The Gospel of Jesus Christ reached all corners of the known world within 100 years of the public ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. That Gospel eventually transformed civilization and culture. It did so by the same methodology employed by Jesus himself, an itinerant rabbi: personal preaching and testimony. Aided after Pentecost by the power of the Holy Spirit, many persons were converted by the persuasiveness of the personal testimony given by the Christians. “See how they love one another,” was an observation that reinforced the influence of their testimony to the effects of grace, faith, and the Gospel. Hearts and lives needed to hear that message, and when they did, they converted.
After the conversion of Constantine, the methodology of Gospel dissemination changed radically. Outside the Roman Empire, personal testimony still prevailed as the predominant means of preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ. Within the empire, however, the State became a vehicle for supporting the message, and soon a vehicle for enforcing orthodox doctrine. Whole communities converted, and the intimate means of speaking heart to heart about the power of Jesus Christ to save, to heal, to make whole, to empower, ceded to a larger sense of membership in a body of Believers, in whom the individual could find solace and belonging, and with whom the individual could worship freely, even if the individual’s personal conversion was not as profound as in an earlier age of preaching.
The sense of corporate identity has broken down drastically in Western civilization, in favor of what Harvard sociologist Carle Zimmerman termed in 1947 an “atomistic model.” The individual, not the family, and certainly not the extended family or cultural identity, is now the most important unit of society. Government, as predicted by Zimmerman, does not exist today to reinforce, protect, and pass down shared values, but rather to offer freedom and protection for the individual to define personal values and liberties with little regard for a shared base of moral limits. The role of government today is to protect the individual’s rights from incursion by others who would seek to erode personal liberties and freedoms.
Yet many still look to the government to enforce the values of the Gospel, as though the government and the Church yet enjoy a shared world view. The Gospel did not first reach the ends of the world by political means; it did so by personal testimony. Jesus did not advocate for public policy changes in lieu of preaching in public places; rather He changed hearts and lives by direct preaching. His agenda was not to demand that the State enforce His values, and pout if public leaders failed to accede.
We know that He wept over the capital city, not because public policy determinations permitted actions contrary to His preaching, but precisely because the hearts of the people were not changed. It was not the State that brought conversions in His public ministry or in the early Church. It was the body of Believers taking seriously their mandate to go into the world and change it, one life at a time.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ can again transform the world. It won’t be through political processes and public policy advocacy to adopt laws that coerce Gospel values or restrict immorality. Western culture has too universally adopted personal libertarianism for the State to be used as a tool of Gospel evangelization. Those efforts focus on the practical application of Gospel values, which make sense only if one accepts the underlying values.
Law itself, even in the Church, is not a tool of evangelization. A resort to law as a means to prevent illicit actions, and even more so as a means to punish, is an admission of failure to preach the Gospel in such a compelling manner as to have converted hearts and minds. The question of whom we should prohibit from receiving Holy Communion is not the first question to ask, but the more piercing question is, “Why have we failed to preach the Gospel so convincingly that one can name himself or herself a Christian and not decry impending moral peril?” Is it wiser to ask, “How can we punish more effectively,” or, “How can we preach more effectively?”
Too often we focus on the practical application of Gospel values in the moral sphere, without first having preached the core of the Gospel itself in a compelling and life-changing manner. Lives change and souls are converted not by adherence to laws – of the State or of the Church – but by hearing the Gospel in a way that touches the longings of their hearts and aspirations of their spirits. Then, as a consequence and not a catalyst, assent to the Gospel brings changes to how one acts and to the decisions one makes. Lives change because the heart has first been converted. The practical application of the Gospel follows, not precedes, the preaching of the Gospel itself.
While ever remaining a voice in public discourse, while ever reminding culture that there remain bright-line principles of right and wrong, the Church cannot think for a moment that practical applications of Gospel values will be so compelling in their sensibilities that the majority of people will understand and give assent of mind and will without first having heard the heart of the Gospel message. A referendum, a constitutional amendment, a statutory enactment, an election – these are not tools of the Gospel. Our culture no longer rests on a base of shared values and goals: the individual rules, and the deepening consensus is that public policy should in no way constrain the personal liberties of the individual. This is not a culture that will understand the Church’s insistence that public policy must support universal rights and wrongs.
The Gospel must be preached, not legislated. Where hearts and wills go, public policy will follow.
Even in our parishes and churches, we cannot assume that those who sit in the pews have personally and individually heard – truly heard in their hearts – the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They have perhaps long been a part of a body that prays together and by custom goes to church, but the power of the message may not have pierced their hearts and led tMsgr. William J. Kingo deep conversion.
So it is to the individual that we must present the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in the manner by which He Himself first preached it. It is a compelling message for the individual in an atomistic society. It is a commanding mission for the Believer in an atomistic society: go, preach – yes, you.
In calling for a Year of Faith and repeating his predecessor’s appeal for a New Evangelization, this is precisely what Pope Benedict XVI has in mind. We need to start at the beginning, not at the end. The beginning is a call to repentance and conversion, an invitation to taste the Good News and surrender soul, will, and heart to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The beginning is to lead the person to recognize that what the whole person aches for in their depths – the Good, the Beautiful, the True – is found in God alone. That is the beginning. The end result is a change in how I live my life, seeking to be united with the Holy. Holy behavior cannot be coerced – it must be loved into the person.
Change enough hearts by the preaching of the Gospel, and a culture will be transformed. Hearts are seldom changed by the enactment of public laws. That’s the wrong way down a one-way street: culture is changed when a critical mass arises within the populace in support of shared values and mores.
Unless the heart is first convinced, unless the interior is converted, the demand for external moral conformity will ever remain “soltanto un suggerimento" -- only a suggestion!
November 8, 2012
Msgr. William J. King