The great commission given to us by our Lord and Savior is to “go out and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). This is our Catholic duty, to evangelize the world. We must begin with our families and neighbors.
To do this is no meager task, it never has been easy and it never will be. The danger and difficulty of carrying out the great commission ebbs and flows with the times but we are always wise to heed Christ’s own words to the Apostles: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Our duty to be wise is to be open to revealed truth supported by sound philosophy and our duty to be innocent as doves is to be charitable as we convey the truth.
This is increasingly difficult because the world flagrantly contradicts Holy Mother Church on three vital and foundational issues: the existence of God, the immortality of the human soul, and the freedom of the human will. If we as Catholics don’t get these three right, we can’t get anything right.
Stumbling Block #1: The Existence of God
The world, by way of education, politics, and mass media, operates under the assumption that God does not exist. Evolutionary theory and scientism have so captivated the intellect and imagination of modern man that most believe the prevailing narrative — that all life is accidental. The most popular theories saturating the universities posit an explanation for the cosmos that does not require a prime mover.
There is an infinite difference between two souls who disagree on this issue. Those who truly believe in God are bound by this truth and the meaning of justice to recognize their duties to God and neighbors. The principle by which we are called to live is that true justice is the discovery of what we owe God and our neighbors. By contrast, those who deny the existence have no such duty and will tend to focus on their rights. Their notion of justice would revolve around what they believe others owe them. The former builds up societies and the latter tears them down.
Though the existence of God has been fairly obvious for most of the history of mankind, this age sees an increasing number of souls who commit to the notion that there is no creator and all life is on accident. The end of such desolate thinking must necessarily be solipsism, subjectivism and a disregard for the objective standards of truth, goodness and beauty that have been touchstones of all well-lived lives. However, in these dark times, atheism and agnosticism have become plausible alternatives for an unprecedented number of souls.
Stumbling Block #2: The Immortality of the Soul
We abhor death and desire to live forever. This desire requires us to posit that, just like all our appetites, there is something which satisfies it. When we are hungry, we eat; when thirsty, we drink; when tired, we sleep. Though eternity is a great mystery, we must be fitted in some way to encounter it.
The reductionism of this age is a movement away from revealed truth, away from philosophical truth and even away from authentic scientific truth. Many rely almost exclusively on subjective interpretation of data gleaned by the five senses. This subjectivism replaces the right use of the intellect and acknowledgement of reveal truth known in our hearts by the witness of spirit. We are so steeped in materialism that it is increasingly rare to meet people who acknowledge the immortality of the soul, because the soul is an immaterial thing. The fact is that we do have an immortal soul. Our soul is the animating principle of our being and the formal cause of our existence.
It is interesting to notice how one’s position on this point drives one’s actions. Catholics who are aware of the immortality of our souls devote their lives to the cultivation of Christian virtue, by cooperating with grace to grow in holiness, so that one day they may live eternally in Heaven. Those who deny the immortality of the soul live for the temporary pleasures of this life on earth. Their response to the desire for immortality is channeled into efforts to technologically and medically prolonging life. Many now believe that humans can live temporally indefinitely.
Those who deny the immortality the soul have no real reason to cultivate virtue, other than in a self-serving capacity. In such a case, the kinds of virtue cultivated by one who does not believe in the immortality of the soul is hollowed out. Misused virtue is emptied of its intrinsic and moral value, because the end is not service to God and neighbor but service to one’s self. The Catholic must strive to cultivate the intellectual and moral virtues in the service of God and neighbor, not for the self. To have a conversation with one who believes the opposite is very difficult.
Stumbling Block #3: Freedom Of The Will
The true nature of Love requires the freedom of the will. One cannot love another by coercion; God will not compel us to love or serve Him. It is self-evident that we have free will, that we can choose all of our moral actions. Sadly, there is an army of academics, psychologists, and many others who increasing ascribe human choice to material determinism.
This line of thought claims that we are literally forced by our genes or by our environment to act the way we do. While it is true to notice that sometimes we have predispositions and inclinations that attract us to a variety of things, and that our environment does influence us, there is a Grand Canyon of difference between being attracted to a behavior and acting on that attraction. There are countless counterexamples to the absurdity that we have no choice over the things we do. The inordinate number of conversions to the Catholic Faith is a good example. There is nothing genetic or environmental that urges us on to embrace the cross.
If we claim that people don’t have free will, then it follows that no one is responsible for the bad or good things they do. It is as obvious as the sun in the sky that there are heroes, villains and everything in between. We recognize these designations by the choices people make to either act with heroic virtue or selfish egoism. The Gospels assure us of our free will; we are urged to reject sin and make the most strenuous efforts to cultivate virtue. As Catholics, we know of our free will. A conversation with a soul who doesn’t believe in free will normally end in confusion and frustration.
The evangelical conversation between one who knows God and one who disbelieves is difficult at best. These three stumbling blocks must be dealt with if we are to evangelize as we are called. We are to love God and neighbor both privately and publically and return good for evil. If we try to use words, they will likely fall on deaf ears, and the conversation will hold the potential to draw violence. It is very difficult to have fruitful discourse with those who do not recognize God, our immortality or our free will.
The truth is, if a Catholic tries to evangelize one who holds these three erroneous assumptions, they just may agree with nearly every word the Catholic has to say; except they will attribute a nearly opposite meaning to the words. They may say they believe in a higher power and secretly believe that higher power is themselves. They will claim to want everlasting life just like everyone else; but they are speaking of material life, not spiritual life. They speak of freedom as freedom from morality and for vice, while we speak of freedom from vice for moral living.
The living truth is that there is the Almighty Creator and He is our God. He made us in His likeness and image (cf. Genesis 1:27), and we were made to end in Heaven with Him for all eternity (cf. Matthew 25:34-40, 46; 1 Corinthians 2:9; Revelation 22:3-5). He gave us the freedom of will to accept or reject him. The difference between people who believe in God and those who do not is infinite. There is no real reason to pursue justice, truth goodness and beauty if the God who is the embodiment of those things does not exist. The difference between those who know they have an immortal soul and those who do not believe they do is eternal heaven or hell. The difference between those who do not believe in the freedom of the will and Catholics who do is the difference between love and meaninglessness.
The communication gap between faithful Catholics and those who choose to deny God, the immortality of the soul and the freedom of the will is impossible to traverse. Evangelization is extremely difficult in these cases. So steeped in materialist reductionism is the world that even Catholics are challenged to struggle against these roadblocks. Those who reject eternally unchanging Catholic teaching do so at root because of at least one and possibly all three of these stumbling blocks.
We need to begin by affirming to ourselves That God the Father Almighty is the Creator of Heaven and earth, He imbued us with an immortal soul and gave us the unbearable complement of free will so that we may choose Him in love. Once we are firm in these truths, let us teach our families and neighbors the same. For the rest of the world, let them know us by our love for one another and let us let our actions, grounded in these truths, evangelize for us.