the United States today. This is the case for two reasons. First, to say that man’s free choice is the principal cause of the lack of faith is to make a determination which is not for us to make. We can judge actions, but we cannot judge hearts. It is not for us to know what is happening within an individual soul at a given moment in time, and so we are unable to say that men have no faith principally because of their free choices.
The second reason is that charity demands that we give sinners the benefit of the doubt. Dozens of examples from the saints could be cited to support the general rule that we should always assume that the fault is somewhere within ourselves. Saying that man’s free choice is the principal cause of the lack of faith is both dangerous and unhelpful. It is dangerous because it might weaken the preacher’s resolve. Catholics might feel that there is less reason to preach the Gospel once they are told that their audience has already freely rejected it. This way of thinking is also unhelpful because it attributes the lack of faith to something beyond our understanding and control. Even great preaching can always be improved, because the subject matter is so vast. Attributing the principal cause of the lack of faith to man’s free rejection of divine revelation does nothing to help Catholics improve their preaching/evangelization. On the contrary, it assumes that Catholic preachers and evangelists have sufficiently done their duty, and it suggests no remedial action. Even worse, it actually implies that there is no possible remedy beyond the audience choosing differently in the future, and this is nothing but unhelpful. For these reasons, we cannot speak of people’s free choices as the principal cause of the lack of faith.
Finally, we must consider the possibility of poor philosophical formation being an intellectual obstacle to people’s assent today. To be sure, there are many troubling trends in modern philosophy which have left their imprint on Western culture. Agnosticism and atheism have somehow developed reputations as the only scientific, factual, and reasonable options for modern people. This sad fact could certainly be an enormous obstacle standing in between many people and the Christian faith. These problems are serious, and addressing them could prove to be an integral part of getting Catholic evangelization back on track in the United States. That being said, to name bad philosophical formation as the “principal” cause of people’s lack of faith seems to attribute a disproportionate weight to philosophy in matters of faith. This is the case for three reasons.
First, philosophical formation is not absolutely necessary for the assent to revealed truth. As such, it will always be a secondary candidate, rather than a primary candidate, for the cause of a lack of faith. The greatest philosophers will all need revelation, and the greatest saints may not need philosophy. Philosophical formation is helpful, but if people are not assenting to divine revelation, the most likely cause is always going to be that they are not truly hearing the Word of God. Wherever we see a lack of faith in the world, we should first look to whether or not the Word of God is being properly communicated.
The second reason is that bad philosophy can only be a serious obstacle for those who engage seriously in philosophical thinking. If someone is only weakly of the opinion that God does not exist because it is the cultural norm in his community, it is hard to imagine this preventing him from coming to believe in God when he is met with the full force of the Gospel. This seems to be the state of most self-professed atheists, especially among young people. Even those who have deeply rooted atheistic convictions might still be moved easily over these obstacles by the power of the Word of God. Christians certainly ought to practice and teach rigorous philosophy, but it will never be enough, and for many common people, it is not of central importance. Therefore, poor philosophical formation is not likely to be the principal cause for America’s lack of faith.
The third and final reason is that human nature has not changed. Since the time of the early Church, the cultural backdrops and societal structures have shifted a great deal. The world looks different today than it did 2,000 years ago. However, human beings themselves still look very much the same. Therefore, it is arguable that the prospects for evangelization are no more problematic today than when the Gospel was first preached by the early Church’s simple missionaries. We live in a philosophically confused world because fallen human beings are bad at reasoning. It is not clear that the philosophical errors which grip the world today are any worse than the ones which gripped the world in the first centuries. Therefore, it does not seem wise to attribute the principal cause of the lack of faith to poor philosophical formation.
For these three reasons, we should look for the principal cause of the problem elsewhere. If the principal cause of the problem is not with God and not with the people, then we are left with one remaining possibility. We must look to preaching. The owner of the field has sent his workers out to sow the seed of the Word of God. Presumably the ground is ready to receive that seed and bear fruit. The owner of the house has sent his builders out to build. Presumably it is possible for the task to be accomplished. It does not seem, today in the United States, that our task is anywhere near completion. In fact, we are not even making progress. Our house is falling apart, and our crops are rotting and dying. Will we shake our fists at the ground or blame the house itself? Will we accuse our master of giving us bad seed or bad instructions? Of course we cannot do any of these things, lest we “add sin to sin” (Is 30:1). The cause of the problem is with the laborers and the builders. Either the sower is not sowing, or he is not sowing rightly. Either the builders are not building, or they have become careless with their work. We must assume that the fault is ours, and as we shall soon see, what began as an assumption quickly becomes a real observation, and soon it borders on a factual guarantee. The problem is the dramatic loss of faith among American Catholics. The principal cause of the problem must be a defect in preaching and evangelization. We have taken our master’s money and buried it in the sand (Mt 25:14-30).
Part 3: The Specific Nature of the Cause
Having established the principal cause of the problem, we must begin a search for the specific nature of the cause. We know that there must be a defect somewhere in Catholic preaching, but this is not enough information to begin talking about a solution. Catholics will have to change something about the way they are preaching in the United States today, but that change could take form in many different ways. We know that the laborers are not sowing God’s seed rightly, but this could mean a number of different things. Before we can get back on track, we need to determine the direction that we should be moving in. Otherwise, we will be traveling in circles, without any specific destination in mind. In order to discover what Catholic preachers and evangelists are doing wrong, we need to go a layer deeper to examine the nature of preaching itself. Once we know what preaching is, we will also know how it ought to be done. Once we know how it ought to be done, we can contrast this with how preaching is currently done by American Catholics. A solution to the problem will naturally spring from this final analysis. Our Scriptural sources in this area will include the Acts of the Apostles, Colossians 1, and the Gospel of John. Our sources from the Tradition will include some selections from the writings of St. Athanasius and St. Thomas Aquinas. Our primary Magisterial sources will be Dei verbum, Verbum Domini, and Dominus Iesus. Finally, for scholarly guidance, we will rely upon Guy Mansini and Domenico Grasso.
So far we have talked about preaching as the act of “sharing faith” or teaching others what God has revealed. The job of the preacher is to put the people who listen to him in touch with divine revelation. He must communicate to them the propositions spoken by God. We saw this already in Rom 10, 1 Cor 3, and in the Gospels when Christ sends his Apostles out to preach the Word. This is how St. Thomas spoke of preaching in his commentary on Rom 10 and in the Secunda secundae where he says that the conception of faith necessitates that “the things which are of faith should be proposed to man.” “The sharing of divine revelation” makes for a fine working definition of preaching, but we will have to get more precise. This definition remains somewhat vague because “divine revelation” is not so easily understood. We do not yet know where revelation is, what it sounds like, or which parts of it ought to be shared. We need to know how exactly God has revealed himself if we are going to sufficiently understand how a preacher can carry that revelation into the world and share it with others. In other words, we need to see the process whereby propositions about God descend from the mind of God to the ears of the believer.
