Vatican II and the Disappearance of Evangelism

St. Francis Xavier converted some three million souls in the 16th century. He taught the irreformable dogma that conversion to the Catholic Faith was necessary for salvation. After the Second Vatican Council this kind of muscular evangelism has disappeared. In the years following the Council there has been little effort to convert unbelievers for the sake of their immortal souls: only social work, dialogue, ecumenism, and syncretism. The much-abused saying of St. Francis of Assisi – “preach the Gospel, if necessary use words” – has been taken to mean that words are no longer necessary (unless they are words of social work, dialogue, ecumenism, etc.).

Some well-meaning Catholics continue to insist that the Second Vatican Council had nothing to do with the stark decline of the Church since, well, the Second Vatican Council. Dr. Phillip Blosser of Pertinacious Papist, referencing John Lamont’s “What Was Wrong With Vatican II”, explains the direct influence of the Council with respect to mission and evangelism:

“Here is where Lamont approaches his thesis, first by the partial insight found in a common criticism of Gaudium et Spes:

‘A better criticism of the Council focuses on its constitution Gaudium et Spes, and accuses the document of an unrealistically optimistic view of modern culture. This is true as far as it goes, but it does not get to the heart of the problems with the Council. The circumstances; they go deeper. They are found in two areas; in the Council’s teaching on mission, and in the view of the human condition that underlies its approach to mission. By mission I mean the task of converting unbelievers to Catholicism.’

Lamont continues:

‘The trouble with the Council’s approach to mission is that although it stresses that Catholics must seek to convert unbelievers, it gives no adequate reason for doing this. It does give Christ’s command to evangelize as a reason, but it gives no proper explanation of why that command is given, or of the good that the commandment is supposed to promote. This, of course, means that the command is unlikely to be followed; and it has in fact been largely disregarded since the Council.’

This omission, as Lamont points out, represents a departure from Catholic tradition, which is replete with references to evangelization as an activity that should be undertaken in order to save the souls of unbelievers. Lamont offers ample historical documentation, which I will not detail here. He carefully analyzes the historical statements on invincible ignorance, noting the non sequitur of leaping from the claim that unbelief is not a sin when it is beyond the control of unbelievers to the conclusion that unbelievers will therefore necessarily be saved, despite lacking faith or baptism and still being subject to original sin. Earlier discussions of the subject articulated a more balanced position. Pius IX’s statement in Quanto Conficiamur Moerore that unbelief need not be a sin and that unbelievers can be saved despite their unbelief, was never intended or taken as more than a modal statement, an hypothetical possibility; it makes no claim about what actually happens. All of the positions taken by the Church historically entail that, although it is possible that unbelievers can be saved, we should nevertheless endeavor to convert them in order to save their souls. Lamont comments:

‘However, the Council did not state this balanced position. It made no reference at all to unbelief rendering salvation doubtful. Instead, in its decree on missions, Ad Gentes, it offers the following rationale for missionary activity:

“Christ himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mk. 16:16; Jn. 3:5), and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter as through a door. Hence those cannot be saved whom, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded by God as something necessary, still refuse to enter it, or remain in it (Lumen Gentium, 14).” So, although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel to that faith without which it is impossible to please him (Heb. 11:6), the Church, nevertheless, still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize.”4

As a rationale for missionary activity this is absurd, since it does not give a reason for trying to convert unbelievers generally, but only a reason for trying to convert those (presumably rare) souls who are already convinced of the truth of the Catholic faith, but obstinately refuse to follow its command to join the Church. It is in fact a rationale for avoiding missionary activity, since if people are not made aware that God founded the Church as something necessary for salvation, they cannot be lost through refusing to be baptized.’

This neglect to mention the traditional rationale for mission could not fail to be noted by Catholics, and it led to predictable consequences. One was to lull Catholics into assuming that unbelief was not a serious obstacle to salvation, which eroded their interest in mission and evangelization. ‘This loss of interest was noted,’ says Lamont, ‘by John Paul II in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio, although that encyclical failed to properly address its cause.’ Another consequence was to lead Catholics to assume that the distinctive tenets of Catholicism and of Christianity were optional picture preferences. For if people who do not accept the distinctive tenets of Catholicism and Christianity can reasonably hope to be saved, then these distinctive tenets may obviously be thought to be unnecessary and discarded at will. Yet a third consequence for those Catholics who still continued to take salvation and evangelization seriously was to leave them vulnerable to the attraction of religious groups like Pentecostalists and other Evangelical Protestant sects who overtly stress the importance of mission and concern for the salvation of human souls. From this, says Lamont, stems the numerous defections of Catholics to Pentecostalists and other Protestant groups.”

12 thoughts on “Vatican II and the Disappearance of Evangelism

  1. It’s to be regretted that the documents cited didn’t share the tone of another conciliar document, Presbyterorum Ordinis, in which we read that:

    Since no one can be saved who does not first believe, priests, as co-workers with their bishops, have the primary duty of proclaiming the Gospel of God to all. In this way they fulfill the command of the Lord: “Going therefore into the whole world preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15), and they establish and build up the People of God. Through the saving word the spark of faith is lit in the hearts of unbelievers, and fed in the hearts of the faithful. This is the way that the congregation of faithful is started and grows, just as the Apostle describes: “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). To all men, therefore, priests are debtors that the truth of the Gospel which they have may be given to others.


