How Not to Engage in the New Evangelization

One of the buzzwords that came out of the Benedict XVI era was the phrase "the New Evangelization."  While something of an amorphous concept, the core of the idea was to try to find new ways to encourage adults to come into the Catholic Church, with a marked emphasis on bringing back former or estranged Catholics.  This is a laudable goal, and I have seen it bear good fruits, particularly in the form of the excellent Landings program that I was involved with at my former parish in San Francisco.  The core insight of the Landings program is that people who have stopped practicing Catholicism want to have someone listen to why they have left, and so the program tries to create safe space for people to tell their stories.  In telling their stories in a group format, where the group contains a mix of people who practicing and not practicing, people are given a proper hearing and encouraged to understand that they are not alone in their struggles with the faith, whatever those struggle may be.  My experiences with Landings, even as someone who was still "in," were very powerful, and I think every Catholic parish should implement the program.

That spirit, however, is often absent from the New Evangelization efforts.  I have noticed that those who are the most excited about the New Evangelization are often the biggest impediment to the New Evangelization.  I saw this on display last night, when I attended a parish mission.  The couple running the mission were good, but some of the comments from the crowd displayed all of the problematic memes that get thrown around in New Evangelization circles.  The common thread running through all of these concepts is that they are dialogue killers--they communicate to the person on the other end that you are not listening to what they have to say and to their experience.  Once that happens, the recipient shuts down, and you have defeated the purpose of the exercise.

So, as my contribution to the New Evangelization, allow me to offer a list of phrases that, following the lead of the Landings program, should be permanently retired from Catholic discourse:


1. "People have problems with [fill in Church teaching] because they don't understand it/haven't studied it."  This, to me, is the biggest one, because it is both the most common and one that contains a number of problematic assumptions and implications wrapped up in a small package.  First, it immediately places the speaker in a position of superiority over the listener--I understand something correctly, and you don't understand it.  Second, it contains the unspoken implication that the speaker is smarter than the listener.  Either way, people do not  like being put down right off the bat, and have a tendency to put up walls to what the speaker has to say.

In addition, it is a blanket dismissal of a person's story before the story is even told.  By framing the issue this way, the speaker is communicating that the listener's study of Catholic teaching, or life experience, or whatever influences his or her position, is irrelevant, because at the end of the day it is wrong and needs to be replaced with the proper understanding.  All objections are a priori ignorant ones.  If the speaker thinks that what I have to say is ignorant before hearing it, the listener will ask, why should I bother saying anything?  Dialogue dies.

There are, of course, people who object to various Catholic teachings because they don't understand them.  But there are also people who understand them quite well and find them unpersuasive.  Lumping the two together for the purpose of dismissing both out of hand is a way to dismiss the person and their concerns.  They are unlikely to listen much further.

2.  "People dissent from Church teachings because of their sin."  One might think that it is self-evident that leading with condemning people as sinners sight unseen is not the best way to bring folks into the fold.  And yet the Catholic blogosphere loves to throw around the (possibly apocryphal) story that Fulton Sheen would respond to "I left the Catholic Church" with the question "what was your sin?"  There are two ways to understand this claim, and both of them are unhelpful to engaging people with the faith.

One way is to frame it in macro terms.  All people sin in some manner, and one of the manifestations of sin is to not follow God's teachings.  Since Catholics believe that the Church is the repository of God's teachings, it follows that by definition people who are not following the Church are doing so because of sin on some level.  That may be a valid syllogism, but it is a terrible evangelism technique.  Even if the intent of the speaker is to approach the statement from a global perspective, most listeners will see it as a personal attack, and personal attacks cause defensiveness and shut-downs.  In addition, it doesn't really address the listener's actual issues.  The syllogism only works if the Church's teachings are co-extensive with God's teachings.  By definition, the listener is on the fence about whether that is true, so the speaker's re-skinned argument from authority is unlikely to move the needle.

The other way is to look at it in micro terms--i.e. "this particular person is dissenting because they are sinning in some particular way."  There are numerous different versions of this, but the most common is "you support gay marriage/abortion/birth control because you want no rules regarding your sexual behavior."  I cannot think of a less persuasive argument.  First, it presupposes that there is no good faith arguments on the other side, and that the only way someone could possibly believe these things is through self-interest.  If someone takes the position that there is no principled basis for supporting birth control or gay marriage, well, there's probably not much room for dialogue between them and those on the other side.  Second, as any marriage counselor will tell you, sidestepping an argument by questioning the speaker's motives is a good way to get the listener to shut down and walk away.  Remember, the goal of this exercise is to engage people and convince them to return to the practice of the faith.  Almost by definition, this approach is not going to accomplish that.

3.  "You believe what you believe because of the selfishness/relativism/immorality of the culture."  This would seem to be better than number two, since it takes away the personal responsible element of number two and deflects it on to the culture.  At the end of the day, though, it suffers from similar problems, as most people do not react well to being told they are slaves to broader cultural forces.  Plus, even if a person accepts (as they probably will after some reflection) that they are influenced by their cultural environment, that insight doesn't really move the ball forward.  There is no magic button that allows a person to strip out those thoughts that are influenced by the culture from those that are not.  At the end of the day, the listener is left with whatever views the listener has, regardless of the genesis of those views.  Simply pointing out that they are the influenced by the culture doesn't make them go away.    

4.  "If you spend time at Mass/with the Sacraments, your concerns will go away."  This idea comes from a discussion I saw between two well known "media priests"--Fr. Jim Martin, S.J., and Fr. Robert Barron:


Barron is right that Catholicism is not simply about abortion, birth control, etc., and that there are much more fundamental issues at stake in religious faith.  But Father Barron's answer is still unhelpful in at least three ways.

First, he missed the call of the question.  As Martin framed it, the people with concerns about the hot-button issues were already practicing Catholics.  Thus, they already are doing the things that Barron suggest as the cure for their problem, and yet they still have disagreements.  There is this idea in certain more conservative quarters that the people who are in the pews every Sunday are 100% on board with the Church's social agenda.  That's simply not true, as some of the more recent surveys of active Catholic parishoners have revealed.

Second, Barron is essentially offering a wager--if you do X, Y, and Z in terms of Catholic practice, eventually your views on the controversial issues will change.  It's not clear exactly how that would work. and it has a whiff of magical thinking.  As mentioned above, a lifetime of Catholic practice hasn't caused all the current parishoners to get on the bus, so why would it work for new people?  And if Barron is wrong and his wager doesn't work--the person doesn't change his views--there is a real chance that the wagerer might just abandon the whole thing.  Which, of course, is the opposite of what the New Evangelization is trying to accomplish.

Finally, again, this line of thought is dismissive of the individual story of the listener.  While the first three approaches tell the listener that that their experience is wrong, this approach suggests that their experience is irrelevant.  After all, whatever reasons you have for thinking a certain way, it can all be wiped out by a few devotions or participating in the soup kitchen ministry.  Once again, there is no real reason for the person to enter into real dialogue.

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