This process can be referred to as the “economy of revelation.” This term serves as a parallel to the “economy of salvation” which is the process whereby God’s saving grace is given to us. Here we are not talking about the gift of saving grace, but instead, the gift of revealed truth. It is our response to revealed truth (i.e. faith) which disposes us to receive saving grace (i.e. charity) at our Baptism. These two processes correspond to the two purposes or motives of the incarnation which St. Athanasius discusses in De Incarnatione. First, Christ came to “put an end to the law of death” and make a “new beginning of life for us.” This means that Christ’s death and resurrection merit for us the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of charity, given to us in grace. Second, Christ came to “recall men from all the paths of error to know the Father.” In other words, Christ’s words and deeds on earth reveal to us what we must believe in faith. As our subject here is faith, we will focus on this process. By studying the economy of revelation, we will come to see how exactly God can be known by us.
The first step in the economy of revelation is the humanity of Jesus Christ mediating the Son of God. By the “humanity” of Christ we mean Jesus Christ, specifically in his human nature. This includes his body, soul, mind, virtues, and character. It is the man Jesus Christ, in and through his human nature, who mediates the divine Son of God to us, for that is who he is. In general, a mediator is “he who in any way establishes or maintains between two others a relation which without the mediator neither would nor could exist.” In order to have faith in God, someone needs to show us the hidden things of God, and so there must be a mediator between God and men. Faith depends upon someone standing in between divinity and humanity, establishing and maintaining a connection between the two. We do not have to speculate about who this might be because Scripture tells us explicitly: “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). There is only one person who reveals God fully and definitively. There is no way of coming to know God apart from Jesus, and so if we want to believe in God, we must look at Jesus in his humanity.
We know that it is the humanity of Christ which mediates the Son of God on the testament of Scripture. St. Paul writes that “he is the image of the invisible God” and “the likeness of God” (Col 1:15; 2 Cor 4:4). These verses are speaking about Christ in his divine nature. In his divine nature, he is not just God, but God from God, the Son of the Father, who is also his Image and Word. However, just as Jesus’ humanity is filial, so also in his humanity is he like the uncreated Image, so that to see him is to see a created expression of the uncreated Expression of the Father. To say that Jesus mediates God, or that he is the image of God, or that “in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:19) is therefore really to say that Christ’s human nature is used by God as an instrument of revelation. We see this same idea expressed in the Gospels when Jesus speaks of himself as a means of getting to God. Jesus says many things in the Gospel of John, such as “I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved” and “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (Jn 10:9; Jn 14:6). Jesus is the “door” and the “way” especially in his human nature. Therefore, the door by which we gain access to God, the way by which we learn the hidden things of God, is the humanity of Christ.
We see further evidence for this role of the humanity of Christ all throughout the Tradition and in Magisterial texts. St. Athanasius speaks of Christ’s humanity in this way in De Incarnatione where he writes that “in all naturalness and fitness, desiring to do good to men, as Man He comes, taking to Himself a body like the rest; and through His actions done in that body, as it were on their own level, He teaches those who would not learn by other means to know Himself, the Word of God, and through Him the Father.” In other words, God teaches us about himself by taking on flesh and living among us. At the very beginning of his Confessions, St. Augustine prays the following: “my faith calls upon you, Lord, this faith which is your gift to me, which you have breathed into me through the humanity of your Son and the ministry of your preacher.” Again, the humanity of Christ appears to play a vital role. Augustine says that he has faith “through” the human nature of the Son of God. We find a similar notion in various Magisterial texts, such as Verbum Domini, which says, “the reality of the revealed mystery is offered to us in the ‘flesh’ of the Son.” We also have the teaching of Dominus Iesus which states that “the theory which would attribute, after the incarnation as well, a salvific activity to the Logos as such in his divinity, exercised in addition to or beyond the humanity of Christ, is not compatible with the Catholic faith.” This stands as an insurmountable obstacle for those who would like to diminish the significance of Christ’s humanity in any “salvific activity” of the Son, which would certainly include revealing the Father.
All of these texts leave us with no way to deny the mediating role of Christ’s humanity. Somehow, when we look at Jesus in his human nature, we are really seeing God. Jesus himself suggests as much when he tells Philip, “he who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9). Philip has asked Christ to show him the Father, and this reply suggests that if Philip wants to see God, he need only look at the man standing in front of him. Jesus does not mean that a glance at the physically visible form of his body constitutes the beatific vision. Instead he is talking about a deeper sort of “seeing,” of faithful contemplation, that requires time and effort. There is a deep mystery here which we cannot exhaust in this life. However, we can confidently say that Christ, in his humanity, mediates the hidden things of God. This requires further explanation so that we are not left like Philip, standing before the answer, yet somehow unable to see.
Having established that Christ’s humanity mediates the Son of God to us, we will now look to see how exactly this happens. To begin with, we should realize that, in our search for God, it would never make sense to shy away from what is human, that is, what is on our level. If we do this, we will be like people trying to reach the top floor of a building, but who refuse to get on the elevator when it descends to the bottom. It is foolish to avoid everything on our level simply because it is not the end goal. We actually need something which is on our level, something accessible to us, which can lift us higher. In the economy of revelation, this is Christ’s humanity. In other words, the humanity of Christ reveals the Son of God to us by bringing God down to where we are. St. Athanasius sees the human nature of Christ as the key piece of God’s plan for our salvation. As he puts it, “desiring to do good to men, as Man He comes, taking to Himself a body like the rest; and through His actions done in that body, as it were on their own level, He teaches those who would not learn by other means to know Himself, the Word of God, and through Him the Father.” Man can never come to know God by jumping into heaven without aid. Instead, God stoops down to man’s level, and brings him where, of himself, he cannot go.
We can say this same thing in a more technical way. It is a longstanding Thomistic principle that, in coming to know anything, we rely our physical senses to present objects to our intellect. Everything that we learn begins with some sensory knowledge. It is for this reason that God “became Himself an object of the senses.” We find this same idea beautifully annunciated in Verbum Domini, which teaches that “‘the eternal word became small—small enough to fit into a manger. He became a child, so that the word could be grasped by us’. Now the word is not simply audible; not only does it have a voice, now the word has a face, one which we can see: that of Jesus of Nazareth.” The point is clear enough: we can only find God by seeing a man. For our sake, God has become small.
