Imagine if you will two armies meeting in battle. One is armed with flintlock rifles and swords and they are highly skilled with them. They have had extensive training and practice. The other army is armed with M-16’s, AK-47’s and rocket propelled grenade launchers, but haven’t a clue how to use them. They don’t know how to load or cock them, never mind how to clean them. Which army is going to win? I suggest the Catholic faith and its principles are not doing better in the marketplace of ideas is similar: we have the better message, but the world is marketing theirs better. Many people have a very negative understanding of Catholicism, and of Christianity in general, because those who say only the negative, and often distort the reality, are so much more effective that we have been getting the word out.
When the Church began, a small handful of people with no resources but the Gospel story and the grace of God were able to change the world forever. The surrounding culture was extremely hostile; they thought following someone who had been crucified was the dumbest thing they had ever heard, and they held to highly decadent values. Nonetheless, the mightiest empire that the world had ever seen was helpless to stop the Church from growing. We have all the resources that the early Church had and more.
When most Catholics are taught the faith, we not been taught to be evangelists. We have been prepared to be customers in the Church. Even in the seminary, we were not really taught how to spread the faith to others, but rather how to deal with people who already believed. Much of the way we are taught to talk about the faith only makes sense to those who already accept its basic premises. Furthermore, many, many Catholics stop learning about the faith after twelfth, eighth or even second grade, so they never learn the faith on an adult level. But, they keep learning in other areas, so that faith falls behind.
We know that Jesus, the Son of God, became man and died on the cross to save us from our sins. Okay, but what does it mean that He is the “Son of God”? What does dying on a cross have to do with saving us from our sins? Why do we need saving? What does it mean to save us? What is “sin” anyway and why does it matter? When if we can’t explain that in language that they can understand, it is not going to make sense to them. We are so used to our religious language, we have not learned to talk about this stuff without it.
Many people were raised Catholic and have left because they think it doesn’t make a lot of sense, or doesn’t make a lot of difference. I’ve talked to a lot of them, and if I understood Catholicism the way they did, I wouldn’t be Catholic either. I wouldn’t be Christian at all. They can have some strange ideas, and say terrible things about the faith (like, “so you believe that God put us here to guess the right religion, and if we guess wrong he will burn us in fire forever and ever, but he loves us.”). Whatever they were taught growing up, this is what they absorbed. It is futile to get mad at them for saying such things. We need to focus our energy on getting the faith out more effectively.
We have work to do. We need to understand our faith story better, and we need to learn to express it in ways that the world can find compelling. If what we claim to believe is true, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the most powerful transformative force in the universe. We just need the will and the skill to do it, and the world can be transformed. Our weapons are the Word of Truth and loving action. God wants us to succeed.