The New Evangelization and the Nones

“Sermon on the Mount” St. Matthew’s Church altarpiece by Henrik Olrik


On Monday this week I had the joy to attend the Erasmus Lecture in New York sponsored annually by First Things magazine. It has a rich history, starting in 1988 when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger inaugurated the tradition. This year the Lecture was given by Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles, creator of the Catholicism Series, founder of Word on Fire ministries, and the country’s leading Catholic evangelist.

Before a record crowd jammed into the Union League Club, Bishop Barron spoke on a theme on which all Catholics need to be thinking … and thinking a lot: the transmission of the Gospel at a time in which one quarter of the country, and one half of Catholics under 30, self-identify as “nones.” The 25 percent who claim no religious affiliation has risen from 3 percent in 1970 and only 14 percent a decade ago. Despite the powerful words and work of the popes over the last 50 years to summon the Church to a new evangelization, nones are growing much faster than converts. It’s a problem that Bishop Barron aptly calls a crisis and a clarion “wake-up call” for parents, teachers, catechists, priests, bishops and the whole Church.

How should we effectively respond to it? Bishop Barron proposed five ways. I’d like to spend time on three of his suggestions.

Evangelize through the Beauty of the Faith

The first is evangelizing through the beauty of our faith, since the transmission of the true and good today are far more challenging because of prevalent epistemological and ethical relativism. The Church, Bishop Barron said, has much to offer in this regard, from the great Cathedrals, composers, painters, sculptors and writers. What he didn’t state but we all know is that the rise of the nones has coincided with a choice on the part of many in the Church toward uglification in the name of creativity: bland, asymmetrical Churches that aren’t just devoid of beauty but often are downright hideous; cartoonish missalette covers; banners that look like they were made by first graders during recess; saccharine liturgical music more fit for smoky lounges; unisex stick-figures instead of manly crucifixes; and the general loss of the basic art of rhetoric in our pulpits.

In 1985, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, said words I’ve never forgotten: “The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.” The genuine encounter with God generates beauty, both moral and aesthetic, which becomes the living proof of faith. Beauty manifests something of the divine pulchritude and attracts us toward love and truth, eventually helping us to discover the God who is Love and Truth. Evangelization today needs to begin with helping people to encounter the beauty of faith working through love and seen in the deeds of inspired artists and inspired saintly actors. Beauty — not architectural functionalism, artistic infantilism, or liturgical and moral minimalism — must become an evangelical priority.

Don’t “Dumb Down” the Faith

The second thing that Bishop Barron said we must urgently do is “stop dumbing down the faith.” After the Second Vatican Council, he argued, “a debilitating anti-intellectualism came to hold sway in the Church, at least in the west,” and this has been a “a pastoral disaster, significantly contributing to the mass exodus of two generations from the Church,” because a “childish, intellectually shallow religion simply cannot stand in the face of the trials of life and the questions of a skeptical mind.” He’s absolutely right.

We’ve dumbed down our catechetical textbooks so that some series are little more than coloring and comic books that assuage the emotions rather than solidly form the mind and heart. Clergy dumb down their homilies both in time as well as in content out of the mistaken assumption that people cannot handle more than 8-12 minutes of back-patting encouragement, even though evangelical Protestants — who go to the same schools and live in the same culture — are somehow capable of listening to their ministers for 45 minutes. We’ve dumbed down the moral challenge of living the Gospel to both young and old alike, seldom hearing about the hard teachings with regard to the Cross, sexual morality, forgiving our enemies, spreading the faith, and loving God not with some but with all our mind, heart, soul and strength.

Bishop Barron said that justly recovering the necessary intellectual side of passing on the faith will involve a “new apologetics” that focuses on who God is in a context in which so many have false notions of a God who is just one being among many rather than the one who is Being himself who holds us in being; the proper interpretation of the Bible, responding to those who try to debunk or debate it out of relevance; theodicy, or the defense of God’s goodness and providence in the face of evil, which is ever the most powerful challenge to the existence of a good, all-powerful Deity; the connection between religion and violence at a time when terrorists scandalously justify their evil on the basis of religion; and the link between religion and science, in an age of scientism that often teaches the young that if we can’t know something via the scientific method, it doesn’t exist.

In calling for a new apologetics, Bishop Barron is not trying merely to summon a few superstar Catholic intellects to get to work. In response to the dumbing down of the faith, we all need to get to know our faith better, especially in those areas where it is most challenged. God has given each of us minds and their foremost purpose is to use them to know him and help others to come to know him. None of us should accept knowing our faith — the most important subject of our life, and the greatest gift we can pass on to others — less than doctors and nurses know medicine, or engineers know math, or sports fans know players’ numbers and statistics. We are happily living at a time of unprecedented resources available to Catholic young people and adults to grow in their understanding of the faith and their capacity to pass it on, but we cannot bury those gifts.

Engage in a Radical Witness

The third thing I’ll mention that Bishop Barron emphasized is that we must engage in radical witness: “Especially in light of the sex abuse scandals of recent years and the emergence of an aggressive new atheism, the recovery of a radical form of the Christian life is essential to the task of evangelization. We must regain our moral and spiritual credibility.”

It short-circuits the proclamation of the faith when Christians proclaim the Beatitudes but then don’t seek to live them. It undermines evangelization all the more when Christians don’t even know or try to live the commandments, pretending as if keeping holy the Lord’s day, not killing the unborn or seniors, not lying, stealing, coveting or engaging in sexual immorality, were all optional parts of the faith. Perhaps more than anything it subverts the faith when Christians proclaim that God is real, that he listens to us in prayer, that he comes to feed us with himself on the altars, that he forgives us our sins in Sacrament of Reconciliation, that he joins a man and a woman in one flesh for the rest of their lives in marriage, and then do not live in accordance with those literally awesome gifts.

On the other hand, what an extraordinary thing it is when we find radical Christian witness. We see it in the saints and martyrs. We also see it in daily life in so many unheralded disciples and apostles. They proclaim the faith by their body language in a way that forces others to question their own way of living. They give witness to a love, to a friendship, to a beauty that the world can’t give or rob.

In the face of the nones, and of so many others who still believe but are only partially living by faith, Bishop Barron is prophetically challenging all of us to respond to the signs of the times with a recommitment to letting the beauty of our faith radiate, to learning and teaching it in its fullness, and living it in such a compelling, magnetic way that people can eventually be led to come to meet Christ in all his beauty, truth and holiness.


This article originally appeared in The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass, on November 3, 2017 and appears here with permission of the author.


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About the Author

Father Roger Landry

Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations. He is the former pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Fall River, Massachusetts and St. Anthony of Padua Parish in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

After receiving a biology degree from Harvard College, he studied for the priesthood in Maryland, Toronto and for several years in Rome. After being ordained a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Fall River by Bishop Sean O’Malley, OFM Cap. on June 26, 1999, he returned to Rome to complete graduate work in Moral Theology and Bioethics at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family.

Fr. Landry writes for many Catholic publications, including a weekly column for The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River, for which he was the executive editor and editorial writer from 2005-2012. He regularly leads pilgrimages to Rome, the Holy Land, Christian Europe and other sacred destinations and preaches several retreats a year for priests, seminarians, religious and lay faithful. He speaks widely on the thought of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, especially John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. He was an on-site commentator for EWTN’s coverage of the 2013 papal conclave that elected Pope Francis, appears often on various Catholic radio programs, and is national chaplain for Catholic Voices USA.

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