The last thing to note about how the humanity of Christ mediates God to us is a quick observation about the hypostatic union. Christ’s role as mediator between God and men, in his humanity, is only possible because of who he is—his person. Jesus Christ is fully a man, but that does not mean he is merely a man. He is the God-Man. The humanity of Christ is able to reveal God because “the Son subsists in the humanity of Jesus … to listen to the man Jesus or be touched by him is therefore to listen to and to be touched by the Son of God.” Much of the early Church’s controversies and efforts were focussed on getting this point right. The conclusion the Church came to, most clearly articulated at Chalcedon, was that Jesus Christ has two natures, a divine nature and a human nature, united in one “hypostasis” or “person.” Jesus Christ could not reveal God to us if he were merely a man, but as it is, “the humanity of Christ mediates the person of Christ to us.” The person of Christ is the divine Son of God, and so in getting to know the man Jesus on the level of his human nature, we are really getting to know God.
In this way, the person of Jesus is our bridge to heaven. On one side of the bridge is his human nature, the door through which we enter. On the other side is his divine nature, the destination toward which we strive. In the words of Guy Mansini, “the pattern or economy of revelation figures forth Christ and is completed by Christ; its all-inclusive object of faith is Christ. Its ‘center’ is Christ, as it were; and every radius goes from him to the circumference of the circle.” The object of faith is God, but in the incarnation, the name “Jesus Christ” becomes a name for the person who is the Son of God. This is how the Church is able to speak of our having “faith in Christ.” The humanity of Christ mediates the Son of God. By virtue of Christ’s humanity, we can come to know his person, and therefore gain access to the hidden things of God.
If the humanity of Christ really does mediate the Son of God in this way, then the person of Christ really is the subject and content of divine revelation. We can come to know Christ in his humanity, but the mystery of his person is inexhaustible and ineffable. In this way, “Jesus perfected revelation by fulfilling it through his whole work of making himself present and manifesting himself.” The person of Jesus is thus at the very center of divine revelation. The person of Jesus is the mystery which we are called to study and have faith in. Guy Mansini explains concisely in a way that is helpful: “Jesus is indivisibly the revealer and the revealed, the center and foundation of faith, and in the last analysis this is so because he is the personal Word of God incarnate. Incarnation and revelation are only two aspects of the same event; in the light of the incarnation there can be understood what the revelation of God is.” Jesus is, therefore, the center and fullness of divine revelation. The humanity of Jesus is the visible image of God because Jesus is a divine person.
If the humanity of Christ mediates the Son of God, then Christianity itself takes on a very personal note. Unlike other religions, which are sometimes mere metaphysical structures or ethical systems, Christianity is fundamentally an encounter with a person. Pope Benedict XVI says exactly this in Deus caritas est where he writes that “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” Similarly, in Verbum Domini we find it written that faith “arises from an encounter with Christ” and “takes shape as an encounter with a person to whom we entrust our whole life.” One theologian who defends this personal character of Christianity with particular clarity is Domenico Grasso. In his book, Proclaiming God’s Message, he begins with an analysis of different words and phrases used to denote the message of divine revelation, such as “Kingdom of God,” “Word of God,” “Gospel,” and “Mystery.” Based on a detailed exegesis of the use of these terms in Scripture, he concludes that they all “mean the same thing.” They all point to the mystery of Christ. This is what enables him to say that “the content of the Gospel, therefore, is a person, God in Christ, or simply Christ in whom God reveals himself and saves: from him comes the message of salvation.” Of course we knew from the outset that divine revelation was the revelation of God. What else would we expect then, from a personal God, than the revelation of a person?
If the humanity of Christ really does mediate the Son of God, then “the goal of our life is to be conformed to Christ.” Everything depends and revolves around him. Now we know why St. Paul is so bold as to say, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). This one simple reality sheds light on everything that we find in the New Testament, especially the things which Christ says about himself. Now we know why he says, “I am the light of the world,” “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me,” and “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you,” (Jn 8:12; Jn 8:12; Jn 14:20). Now we know why he tells us, “come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” and “if any one thirst, let him come to me and drink” (Mt 11:28; Jn 7:37). In his humanity, Jesus Christ does not shy away from pointing to himself as the solution to our problems. He does not direct us to another person or another place. This is because he knows who he is, and so he makes no distinction between leading us to God and leading us to himself. The humanity of Christ is the door by which we access the hidden things of God, and “the object of Jesus’ preaching is, therefore, Himself in His person.” If we want to have Christian faith, everything depends upon our going through this door.
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It is one thing to know where the door is, and it is another thing to walk through it. We know that the humanity of Christ mediates the person of Christ (the Son of God), but one might still wonder how we can get to know the humanity of Christ. At first, the answer is fairly simple. We get to know Christ (in his humanity) in the same way we get to know other men. We spend time with them. We listen to them. We watch what they do and observe how they respond to the different circumstances they encounter in their lives. It is just the same with Christ. If we want to get to know the humanity of Christ, then we need to listen to what he says and pay attention to what he does. The humanity of Christ (i.e. his body, soul, mind, virtues, character, etc…) is manifested by his words and deeds, and the humanity mediates the person. Therefore, we walk through the door by getting to know the words and deeds of Christ.
If everything we have thus far observed is true, this means that the things which the man Jesus said and did contain the fullness of divine revelation. As it turns out, Dei verbum, Dominus Iesus, and Verbum Domini all testify expressly to this fact. It is in the words and deeds of Christ that “we are set before the very person of Jesus,” and “his unique and singular history is the definitive word which God speaks to humanity.” It is the “history” of Jesus, therefore, that includes the “fullness of all revelation.” The clearest and strongest statement comes from Dominus Iesus, a declaration by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and it is worth quoting in full.
… the full and complete revelation of the salvific mystery of God is given in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the words, deeds, and entire historical event of Jesus, though limited as human realities, have nevertheless the divine Person of the Incarnate Word, true God and true man as their subject. For this reason, they possess in themselves the definitiveness and completeness of the revelation of God’s salvific ways, even if the depth of the divine mystery in itself remains transcendent and inexhaustible. The truth about God is not abolished or reduced because it is spoken in human language; rather, it is unique, full, and complete, because he who speaks and acts is the Incarnate Son of God. Thus, faith requires us to profess that the Word made flesh, in his entire mystery, who moves from incarnation to glorification, is the source, participated but real, as well as the fulfilment of every salvific revelation of God to humanity …
Here we find taught with the utmost clarity that the entirety of divine revelation is contained in the words, deeds, and “entire historical event” of Jesus. God has chosen to reveal himself in the human life of Jesus Christ, and so our knowledge of Christ’s life is the single measure of our exposure to revealed truth. This is why “the Gospels are the heart of all the Scriptures” and thus given an exalted place in the context of the Mass. This is why the saints, such as St. John of the Cross, consistently testify to the central importance of Christ’s life with statements like this: “any person questioning God or desiring some vision or revelation would be guilty not only of foolish behaviour but also of offending him, by not fixing his eyes entirely on Christ and by living with the desire for some other novelty.” The words and deeds of Jesus manifest the humanity of Christ, and thereby reveal the person of Christ, the divine Son of God.