  2. Francis, thank you for this reference. I think it’s a beautiful document and should be dusted off and read more often. It’s probably overlooked because it is seen as addressing the life of priests rather than the mission of the Church.

    However – although it does reference salvation a few times, it also assumes that everyone knows what that means. In 1965 there were all kinds of crazy ideas about salvation floating around. Teilhard de Chardin’s “cosmic” salvation in which even Christ is “saved” by evolution, for example.

    So the question really is, “Saved from what?” Sin? Judgment? Hell? Everlasting fire? Punishment? Condemnation? Eternal death? If so, salvation has a sense of urgency about it. That’s what the saints believed.

    Or are we “saved”, instead, from a dull and humdrum earthly existence without the generic comforts of a generic faith? If so, then maybe we’ll get around to evangelizing but there’s certainly no hurry. And besides, most everybody is going to heaven, so even if they aren’t saved in this life they’ll probably be saved in the next …


  3. I wonder if these changes are related to a discussion I was involved in one of the only times I have commented on Dawn Eden’s blog. (If I’ve mentioned this before here, I apologize, but I don’t think so.) She said she was started a women’s prayer group. Everyone would be anonymous; you would send in prayer requests which would be sent on to another woman, about whom you knew nothing, who would pray for you. The only requirement, she said, was that you believe in praying to God, where ‘God’ was undefined. In other words (and it became clear that this was _exactly_ what she meant), a Christian woman might send in a prayer request which would be passed on to a Muslim woman, who would pray about it to Allah.

    I ventured to raise a question as to whether, supposing another woman to believe actually in a false god, we should be encouraging her to pray to that false god. I was pointed to a highly regrettable “interfaith dialogue” incident involving JPII in which he addressed a bunch of clerics including Buddhists and Muslims (I forget if there were Hindus, too), and invited them all to pray together in a way that certainly made it sound like, hey, they would pray to whatever they believed in and he would pray to the God he believed in, but it would all be the same somehow. Oh, yes, we also heard about the infamous quotation from Mother Teresa about making a man a better Hindu and thus bringing him closer to God, however that one goes.

    So I was the meanie. Quotations from the Old Testament on the subject of idolatry were not well-received, were obviously unfamiliar to people who (ahem) didn’t know their Bibles very well, and rolled off of everyone’s back. The one _extremely_ liberal commentator who is always touting abortion and gay rights was giggling along with Dawn, because that commentator happens to be married to a Buddhist despite being a “Catholic” herself. Suddenly the most wildly liberal commentator on the blog was very much in agreement with the hostess. So I gave up rather than continue being tempted to uncharity. :-)


  4. “I wonder if these changes are related to a discussion I was involved in one of the only times I have commented on Dawn Eden’s blog.”

    Yes, there is certainly a relationship. There is now a school of thought, which I think has become predominant in the Church, that monotheists (or at least Muslims and Jews) do not pray to a false god, but to the one true God whom they simply misunderstand. It is essentially a presumption of invincible ignorance – which is particularly odd, when you think about it, when applied to the only religion in the world which is founded upon a rejection of the Divine Savior.

    That said, to the best of my knowledge this view is not heretical. It concerns only the object and efficacy of prayer, not the final destination of those who persevere in their error. But neither is it the historically mainstream Catholic view, which admits the possibility of invincible ignorance but, due to the fallen nature of man, always assumes culpability and the urgent need for conversion.


  5. I shouldn’t think that it wd. follow from invincible ignorance that the Muslims don’t pray to a false god. One could be invincibly ignorant and worship Baal, I suppose.


  6. You’re right, Lydia. I’m not sure why this presumption exists. Some extend it to all religions, perhaps on the basis of St. Paul’s speech to the Athenians concerning their shrine to “the unknown god” (Acts 17:23). I should do a little more research.


  7. The problem with Vatican II, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, and a lot of other fuzzy thinkers is that they underestimate the ontological problem of evil. In other words, they fail to realize how bad evil really is, and unbelief is the highest evil. Heresy in the end is worse than murder, though how many Catholics believe that now?


  8. I could swear that the CCC is explicit on the point of Muslims praying, not to a false god, but to the True God, whom they misunderstand.

    An an Anglican, I am, of course, free to ignore this. :) However, I thought the CCC was binding on faithful Catholics, not as infallible, irreformable dogma, perhaps, but as the expressed will and teaching of the Magisterium at this time?



  9. There’s another problem with evangelization these days: what to do with someone who expresses an interest in actually becoming Catholic.

    Send ’em to the local Novus Ordo parish?

    Tell them to join you at your barely-more-than-an-indult TLM that lacks community and skews toward malcontents?

    Ship them off to the Byzantines?

    It’s like trying to sell a car when you know there’s a crack in the engine. It’s tough to get someone excited about Catholicism and then show them what it’s become after the council. They might accuse you of false advertising.


  10. I’ve asked that question before. Some Catholics talk as if it is de fide that Allah is the true God. If so, yet another reason to be glad I’m a Protestant. But I’ve heard that challenged–that is, that Catholics are not required to believe that Allah is the truth god.

    In any event, in the conversation I was alluding to, there was no attempt to take a big stand on monotheism, either. Nor was there in the invitation to prayer attributed to JPII.


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