Evangelization and Hope

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Why are we so bad at evangelizing the culture? I’ve seen this question pop up time and again, mostly in the context of asking why Catholics in particular are so bad at evangelizing, indeed at sharing the Faith at all. I’ve also seen a number of diagnoses, including (though not limited to):

  • We are often in a posture of simple defense in the face of encroaching secularism or even simple Protestant proselytism.
  • The sex-abuse scandal/crises is still too open a wound, we are still recovering from this and it hampers our ability to share the good news of our faith.
  • We have a different approach to sharing our faith than many Protestant denominations, communions, or sects. They are more direct and open in their approach, and thus more visible.
  • There are more “cultural Catholics” than “cultural Protestants,” meaning that on average there are more devout or even fervent Protestants than Catholics per capita. Devout and fervent Catholics do just as much to share their faith as their counterparts among Protestants, but they are also fewer and farther between.
  • The fullness of the Catholic Faith is richer and deeper than what many Protestants are sharing, but that also makes it more complex and thus harder to share.

Now, these are obviously the condensed versions of each respective diagnosis. Some of them are true in the main, others in the margins, yet they all look to some extent like excuses. For example, the fact that there are so many “cultural Catholics” only speaks to the fact that even people who already profess to be Catholic need to be evangelized to and then catechized in the Faith. Or consider the question of complexity[1]—many Protestant sects are anything but simple. Imagine trying to explain Anglicanism as a serious communion [2]! Or consider Mormonism: complicated as their theology may seem, they have little trouble going door-to-door sharing it, a number of slammed doors notwithstanding.

It occurs to me that there is one thing which is absolutely critical to evangelism, and yet which is often overlooked by these discussions. This is that evangelism should spring from the virtues of faith, hope, and charity, each of which is a necessary but not a sufficient cause of evangelization. Faith and hope should be obvious as “causes,” namely that we ought not invite others to share something which we lack (faith), nor would we be motivated to invited others to share in something which we have if we do care for them in some way (love).

BaltimoreCatechismBut hope? What has hope to do with evangelizing? The Baltimore Catechism tells us that “Hope is a Divine virtue by which we firmly trust that God will give us eternal life and the means to obtain it” (BC3.10.466). Thus, hope is the lynchpin for evangelization—if we do not have the hope for eternal life, then there is less urgency in passing on the Faith. If what one believes, how one lives, and whether one worships does not have the least effect on one’s eternal destiny, then faith is reduced to mere fact and charity is concerned only with the passing comforts of this life.

There are two big sins which we can commit against hope—both of which are ways in which we blaspheme the Holy Spirit (cf Matthew 12:31-32 and Mark 3:29). They are, or at least appear to be superficially, opposing sins: despair, and presumption [3].

These two things can work in our own lives, and make us reject God. Presumption does this by convincing us that God is too great to be troubled by our sins; despair works to convince us that our sins are too great to be troubled by God. The consequence then is that we reject God’s grace and forgiveness—on one hand, because it seems too little to avail us, and on the other because we are too great to need the availing.

But neither of these sins are strictly internal in their nature. It is just as easy, and perhaps in some cases easier, for us the presume or despair on the behalf of another as for ourselves. Indeed, it is perhaps the easiest thing of all to couple the two, one for me and one for you. If I despair of my own sins, it is easier for me to become presumptuous concerning another person; or if I am presumptuous of my own salvation, it becomes all-to-easy to despair of anybody else’s. Perhaps this is what our Lord meant when he said,

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:1-5).

Thus are there two separate ways in which we might fail to evangelize.

Jonah and the Whale
Sometimes we seem to go out of our way to avoid evangelism. Image source.

The first springs from despair, namely our attempts are half-hearted at best and non-existent at worst. I may share some snippet of my faith to a curious man who questions, then withdraw at the first hint of opposition. Perhaps I am more persistent, but give up trying (and give up really praying), becoming closed off, when I find that my acquaintance is no closer to sharing in my faith then when I first began trying to share it with him. I have despaired of his cause, forgetting that our Lord said “But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:22).

We may be frustrated, but we should not become angry without cause, wrathful, against each other: this is the first part of this passage. Nor should we lose our temper in the heat of discussion, heaping abuses (raca! In some translations) on those wit whom we disagree: this is the second part of this passage. But above all, we should not give up on a person, despair of his conversion: this is what is meant by the third part of the passage. The word “fool!” has in this context a connotation of being stubborn and stupid beyond the reach of God—a hopeless case, in other words.

The second reason we might fail to evangelize stems from the seemingly opposite sin, that is, presumption. Certainly, we might presume that a person has no need our our efforts, that salvation is his whatever may be his lifestyle choices and personal beliefs. Surely, God is merciful, and surely there is such a thing as invincible ignorance—but it is presumptive at best to assume that all men are saved regardless, and that therefore we are blameless if we refuse the task of evangelizing.

WhatIfIToldYou--SinnersPrayerThere is, however, a second and more insidious form of presumption which may be at work, which I have indeed seen at work among many Protestant sects, but alas also among some Catholic circles. This is what I would call “brand name salvation,” which goes hand-in-hand with mere proselytism. Among Protestants, it often takes the form of convincing a person to join this particular sect or denomination, or to say this particular prayer [4] and to “accept Jesus into your heart” at this particular moment, from which time “you have been saved.” Among Catholics, it often means convincing a person to become a Catholic, and then to make use of the sacraments at least on occasion.

buddy-JesusIn both [5] the Catholic and the Protestant case of presumptive proselytism, proselytism has taken the pace of evangelism. The point has become less about proclaiming the Gospel (“good news” = evangelium) and inviting a person to enter the fullness of the Faith and the joy of a deeper relationship with Christ and His Church, and more about simply getting people to switch their brand-name religious affiliation.