Dominus Iesus also tells us where God is most clearly revealed in Christ’s life. First, the document says that Christ “perfected revelation by … making himself present and manifesting himself.” This he did “through his words and deeds, his signs and wonders, but especially through his death and glorious resurrection from the dead and finally with the sending of the Spirit of truth.” In other words, everything that Jesus does on earth manifests his humanity and mediates the Son of God. However, this happens especially in the Paschal mystery—his passion, death, and resurrection. During these climactic moments of the “historical event of Jesus,” we are able to see God most vividly. This is why Christians have adopted the symbol of the crucifix. They hang it in their churches, wear it around their necks, and put it on the walls of their schools and homes. Jesus showed us who he is most definitively and fully on Calvary, and so if a man wants to see God, he need only look at the cross.
So far we have established that the humanity of Christ mediates God to us by virtue of his being the Son of God. He manifests his humanity to us in his words and deeds, especially in the Paschal mystery. So by listening to what Jesus says and watching what he does, we can come to see the hidden things of God. This is where “getting to know the person of Jesus” varies somewhat from our everyday experience with other people. Christ lived 2,000 years ago, and so we cannot hear and see him in the same way that his Apostles were able to hear and see him. We will never walk the streets of Jerusalem alongside our Rabbi, as those truly privileged men did all those years ago. Lest we despair of our lack of a time machine, Dei verbum explains how this difficulty can be overcome. Beginning with the Apostles, the eyewitnesses to Christ, the Church hands the Gospel on to future generations through the spoken and written word. This leads to Dei verbum’s oft-quoted teaching that “Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God.”
Guy Mansini helps us to understand what Scripture and Tradition really are. By Tradition, we are to understand the process whereby “the apostolic Church hands on a witness to Jesus of Nazareth, his preaching, his work, and its culmination in the Paschal Mystery.” Tradition is the “handing on of the deeds of the Lord and the words that illuminate them.” Broadly speaking, Tradition actually includes Scripture, but Dei verbum treats Scripture uniquely in a category of its own. One could understand Tradition to be the oral account of the Gospel (including the manner of Christian life and worship), and Scripture to be the written account, but either way, both are to be “accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.” All new public revelation was concluded with the death of the last Apostle, and so there is not (and never can be) any parts of public revelation discovered outside of Scripture and Tradition. Therefore, Scripture and Tradition communicate the words and deeds of Christ, which manifest the humanity of Christ, which mediates the person of Christ—the Son of God.
The fact that sacred Tradition communicates the words and deeds of Christ is why the Church has always interpreted the entire Tradition in reference to Christ. St. Paul says that in Christ “are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3). Commenting on this passage, Mansini points out that “if all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ, there is no content of faith that is outside of or beyond or in addition to him.” Everything in the Tradition is either directly about the words and deeds of Christ, or else, it indirectly explains or sheds light on them. This must be the case because nothing has revelatory value apart from the words and deeds of Jesus Christ. As we saw before, Christ is the “definitive word which God speaks to humanity” and the “fullness of all revelation.” Everything finds its meaning in reference to what he did and said.
The fact that sacred Scripture communicates the words and deeds of Christ is why St. Bonaventure says that the key to understanding everything in the Bible is “the knowledge of Jesus Christ, from whom, as from a fountain, flow forth the certainty and the understanding of all sacred Scripture.” St. Jerome, one of the Church’s greatest exegetes, is known for holding to the same principle. Verbum Domini quotes him as saying, “how could one live without the knowledge of Scripture, by which we come to know Christ himself, who is the life of believers?” Hugh of Saint Victor says much the same thing: “all divine Scripture is one book, and this one book is Christ, speaks of Christ and finds its fulfilment in Christ.” In other words, some things in Scripture are clearly and directly speaking about Jesus, and everything else is to be interpreted as speaking indirectly about him. The entire Old Testament, including Genesis, Exodus, Job, and Judges is all speaking of Christ in a hidden way. This principle comes first and most significantly from Jesus himself who attests in Jn 5:46 that Moses spoke about him.
Mansini conveys the standard account of this when he writes at great length about a Christological interpretation of the Old Testament. He says that Scriptures give us “access to Christ.” He argues that what gives the Old Testament its unity is that “everything in it—law and covenant, exodus and conquest, exile and return, and all the players therein—can be intelligibly related to Christ and his cross and resurrection and his sending of the Spirit onto the Church.” Again, it is helpful to be reminded that this must be the case. If the fullness and perfection of revelation comes from the words and deeds of Jesus, culminating in the Paschal mystery, then everything in revelation must in some way connect to the words and deeds of Jesus, culminating in the Paschal mystery. Christ gives meaning to everything, and he makes all things new. The Old Testament, therefore, is to be interpreted as “a sort of drawing of Christ, anticipating the form of Christ.” This sort of interpretation can be complex and difficult, but there is an enormously rich tradition of it in the Church which leaves no one wanting, provided that he is willing to follow a teacher.
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This concludes our analysis of how we can get to know the humanity of Christ, and it leaves us with a new way of looking at the nature of preaching. If no one can access the hidden things of God apart from the humanity of Christ, then the preacher’s principal task is to mediate the humanity of Christ. He does this by recounting and explaining, with the help of the Magisterium, what is contained in Scripture and Tradition. The preacher relates everything to the words and deeds of Jesus, especially in the Paschal mystery, because this is what Scripture and Tradition actually communicate. In speaking about Christ’s words and deeds, he aims to show how they manifest the humanity of Christ, Jesus’ mind and his character. In turn, this mediation of the humanity of Christ will mediate the person of Christ—the Son of God. If the preacher (or evangelist) does his job well, he will be sharing divinely revealed truths with his audience, and giving them access to the things of faith. This is the sort of preaching which must be heard by non-believers if they are going to have a chance to assent to revealed truth.
