The New Evangelization is the buzzword for much of what happens at the Vatican. It could well become the catchword of Ratzinger’s entire pontificate given the attention that is receiving. Benedict XVI instituted a new Pontifical Council in 2010 entirely dedicated to the New Evangelization. The latter is mentioned in nearly all his speeches and is slowly but steadily becoming the overarching theme of many projects sponsored by the Vatican.
The President of the newly created Vatican department, Msgr. Rino Fisichella, has just published a book (La nuova evangelizzazione, Milano: Mondadori, 2011) where he spells out the significance of the New Evangelization and offers an interesting perspective on the direction that this initiative is going to take. Fisichella was professor of Fundamental Theology (i.e. the RC way of defining a discipline between Apologetics and Systematic Theology) for many years and then Rector of the Lateran Pontifical University, one of the major and most prestigious academic institutions in Rome. After spending much of his life reflecting on the often turbulent relationship between faith and the modern world, Benedict XVI called him to lead the Vatican efforts towards mobilizing the RC Church towards the New Evangelization. From the chair to the square, so to speak.
1. What the New Evangelization is About
Fisichella makes clear that the New Evangelization applies to those countries where the RC Church was established in ancient times and where the first proclamation of the Gospel resounded many centuries ago. He acknowledges the fact that the word “evangelization” and the vocabulary around it has been treated with suspicion in RC circles due to its “protestant” usage and overtones. Mission and catechesis were more traditional and preferred terms for a long time. It is only after Vatican II that the language of evangelization began to be used.
The expression “New Evangelization” was coined by John Paul II in 1979 and subsequently achieved a technical theological meaning. Its specificity has to do with its recipients, i.e. the masses that have been baptized in the RC Church but have “lost a living sense of their faith”. The goal of the New Evangelization is to call them back to the mother church.
2. Why the New Evangelization is Needed
Fisichella embarks on the attempt of analyzing what has caused such a transition to practical unbelief. The root of the Western crisis is the transformation of the process of secularization in a strong movement towards secularism. The former is a sociological process which reflects pluralism, the latter is a new dogmatic religion which is anti-Christian. This new stance forgets the rich “synthesis between Greek-Roman thought and Christianity” and replaces it with an ideology of religious indifference and relativism. In a telling comment, Fisichella argues that “the pathology that afflicts the world today is cultural” and is to be entirely attributed to secularism.
This is a standard reading of Western cultural trends from a traditional point of view. What is striking in Fisichella’s otherwise nuanced reconstruction is the lack of self-criticism as far as the RC Church is concerned. It seems that the charge of the present-day crisis lies in secularism only, whereas churches seem to bear no responsibility. Even when he deplores the profound ignorance that most people show as far as the tenets of the Christian faith is concerned, he skips over the rather obvious point about who is to blame (at least partially but truly) for it. Are we sure that European churches do not bear any responsibility in today’s spiritual and cultural crisis, especially when they claim to have 70%, 80%, 90% of baptized in most countries? Isn’t there something wrong in their theology of Christian initiation? Isn’t there a problem in their catechetical impact? Isn’t there something awkward in their witness to the Gospel? In the end, are churches blameless in the Western spiritual turmoil? For Fisichella, the issue is not even mentioned.
3. New Evangelization … New Humanism
The New Evangelization is needed because the West has turned away from its Christian roots and it is time to reverse the tide. According to Fisichella, the battle ground is cultural, the issue at stake is anthropological, the task before the Church is to promote a New Humanism, i.e. a more advanced synthesis between Christian values and the Greek-Roman heritage through the rediscovery of the virtue of coherence on the part of Christians. The New Evangelization will be a means to achieve this ambitious goal, a goal that Benedict XVI wholly embraces and proactively spearheads.
So far, the narrative of the New Evangelization does not contain crucial biblical words like repentance from past and present mistakes, confession of sin, conversion to Jesus Christ. If the New Evangelization is to bear its fruit there is no other way than the biblical one.
Leonardo De Chirico
Rome, 7th February 2012