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by William E. May
Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology
John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.

I will begin by showing why a new evangelization is needed and summarizing what it means, and then focus on the intimate link between it and Catholic moral life. Since this year marks the tenth anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical on the moral life, Veritatis splendor, I will highlight his presentation in that document of major characteristics of Catholic moral life and show how he relates the moral life to the new evangelization both in this encyclical and in other writings, especially in his 1988 apostolic exhortation Christifideles laici. I will end by summarizing John Paul’s thought on the evangelizing mission of the Christian family, particularly as set forth in his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris consortio.

1. The “New” Evangelization: Its Necessity and Nature

I believe that cogent arguments can be made to show the truth of propositions such as: it is always gravely immoral intentionally to kill innocent human persons; unborn children, whose lives begin at fertilization are human persons and therefore it is gravely immoral intentionally to kill them; it is always gravely immoral to contracept, to commit adultery, to commit perjury. Although cogent arguments demonstrating the truth of these and other morally significant propositions can be, have been, and are made, they frequently fail to persuade others. For instance, one could give arguments to show that it is always wrong intentionally to abort unborn babies to members of the Planned Parenthood Federation and not succeed in having them accept the truth of this proposition. The reason is that “whatever is received is received in the mode the recipient” (an old Scholastic adage), and we make ourselves to be the kind of receivers we are by the choices that we make and pre-eminently by choices that can rightly be regarded as fundamental commitments. Thus a person who has committed himself/herself to the way of life proposed by the Planned Parenthood Federation has made himself or herself the kind of person incapable of receiving the truth about the grave immorality of intentionally aborting unborn human life. What is needed is not an argument but a change of heart—a metanoia, a conversion, a new kind of fundamental commitment. And that is why a new evangelization is needed.

The necessity and nature of this new evangelization has been a constant theme in the pontificate of John Paul II. Thus, for example, in Tertiomillennio adveniente (November 1994), he proposed a special assembly of the Synod of bishops for each of the five continents (Africa, America, Asia, Oceania, Europe) to prepare for the new millennium, and these synods subsequently took place. In proposing them, he affirmed that “the theme underlying them all is evangelization, or rather the new evangelization,” whose “foundations had been laid down by Paul VI in his 1975 apostolic exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi” (no. 21, emphasis added). Earlier, in his 1990 Encyclical Redemptoris missio, John Paul II had declared: “I sense the moment has come to commit all of the Church’s energies to a new evangelization” (no. 3; emphasis added). The Holy Father has made similar references to the imperative need of a new evangelization or “re-evangelization” again and again over the past 25 years. Calling attention to the loss of faith in the countries of the so-called First World, for example, he said in 1987: “Without a doubt a mending of the Christian fabric of society is urgently needed in all parts of the world” (Christifideles laici, no. 34), and he insisted that “the entire mission of the Church…is concentrated and manifested in evangelization…’To evangelize,’ writes Paul V I, ‘is the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her profound identity’” (ibid, no. 33, citing Paul’s Evangelium nuntiandi, no. 14). To evangelize in essense means to proclaim the good news of our redemption in Christ and to lead people to embrace him and to be united with him through baptism.

John Paul II emphasizes that lay men and lay women are called in a unique way to share in the work of evangelization by bearing witness to Christ and to his Church in the ”world,” which is precisely “the place and the means for the lay faithful to fulfill their Christian vocation….The lay faithful, in fact [as Vatican Council II reminds us], ‘are called by God so that they, led by the spirit of the gospel, might contribute to the sanctification of the world, as from within like a leaven, by fulfilling their own particular duties. Thus, especially in this way of life, resplendent in faith, hope, and charity, they manifest Christ to others’” (Christifideles laici, no. 15, citing Lumen gentium, no. 31). Laypeople, however, will be able to exercise properly the ...

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