Of course, Jesus remains the one mediator between God and men, but preachers and evangelists are able to be mediators by participation, that is, by mediating Christ. Their job is to make Christ present to people in all places and at all times. There is good precedent in the Tradition for this way of understanding the act of preaching. St. Thomas, for example, says that “nothing hinders certain others from being called mediators, in some respect, between God and man, forasmuch as they cooperate in uniting men to God, dispositively or ministerially.” He also argues that men, as teachers, can be real secondary causes of knowledge in one another, thus maintaining Christ as the only one who truly reveals God, but allowing men to participate secondarily in Christ’s work. Dominus Iesus also teaches that “the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude, but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a participation in this one source.” Understanding this sort of cooperation allows us to develop our earlier definition of the nature of preaching: the “sharing of divine revelation.” More precisely, preaching is the mediation of the humanity of Christ, by the sharing of Scripture and Tradition, with an eye to recounting and explaining the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth.
Just as Christ mediates God by being the Image of God, so too, the preacher is only able to mediate Christ by being the image of Christ. St. Paul says to the Corinthians, “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” and again to the Thessalonians, “you became imitators of us and of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:1; 1 Thess 1:6). As a Christian absorbs more of the Gospel and grows in union with Christ, he begins to die to self and live for Christ. In fact, as Paul puts it in his letter to the Galatians, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). The point is that the further a Christian progresses along the path of sanctity, the more he is conformed to the image of Christ. The Scriptural evidence for this is overwhelming. It is a dominating theme in the Gospels and New Testament epistles. Everything from Paul’s command to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” to Jesus’ own words, “do as I have done to you,” make this abundantly clear (Rom 13:14; Jn 13:15). We see this playing out all through the Acts of the Apostles, as Peter and the other Apostles act like Jesus, speak like Jesus, and preach in the name of Jesus. We are meant to be conformed to the image of Christ, and once we are, we bring Christ with us wherever we go.
This means that preaching has a sacramental character. As Mansini explains, “when we are touched in the sacrament, we are touched more by Christ than by any priest.” The priest has a real role that he plays. The minister is a real cause of grace on a secondary level, and something similar happens with preaching. Mansini says that “when the Gospel is proclaimed, we hear Christ more than we do some evangelist.” Of course the evangelist is really speaking, but his words are caused by Christ and they are powerful only because they mediate Christ. Grasso describes this in a similar way. He says that “God himself, or Christ, speaks through the mouths of preachers.” This is why Verbum Domini states that “the sacramentality of the word can thus be understood by analogy with the real presence of Christ under the appearances of the consecrated bread and wine.” After the words of consecration, the bread and wine at Mass become the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. In the economy of salvation, the sacraments stand as parallels to the preaching of the Word in the economy of revelation. When the preacher proclaims Christ crucified, he is really preaching the Word himself, and in doing so, he makes Jesus Christ present.
Since preaching is really the mediation of the humanity of Christ, its efficacy depends upon how accurately Christ is communicated. As we saw before, Christ manifests his humanity through his words and deeds, especially in the Paschal mystery. We find the account and explanation of these words and deeds in Scripture and Tradition, with the help of the Magisterium. The preacher’s process naturally flows from everything we have already said. Preaching (including evangelization) becomes something akin to a presentation and explanation of what Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium say about the Paschal mystery. The preacher’s goal should be to use these sources to help his audience learn and understand what Jesus said and did, all with an eye to the manifestation of his humanity—his mind and his character. This amounts to the preacher giving his audience a fish, but of course, it would be even better if he also gave them a rod and taught them how to fish themselves. Part of “recounting” means the preacher not only tells his audience what Jesus says, but he shows them where Jesus can be found. He accomplishes this part of his task by teaching his audience about the nature of Scripture and Tradition, in addition to teaching them the contents of Scripture and Tradition. Part of helping two people get to know one another is opening an channel of communication between the two, independent from one’s self. The preacher/evangelist must show his audience how they can access Christ in the future. In this way, whether it is in recounting or explaining or “directing,” everything is still related ultimately to Jesus’ words and deeds. The further that preachers stray from the mystery of the person of Christ, revealed in the Paschal mystery, the less effective their preaching will be. The more preachers talk about things outside of Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium, the less contact their audience will have with God’s revelation of himself.
This calls for a heavy reliance on the Gospel narratives. As Mansini explains it, “because God reveals himself to us in a historical economy, a narrative, and just because narrative cannot be replaced by any other genre of discourse or reduced to the form of a treatise, the narrative must always be revisited just as the thing it is, and just so, will spawn an infinity of treatises.” In other words, we must always come back to telling the story as we find it in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Nothing else introduces the person of Christ so clearly. The Gospel narratives focus on the details of the words and deeds of Jesus, especially the Paschal mystery, and this is why they are “the heart of all the Scriptures.” The preacher’s principal task is to read the Gospels, and then explain them with reference to the other New Testament texts, the Old Testament, and the teachings of the Magisterium. Everything revolves around and must be tied back to Christ’s person, revealed in the Paschal mystery. As Dei Verbum reminds us, “Jesus perfected revelation by fulfilling it through his whole work of making Himself present and manifesting Himself: through His words and deeds, His signs and wonders, but especially through His death and glorious resurrection from the dead and final sending of the Spirit of truth.” The preacher’s job is to tell this story, and then explain it, and then tell the story all over again.
In short, preaching and evangelization must be Christocentric. As St. Paul says, “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Rom 10:17). Therefore, the preacher needs to preach Christ. If we look back to our building and planting analogies, now we can understand more fully what St. Paul means when he says, “like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 3:10-11). Christ is the foundation, and a house built on something other than Christ will surely fall apart. Christ is the seed which God has given his laborers to sow, and any preacher who sows a different seed will not bring forth life. This is why the early Church spoke of preaching specifically as the preaching of Christ.
Domenico Grasso helps us to understand the Christocentric character of preaching. In his book, he writes, “what does this Christocentrism mean? Above all it means that in preaching everything is seen from the angle of the role of Christ, as part of the plentitude which he is.” For the preacher, literally “everything” is used as a way to access the humanity of Christ, and by it, the person of Christ. The whole goal of the Church, as the body of Christ, is to make Christ present in the world so that all nations can have faith in the Word. The real measure of preaching then is how well the Gospel narratives and Paschal mystery are communicated and explained. To determine whether or not a preacher has done well, we need only look at how frequently and effectively the preacher recounts and explains the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth. Grasso concludes with another observation from Scripture: “St. Paul gives us a good example of Christocentrism; he sees all this: the Church is the mystical Body of Christ; to believe is to receive Christ; Baptism is dying and rising in Christ; Matrimony is a great mystery in Christ; divisions among Christians divide the Body of Christ; God is Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The expression ‘in Christ’ occurs 164 times in his letters.” If we want to be good preachers, we must try to imitate Paul.