Proselytizing can aide in evangelizing, but all too often it is not but a cheap substitute. We assume that a person who is in the pews each week is therefore “fully evangelized,” and then are surprised when after years or decades they have suddenly left. And, on the other hand, we assume that because another person never seems to come to church with us, or never comes round to accept the fullness of the Faith, that he has not in any way been evangelized.

In both cases, it is because we have too little hope.


[1] Complex need no mean complicated, nor does simple need to be simplistic.

[2] As Auberon Waugh has observed, “In England we have a curious institution called the Church of England. Its strength has always lain in the fact that on any moral or political issue it can produce such a wide divergence of opinion that nobody – from the Pope to Mao Tse-tung – can say with any confidence that he is not an Anglican. Its weaknesses are that nobody pays much attention to it, and very few people attend its functions. ”

[3] The Church has taught us that there are six ways in which we can blaspheme the Holy Spirit: despair, presumption, envy of another’s spiritual good, impugning a known truth, obstinacy in sin, and final impenitence. The third and fourth of these also work against evangelization, and seem to me to be opposed mostly to faith; the last two are perhaps more rightly opposed to charity.

[4] That is, “The Sinner’s Prayer,” in its various forms—if if you will, the Protestant’s sacrament-free act of contrition.

[5] Ditto for Eastern Orthodox, Non-Chalcedonian Christians, Coptic Christians, Non-Ephesian Christians, etc…

Nicene Guy

Nicene Guy

JC is a cradle Catholic, and somewhat of a traditionalist conservative. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 2014. He is currently a tenure-track assistant professor of physics at a university in the deep south. He is a lay member of the Order of Preachers. JC has been happily married since June of 2010. He and his lovely wife have had two children born into their family, one daughter and one son; they hope to have a few more. He has at times questioned – and more often still been questioned about – his Faith, but he has never wandered far from the Church, nor from our Lord. “To whom else would I go?”

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7 thoughts on “Evangelization and Hope”

  1. Avatar

    “Hope is a Divine virtue by which we firmly trust that God will give us eternal life and the means to obtain it”

    It would seem then that if Hope is the bud, presumption is the flower..

    1. Avatar

      Not so. “But as to the hope whereby a man relies on the power of God, there may be presumption through immoderation, in the fact that a man tends to some good as though it were possible by the power and mercy of God, whereas it is not possible, for instance, if a man hope to obtain pardon without repenting, or glory without merits. This presumption is, properly, the sin against the Holy Ghost, because, to wit, by presuming thus a man removes or despises the assistance of the Holy Spirit, whereby he is withdrawn from sin” (ST II-II.21.1).

      A better analogy, then, is that if hope is the bud then presumption is the rotting fruit never harvested.

  2. Avatar

    Just as an experiment, I wore a big old crucifix outside my shirt for a week, to see if anyone would comment (being always ready to return a good answer to any who asked.) Nobody acted like they saw it, save one person at a grocery checkout counter who was buying several big jugs of cheap whisky. (Some people are more aware they need help than others.) But, I got into the habit and now wear it all the time. (Still prepared.)

    It is actually surprising how easy it is to start doing things. There are easy resources, readily available to help you begin. But…better start with _practicing_ the Faith before trying to spread it. Prayer, Bible study, and Mass attendance to begin with.

    Liturgy of the Hours is available online at http://divineoffice.org/.

    Daily readings at http://www.usccb.org/

    (You know what your parish’s Mass times and Confession are, don’t you.)

    And, just to keep up with what’s happening with His Holiness. http://www.news.va/en

    Good Hunting.

  3. Avatar

    Don’t have time right now but I’ll read the article later but as for the title, as a convert, the Answer is…because Catholics including and especially our leadership forget their First Love and get derailed by a whole bunch of peripheral issues and the Good News gets sort of set back on the shelf a ways. Front and Center is stuff like Global Warming and Rotary meetings and stuff like that…

  4. Avatar

    Guys. You are missing it. Normal people have no idea what the Catholic Church stands for. The Pope is all over the map and many Bishops are more favorable to those who are dedicated to living in mortal sin than those with contrite hearts and parishioners don’t know the book of Ruth from the candy bar. First Love, guys. First Love. The Church needs to get back to what saves her; Jesus Christ. The Church needs to encourage traditional spirituality; the Rosary and other meditations that bring us closer to Christ AND THE THE CHURCH NEEDS TO GET A PAIR AND CONFRONT THE DEVIL-WORSHIPPING WORLD THAT ITS SIN IS BLOCKING IT FROM TRUE HAPPINESS AND PEACE! It’ll take time but all this ridiculous sidetracking on Global Warming and such malarkey just leads the non-Catholic to believe the Church is nothing but an NGO trolling for contributions a la the Sierra Club. The Pope is a good guy but totally clueless. Those dedicated to homosexual lifestyles and the the divorced and remarried are not the future of the Church. Mortal sin never is. Preach the word and watch what happens. The King of the Universe in His Incarnation succeeded in winning souls to God wanted and wants first and foremost all to bow before HIM. Bowing before windmills and scammed annulment documents doesn’t count. Wake up Catholic Church. It aint’ that complicated!!

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