A person who claims to preach the Gospel by convincing people of their beliefs in Jesus is not evangelizing, but proselytizing, Pope Francis said at his Wednesday general audience Oct. 2. CNS photo/Yara Nardi, Reuters

Peter Stockland: Religious narrative losing its voice

  • November 30, 2019

The online publication The Catholic Thing recently dubbed Pope Francis “idiosyncratic” for his insistence that evangelical encounters should witness to Christ without having a proselytizing edge. 

Whether we like it or not, alas, as-yet unpublished polling data by my colleagues at the think tank Cardus show pretty strongly that failure to follow Francis’ prescription is, to be frank, out of sync with reality.

I’ve had a sneak preview of the numbers on shifting attitudes toward acceptance of faith in public life, which translates on the ground into how tolerant ordinary Canadians are toward religious faith in general and Catholicism in particular. I’ll be commenting on the specific numbers once they’re published. But I can say one thing right now: they ain’t pretty.

True, the “religion is going … going … gone” narrative has been around for a century or more. Its very longevity has been a paradoxical source of comfort. The longer its proponents kept repeating it, i.e., the longer their predictions failed to come true, the more confident many of us felt that reports of faith’s death were wildly exaggerated.

But what we’re beginning to see is a troubling variation on the narrative that portends less an end to religious faith per se than increasingly sclerotic openings for where, when and how it can even be discussed. Polite dinner conversation once proscribed politics and religion. Now, religious belief is being judged by political standards already so severe they make being known for one’s faith something close to disqualification for public life.

The Cardus numbers show through the magic of social science what we’ve all watched happen in real time before, during and after the recent federal election. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has found himself on the ugly end of a smear campaign that forced him to talk about his faith when he didn’t want to. In turn, he was discredited as a political leader because of what his refusal to deny his religious life purportedly revealed about his (presumed defective) personal character. 

This is the real-world atmosphere in which editors of The Catholic Thing think we should lead with the Catechism and let the encounter with Christ catch up some time down the road? Apparently so. In his article citing Scripture, Vatican I’s Dogmatic Constitution and papal encyclicals going to back to Leo XIII, Professor Eduardo J. Echeverria chides Francis for “inconsistency with the Catholic tradition’s emphasis on the interdependency of faith and reason….”

Then he adds this: “Francis’s view not only creates confusion but runs the risk of degenerating into outright religious indifferentism.”

Indifferentism? Would that we could get back to the heady heights that mere indifferentism slouches across. As the data and the pile-up of anecdotal experience shows, this is a society increasingly vigorous in demanding that if the faithful won’t go away, they must at least be shut up. 

A myriad of reasons account for this. Here’s one that makes the case for evangelizing first as image bearers of Christ rather than with apologetics, dogmatics and ready quotations from Scripture dripping from our lips. No sooner had I finished reading my online copy of The Catholic Thing than another e-mail popped up. 

It was a press release from the Catholic Archdiocese of Montreal. It announced that retired Superior Court Judge Pepita Capriolo has been commissioned to conduct an external inquiry into the sexual crimes of jailed diocesan priest, Brian Boucher. 

“We want … to uncover the truth regarding how the concerns and complaints about Brian Boucher were received and handled,” Montreal Archbishop Christian Lépine is quoted.

The tragedy, alas, is that such announcements are no longer idiosyncrasies. They’re not even merely commonplace. They’re what far too many people around us take to be the truth about us now. Proselytize that. 

(Stockland is publisher of Convivium.ca and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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