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Having established what preaching is (mediating the humanity of Christ), and what makes for good preaching (recounting and explaining the words and deeds of Jesus in Scripture and Tradition), we are now well-positioned for a brief analysis of the way American Catholics preach. The problem that we started with was the lack of faith among Americans. Then we determined that the cause of the problem must be poor preaching and evangelization. Now we are seeking the specific nature of the cause. Based on everything we have said so far, we expect to see a distinct lack of focus on the words and deeds of Jesus, manifesting his humanity, and revealing his person. Mansini points out that “as engaging more of the minister’s personal agency, the mediation of the word is in that respect more fragile than the mediation of grace; it can be undone or impeded by sin, laziness, ignorance, or stupidity.” Perhaps many Catholics have succumbed to these vices. As we make this examination of the American Catholic’s conscience, we should keep in mind the following words of Jesus: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned” (Jn 15:5-6).
Of course our evidence here will have to be mostly anecdotal, but it should not be difficult to agree on which topics dominate Catholic conversations, homilies, and media. We will mention six common topics which are often focussed on by Catholics today, each of which fails to communicate much about the words and deeds of Christ. If these six topics occupy too large a space in contemporary Catholicism in the United States, we will have found the specific nature of the cause of our problem. He is the vine, and we are the branches. We should be talking about him, and we should be wary of distractions and tangents. Our job (indeed, our privilege) is to mediate the humanity of Christ, but much of our time and effort is spent on these six things.
First, to the extent that we preach about politics, disconnected from the heart of the Gospel, we cease preaching Christ. American Catholics spend too much time talking about government, civil law, and political candidates. This is not to exclude Catholic social teaching from the preacher’s purview, but many preachers and evangelists have not achieved a proper balance. Catholics are engrossed in debates over socialism, capitalism, the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, vaccine controversies, immigration laws, environmental laws, healthcare laws, and dozens of other political issues. A cursory glance at the USCCB’s “Issues & Action” tab on their website makes this point clearly enough. The first problem is that these conversations often do not mediate Christ. They are not conversations about the words and deeds of Jesus. Of course we do not constantly have to be expressly preaching the Gospel, but Catholics need to be careful and thoughtful about how they spend their time and energy. We can only devote so much time to political discussions before we transform the Catholic Church into a mere political party, with nothing new or unique to offer the world. When we talk too much about politics, Catholics themselves start to think of their faith as nothing but a collection of political opinions. Political conversations will never connect us to the vine. It is also worth noting that, while being important, many of these issues are difficult and complex. In order to handle them well, we need to be united to the vine in the first place. Talking about politics before we have adequately spoken of the Gospel is like trying to force a dead branch to bear fruit.
Second, to the extent that we preach about Protestant apologetics, disconnected from the heart of the Gospel, we cease preaching Christ. American Catholics spend too much time talking about biblical and historical arguments which can be used to disarm Protestant Christians who deny the authority of the Church and her doctrines. This one is, admittedly, closer to the Gospel than politics. It is also something which must be talked about to some degree, but it likely gets more attention than it deserves. In talking so much about apologetics, we risk a situation in which many Catholics (especially young Catholics) come to focus too much on doctrinal controversies and never focus enough on Christian fundamentals. Rather than hearing about the words and deeds of Jesus, many young Catholics are taught how to debunk Protestant claims regarding papal infallibility, prayers to Mary, sola fide, apostolic succession, sola scriptura, Mary’s perpetual virginity, and various other points of interest in ecumenical dialogue. There is more to revelation than apologetics, and so we must be wary of reducing the faith down to a Catholic Answers education. Again, these issues are important, and ecumenical dialogue has a place, but it can never replace the formation of young Catholics in the Gospel. Catholics need to know what Jesus said and did (they need to be connected to the vine) before they are ready to defend the Church in difficult theological debates. The real tragedy here is that the less we talk about the Gospel, the less attractive Catholicism becomes. Many people think that the mass exodus from Catholicism can be solved by bearing down on apologetics. Ironically, if we are not connected to the vine, the opposite is actually true.
Third, to the extent that we preach about Vatican II controversies, disconnected from the heart of the Gospel, we cease preaching Christ. American Catholics spend too much time talking about the changes in discipline that resulted from the Council and various theological statements from the Council which lack clarity. The Church’s councils are important for preaching the Gospel because they define dogmas, protect the faith, and guide the faithful. However, they are not replacements for the Gospel, and critical examinations of discipline and complex theological propositions on their own will never bring people close enough to the words and deeds of Jesus Christ. Rather than hearing about the unity of the Church in Christ, many young Catholics witness divisions which arise from these disputes. There is the Novus Ordo group and the Traditional Latin Mass group. There is the communion on the hand group and the communion on the tongue group. There is the charismatic guitar group and the conservative pipe organ group. Dialogue and disagreements between these two groups in the Church occupies too large a space in Catholic conversations. These sort of things can (and on some level should) be talked about, but only once Catholics are on the same page about Jesus of Nazareth. These differences can never be fruitfully dealt with until Catholics are united in Christ the vine. As these divisions feature prominently in the public eye, Catholics should not be surprised to find their numbers dwindling, because “no city or house divided against itself will stand” (Mt 12:25). In ancient Corinth, some Christians would say “I belong to Paul,” and others would say “I belong to Apollos” (1 Cor 3:4). Today some say “I belong to Robert Barron,” and others say “I belong to Taylor Marshall.” The solution is the same today as it was back then: “whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor 3:22-23).
Fourth, to the extent that we preach about philosophy, disconnected from the heart of the Gospel, we cease preaching Christ. American Catholics spend too much time trying to prove their faith with rational arguments. Of course, we should engage intellectually with our faith, seek understanding, and show those who do not believe why faith is not unreasonable. However, rational arguments can never get us all the way, and so they can never replace an “old fashioned” preaching of the Gospel. There is a tendency in the Church today to think that everyone should be Catholic because it is the most reasonable choice, and if everyone heard the right arguments, they would be Catholic too. This apologetic usually follows four steps that look something like this: 1) You prove God exists with Aquinas’ five ways. 2) You prove Jesus was God with C.S. Lewis’s liar-lunatic-Lord argument. 3) You prove Jesus founded the Catholic Church with Mt 16:18. 4) You prove the Catholic Church today is the Church Jesus founded with a historical analysis of apostolic succession in the writings of the Church Fathers. The contemporary assumption is that, if you have done your job right, then the audience should be Catholic at this point. Of course there is a place for this sort of argumentation in the Church. At very least, it is a good defense. However, if the goal is to gain members to the faith, we need to think with the mind of Scripture, and we need to focus on what God has revealed. The Gospel is not an argument; it is a narrative that reveals a person. Jesus was not a philosopher; he was a prophet. We can try to water the vine with philosophy, but unless we are careful, we might end up drowning it instead.
