by David G. Bonagura, Jr. | Without question, there are times when it is expedient to emphasize one side of the balance over the other in teaching and preaching: to underscore the divinity of Christ when an age reduces him to a mere moral teacher; to stress the necessity of tradition in understanding Scripture; and to recall the goodness of nature when it is wrongly perceived as antithetical to grace. (Image: Reynaldo Amadeu Dal Lin Junior Juba from Pixabay)
We preach doctrine, and doctrine exists to be preached. If that sounds circular, then we understand correctly that doctrine and evangelization are two sides of the same coin.
Recently announced plans for Pope Francis’s reform of the Roman Curia have produced euphoria among liberals and concern among conservatives that evangelization is being elevated over doctrine by the creation of a new “super-dicastery” for evangelization that will outrank the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, one of Francis’s closest collaborators working on the Curia reform project, rushed to draw the battle lines: “Pope Francis always underlines that the Church is missionary. For this reason, it’s logical that we put in the first place the dicastery for Evangelization and not the one for the Doctrine of the Faith.”
This falsely perceived dichotomy between evangelization and doctrine, of course, has roots that extend back to the fallout from the Second Vatican Council. Partisans of a mistaken “Spirit of Vatican II” sought to suppress doctrine and Church regulation so they could essentially do as they liked theologically, morally, and liturgically.
Therein lies a particularly important point: after the Council, in the minds of many, “doctrine” was reduced to “rules” that could, or could not, be broken. No one was—or is today—complaining about the content of the Nicene Creed, which is the real core of Catholic doctrine. Instead, there were attempts to make us more like Protestants by altering the Mass and deemphasizing Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist; to make human beings seem like angels by turning sin into psychosis and forgetting confession; and to undermine the Church’s authority to teach morality so that any sexual appetite could be fulfilled as willed.
It is no wonder, then, that conservatives have become so skittish whenever doctrine, which is supposed to be the bedrock foundation of the Catholic faith, is raised in Church circles: it has been under siege by some forces in the Church—with the help of secular, Church-hating allies—for decades. Francis’s ambiguous teachings on marriage and family life over the course of his six-year pontificate have been gasoline for a fire that has long since been burning. Writing with professional restraint, one author said of this latest Curia-inspired dust-up, “The decline in the congregation’s status has accompanied an increasingly lax attitude in Rome towards the gravity of heresy and other forms of deviance from Catholic doctrine, emphasizing unity and ‘accompaniment’ more than doctrinal truth.”
If not for these ecclesial fault lines, this fight over which office should have pride of place—evangelization or doctrine—would be more like arguing over which person of the Trinity is the most important. And the Trinity is the correct analogy here: just as there are three persons inseparably united as the single Godhead, evangelization and doctrine are two manifestations of Christ’s single mission of salvation.
Through his words and deeds, especially his sacrifice on the cross, Christ saved us from our sins and taught us how to live. What he did and what he taught together comprise his doctrine, which he commanded his followers to preach to all nations. The Church, then, has been entrusted with preserving Christ’s doctrine from corruption and distortion precisely so that all people may hear his saving teaching. His doctrine was never intended to be kept in a book away from the world; he gave it to the Church to give to the world.
Properly understanding the teachings of the Church requires keeping two seemingly opposing realities in balance. When we fail to balance properly, problems arise. For example, Christ is fully human and fully divine; most Christological heresies are caused when one of these realities is elevated to the denigration of the other. Likewise, the Catholic view of creation keeps nature balanced with grace and reason balanced with faith. Martin Luther created his own Protestant doctrine when he deemed the former items in each pair intrinsically flawed. He did the same with the law and the gospel, works and faith, tradition and Scripture. By pitting the spiritual items against the natural, Luther impoverished both, since none of these can be properly understood without its parallel.
Without question, there are times when it is expedient to emphasize one side of the balance over the other in teaching and preaching: to underscore the divinity of Christ when an age reduces him to a mere moral teacher; to stress the necessity of tradition in understanding Scripture; and to recall the goodness of nature when it is wrongly perceived as antithetical to grace. So long as the other side remains within our purview, there is no problem with speaking more of one side.
The same goes for evangelization and doctrine: the two work in tandem, as we cannot have one without the other. In certain ages, it may well be helpful to emphasize one or the other: when the Holy Office, the predecessor of today’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was founded, it was at the height of the Protestant revolt when doctrine needed to be protected from distortion. Today, when religious apathy is spreading daily across the West, it makes sense to prioritize preaching the gospel. But in neither instance should the other be minimized: those swept up by Protestant doctrine needed the true faith preached to them in full, and those today who need to hear the word of God need to hear it in its fullness.
Today, with all the problems within the Church, fierce arguing over which should take priority—evangelization or doctrine—is akin to arguing over which saints should be honored in the Titantic’s chapel. There should be no conflict between the two. The fact that there is shows us that the Barque of Peter needs to find balance again while navigating the stormy waters of Modernity.
David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches classical languages at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism (Cluny Media).