To reach young, church must explain core beliefs, official says

VATICAN CITY – If the church wants to reach young people today, it must avoid the temptation to “fudge” on core Catholic beliefs in an effort to make them more agreeable to contemporary tastes, a Vatican official said.

Instead, it should confront with courage the major barriers in modern evangelization, including cultural resistance to the proclamation of Christ as the unique savior, said Dominican Father Augustine DiNoia, undersecretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“No one in his or her right mind will be interested in a faith about which its exponents seem too embarrassed to communicate forthrightly,” Father DiNoia said.

“We have to be convinced that the fullness of the truth and beauty of the message about Jesus Christ is powerfully attractive when it is communicated without apologies or compromise,” he said.

Father DiNoia made the remarks in the Carl J. Peter lecture delivered Dec. 7 at Rome’s Pontifical North American College. His speech took its theme from Pope Benedict XVI’s talk to U.S. bishops last April, when the pope said they could best help people meet God by “clearing away some of the barriers to such an encounter.”

Father DiNoia said these barriers are in part intellectual, and can be remedied by robust preaching and teaching that responds to the younger generation’s openness to discussion and debate.

“In our conversations with young people, we have to avoid the temptation to fudge – to adapt the Catholic faith so as to make it palatable to modern tastes and expectations,” Father DiNoia said.

“This so-called ‘accommodationist’ approach generally fails, and it fails doubly with young people. There is a risk in this approach that the Christian message becomes indistinguishable from everything else on offer in the market stalls of secularized religious faith,” he said.

Father DiNoia examined what he said were the three biggest obstacles to evangelizing young people today. The first, he said, is “the notion that it is arrogant to claim that Jesus Christ is the unique mediator of salvation.”

He said that in confronting this barrier the church needs to first make clear that faith in Christ’s uniqueness does not devalue other religions, which are worthy of respect and study as “monuments to the search for God.”

But what makes Christianity different is that it is principally about “God’s search for us” and God’s desire to give human beings a share in divine life, he said.

“Given that salvation in the Christian sense of the term involves both reconciliation of sinners and the elevation of creaturely persons to a new kind of life, it cannot come from within this world. Saviors are a dime a dozen when one fails to grasp what’s really at stake. We need to be delivered not just from error, or suffering, or desire, or injustice, or poverty,” he said.

“God desires nothing less than to share his life with us,” he said. Only Jesus Christ could accomplish that, he said, and Christians need to affirm that in bringing salvation for them and for others, Jesus is “not just any savior.”

Father DiNoia identified a second barrier to the evangelization of young people in the mistaken and predominant belief that being a Christian means giving up one’s freedom and replacing it with conformity to an external set of rules.

It is true that Christian faith requires conformity to Christ, he said. But this is not a “slavish conformity”; it presupposes the full realization of the unique human person, not his suppression, he said.

The third major barrier, Father DiNoia said, is the idea that the church’s moral teachings are more or less arbitrary, allowing or forbidding certain things regardless of their real relationship with human goodness.

Young people need to know that the church rejects this “culture of legalism” in theology, and that Catholic teachings are aimed primarily at fostering virtue, not instilling obedience. Like an athlete’s exercise and diet regime, which prepares him for a good performance, the church’s moral teachings are designed to lead the person to goodness and happiness, he said.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.