Fifth, to the extent that we preach about ethics, disconnected from the heart of the Gospel, we cease preaching Christ. American Catholics spend too much time talking about which actions are moral and which actions are immoral. Once again, there is a place for this conversation in the Church. Catholic moral teaching is essential to the life of faith. However, without everything else in the Gospel narratives, moral analysis will never bring people close enough to the words and deeds of Jesus Christ. If Catholicism is reduced to an ethical system, or worse, a mere collection of moral rules, then it will cease to appeal to anyone who disagrees with the Church’s moral teaching. American Catholics talk so much about abortion, fornication, NFP/contraception, pornography, etc. that it would be easy for some people to mistakenly think of the Gospel as being one and the same with these moral teachings. The real tragedy, once again, is that Catholics themselves are unable to follow the Church’s moral teachings without first developing a lively faith in Christ. As he himself says, “apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). Jesus has plenty to say about the moral life, but we will never be strong enough to meet the Christian standard without the aid of divine grace. Many American Catholics today think that the Church merely teaches them the moral rules which they can use to get close to God, but the inverse is actually the truth. The Church offers them union with God, who will enable them to live out the moral teachings. As Jesus says, “if you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you” (Jn 15:7).
Sixth, and finally, to the extent that we preach about ourselves, disconnected from the heart of the Gospel, we cease preaching Christ. It would be correct to say that the previous five things mentioned are all different ways of preaching about ourselves instead of Christ, but sometimes we do it even more blatantly. Perhaps the priest on Sunday spends his homily telling jokes, talking about football games, or detailing his own undeveloped musings about life in the modern world. The laity, when speaking with secular friends and co-workers, rarely mention the Gospel at all. Whenever they do preach the Gospel, they focus little on the words and deeds of Jesus, and more on how they feel about the Church and Christianity in general. We talk about our experiences, our doubts, our hopes, and uninspiring accounts of what the Gospel “means to us.” Catholics rarely talk about what the Gospel actually means, in itself, and for everyone. Many of us are guilty of looking at ourselves and praising our own thoughts and insights. We rarely study the Tradition which we claim to defend, so there is nothing actively uniting us to the life of the vine. We are not looking at Scripture and Tradition which Dei Verbum says are “like a mirror in which the pilgrim Church on earth looks at God.” Instead we are looking in a regular mirror, with nothing to see but ourselves, infatuated and trying desperately to make others fall in love as well.
In conclusion, all six of these reasons display the specific nature of the cause of the problem. What the Church lacks at this moment is balance. Preachers and evangelists are emphasizing the wrong things. There has been a dramatic loss of Catholic faith in the United States, and it is because Catholics no longer preach Christ. It says quite a lot that Catholics fail to study Scripture to the point of it being a stereotype, and then they laugh at Protestants who memorize the Bible and preach the name of Jesus with confidence. Catholics can never surrender those truths that the Church possesses which Protestants have rejected. However, somewhere in the process of defending those truths, Catholics neglected even more fundamental truths which unite all Christians. In their efforts to defend the Pope, they forgot about Christ, and the result has been an ugly downward slide. Catholics have lost the substance of the Gospels because they stopped studying Scripture and Tradition. They stopped contemplating the words and deeds of Jesus. They stopped searching for the person of Christ. They stopped preaching divine revelation. What can we be seeing in the Church today, if not the realization of Christ’s warning: “if a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned” (Jn 15:6).
Part 4: The Solution
We need not end on this bleak note. As the Gospels themselves reveal, Christ is risen, and so Christians are never without hope. As Jesus himself says before ascending to his Father, “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20). We have left the vine, but the vine has not left us. Having identified the specific nature of the cause of the problem, a solution naturally springs forth. If a lack of Christocentric preaching is what has caused this loss of faith, then a return to Christocentric preaching will restore that faith. If the laborers sowing the seed are the cause of the problem, then the solution is to focus on the laborers, and make sure that they are doing their job correctly. If Catholics are putting all their efforts into talking about politics, apologetics, Vatican II controversies, philosophy, moral teaching, and personal experiences, then the natural thing to do is stop talking about these things so much. We should not neglect them altogether, but we should work to achieve the right balance, with the emphasis being on the words and deeds of Jesus Christ.
It might be helpful for us to think more precisely about what this return to Christocentric preaching would look like. Christocentric preaching will rely heavily on Scripture and Tradition. The Bible and the Fathers of the Church should be quoted frequently. This is not a narrow scope, but a very broad one. Within Scripture and Tradition, special attention should be given to the words and deeds of Jesus, as they are presented in the four Gospels. Everything else, including Magisterial texts, is used to explain and interpret the things that Jesus says and does. Within the life of Jesus, special attention should be given to the Paschal mystery. Catholics should frequently come back to the cross, and they should aim to show how the Old Testament and the Magisterium help us to understand what happened on Calvary. Within the Paschal mystery, special attention should be given to the manifestation of the humanity of Jesus Christ, and the revelation of the person of Christ. Catholics should focus on what Christ’s passion tells us about who he is. They should frequently speak about what Jesus’ dying for us reveals about his character and his love. This is the sort of preaching that attracts people because these are the things that reveal God.
There are manifold examples of Christocentric preaching in the early Church, beginning with Scripture itself. The Acts of the Apostles is especially enlightening on this point. There we find witness to many sermons delivered by the Apostles at the beginning of the Church’s life. We are told that the Apostles went out into the world “preaching the Lord Jesus” (Acts 11:20). The early Church “proclaimed Jesus, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’” (Acts 9:20). Paul taught about Jesus, Apollos proved he was the Christ, Peter told his story, and Stephen connected him to the Old Testament. If we look at how the Apostles preached, we find that it is quite simple, and it all revolves around Jesus Christ and the Paschal mystery. Peter tells the story of Jesus’ passion in Acts 2:22-24, 3:14-16, 4:10-12, and 10:39-43. Paul does the same thing in Acts 13:28-33 and 17:2-4. Nearly every sermon recounted in Acts shows the Apostles telling the story of the Paschal mystery, and explaining it with reference to the Old Testament. We can do the same thing today, with the added help of the Magisterium. We can expect faith to result from this sort of preaching, as we see it did for the Apostles’ audience. After Peter gives his simple sermon in Acts 2, “there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). There is nothing preventing us from sounding today the way that Peter sounded back then:
Be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man is standing before you well. This is the stone which was rejected by you builders, but which has become the head of the corner. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:10-12).
In addition to Scripture, we can also look for examples in the writings of the saints. The Church Fathers preached in a manner very similar to what we see from the Apostles in Acts. Their preaching is heavily scriptural. They make constant reference to the Paschal mystery. Everything is tied back to Christ, and they focus on opening people’s eyes to the true meaning behind the things which Jesus did and said. If we overcome our historical snobbery, we will immediately see that there is great wisdom in the early Church’s approach, and their results are undeniable. It is a strange thing for us to assume that their narrative approach is a primitive method which we should strive to move past. Instead we should honor the example handed down to us by following it. We should not dismiss the sermons of the Fathers, but we should imitate them, and at times even repeat them, down to the last word. It is a radically un-Catholic thing to think that we can do better than John Chrysostom, Augustine of Hippo, and Leo the Great. Of course this is not the place for an entire survey of the Church Fathers’ homilies, but we can cite a passage from one of St. Augustine’s New Testament sermons as an example:
If all are whole, wherefore has so great a Physician come down from heaven? Why has He prepared for us a medicine not out of His stores, but of His own blood? That sort of sick then who had a milder sickness, who felt themselves to be sick, clave to the Physician, that they might be healed. But they whose sickness was more dangerous mocked the Physician, and abused the sick. Whither did their frenzy proceed at last? To seize the Physician, bind, scourge, crown Him with thorns, hang Him upon a Tree, kill Him on the Cross! Why do you marvel? The sick slew the Physician; but the Physician by being slain healed the frantic patient. For first, not forgetting on the Cross His own character, and manifesting forth His patience to us, and giving us an example of love to our enemies; as He saw them raging round Him, who had known their disease, seeing He was the Physician, who had known the frenzy by which they had become infatuated, He said at once to the Father, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” Now suppose ye that those Jews were not malignant, cruel, bloody, turbulent, and enemies of the Son of God? Suppose ye that that cry, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”, was ineffectual and in vain? He saw them all, but He knew among them those that should one day be His. In a word, He died, because it was so expedient, that by His Death He might kill death. God died, that an exchange might be effected by a kind of heavenly contract, that man might not see death. For Christ is God, but He died not in that Nature in which He is God. For the same Person is God and man; for God and man is one Christ.
In addition to Scripture and the saints, we can find examples of Christocentric preaching in our own times. Not everyone is going to sound like St. Augustine, but the early Church’s method is used by several prominent evangelists and scholars today. The popularly oriented work of Brant Pitre, Scott Hahn, and Fr. Michael Gaitley could be cited as examples. Their books and videos focus on the Gospels, on the words and deeds of Christ, with the goal of making them present and accessible to modern people. Another interesting example is Fr. Mike Schmitz, the chaplain for Newman Catholic Campus Ministries at the University of Minnesota. His most recent project is the production of a podcast called The Bible in a Year, in which he simply walks his audience through the Bible, providing commentary, reflection, and prayer along the way. This successful use of modern technology is especially intriguing, and similar success stories can be seen in the film industry with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, or Dallas Jenkins’ The Chosen, which is the first-ever multi-season TV show about the life of Jesus. What all these examples have in common is that they reach an enormous audience, which we would expect from the successful preaching of the universal Gospel message. Fr. Gaitley’s books are all bestsellers. Scott Hahn’s works need no introduction in the Catholic world. Within 48 hours of being released, Fr. Mike’s podcast became the #1 show on Apple Podcasts, winning out over every single secular option on the platform. The Chosen, a television show financed by a crowdfunding effort, is soaring in popularity, and has now been seen by about 90 million people in 125 countries. The popularity of all these books and films is important, because all they do is repeat and explain the narrative, in a surprisingly simple way. As it turns out, the Word of God is enough to catch people’s attention. The story of Jesus Christ is compelling, even for a modern audience.
As our Church withers and dies in the United States, these sort of examples, these bursts of life and excitement, deserve our attention. We should study carefully what is happening within these little pricks of light amidst the inky darkness of modern American culture, and then we should imitate it. As it turns out, Americans are not interested in hearing more philosophical arguments. They do not want to be presented with another opinion about sexual ethics. They are bored by personal anecdotes, fed up with politics, and uninspired by Protestant apologetics. Are we surprised to find that a young woman, enticed by modern feminism, is not gripped by her pastor’s grumblings about Vatican II? Do we expect the young man, who thinks he can find happiness in money, to be converted by the reminder that contraception is wrong? How many disciples of Hitchens, young “people of science,” will come to be Christians upon reading Aristotle? Of course Vatican II is difficult, and contraception is wrong, and Aristotle was a great philosopher. However, only Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
Christianity’s great strength is not its ability to beat the world at its own game. Christ was asked about matters of the world, time and time again, and he always spoke dismissively. He would encourage his disciples to aim higher and think bigger. He told them to “render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt 22:21). Jesus did not defeat death by fighting fire with fire. He did not use power against power. He defeated death by surrendering to it with his eyes raised to heaven. He did not come as a warrior king, but as a baby in a manger. He did not teach the truth with advanced arguments and rhetorical prowess. He told us to “receive the kingdom of God like a child” because God has “hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes” (Mk 10:15; Mt 11:25). It would seem that Christianity’s great strength is the very thing which makes it different from the world. Christianity saves us precisely because it is not merely one more political party, philosophical school, or social club.
The young modern man, who is addicted to pornography, whose parents are divorced, and who lives in a pluralistic society with thousands of opinions, arguments, and worldviews being thrust in his face, is not looking for more of the same. He will not be convinced by another syllogism or another sad story about the dangers of promiscuity. What he craves is something more personal than that. He wants to know what is wrong with people, what is wrong with himself, why his father left his mother, and why he is never happy. He wants a new option, a different way of life, an encounter with a person who is invested in him, who cares about his troubles, and who has a real solution. It still happens today that a broken soul picks up the Gospel of Matthew or stumbles into a Catholic Mass, and he leaves a different person than he was the day before. It is time we stopped underestimating the price of the pearl we have been given. It is time we stopped trying to give the growth, and we let the Holy Spirit do his work. It is time we took Jesus seriously when he tells us, “apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). It is time for every Catholic preacher to take upon himself the same attitude in proclaiming the Gospel that John the Baptist had in announcing its coming. Let each Christian, determined to make disciples of all nations, begin by admitting, in the words of that great saint, “I am not the Christ … He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:28, 30).
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