Monday, August 01, 2011

The collapse of Catholic missions

Anthony Sistrom is a gentleman with whom I have been corresponding for some years now. He lives in California, is thoroughly conversant with Catholic literature in French as well as English, and often has interesting and provocative things to say. Recently he told me that the new pastor of his Catholic parish is so liberal that he feels practically driven out by the priest's secular homilies, which seem to reflect the priest's own loss of faith. Fortunately, he says, there is an Orthodox OCA parish with a beautiful liturgy in the area: "I hope by attending twice to remain Catholic." He also says that his hope is in the success of the Anglican ordinariate: "Small communities, committed Catholics, solemn liturgy (chanted and not rushed) in Elizabethan English."

I have profited from his correspondence and, though I have never yet had the privilege of meeting him, consider Mr. Sistrom a friend. He was the first to recommend to me the excellent book by the Australian, Geoffrey Hull, entitled Banished Heart: Origins of Heteropraxis in the Catholic Church (T&T Clark Studies In Fundamental Liturgy)(Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2010), a wonderfully challenging and enriching book.

From time-to-time, Mr. Sistrom sends me a paragraph or two reflecting on a particular issue relating to the state of the Church. Let me share a few such paragraphs with you here from two emails on the related subject of missions. Whatever you may think of what he says, I think you will find it provocative food for thought. I know I always have.

No. 1:
There is no area of Church life more damaged by Vatican II than missions.1 We had thousands of heroic men and women in the field whose priority was evangelizing. There is still a tremendous Evangelical witness but Catholics have altogether disappeared. We now have development and charitable activity instead. Missiology is a flourishing academic specialty while missions and missionaries are in total eclipse. I recently read a review (Books and Culture) of Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis' Christianity and the Religions by Anglican Fr. Gerald McDermott. I quote: "Dupuis has the same problem with Jesus that the Enlightenment had. Jesus was one of the 'accidents of history' inaccessible to humanity as a whole... As Lessing famously put it, "Accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason....

"... Dupuis, in 263 pages of text, never mentions atonement through the Cross, salvation as redemption from sin, or the reign of God as discipleship to Jesus- and insists that Jesus' uniqueness and universality are not 'absolute'. For such claims would require the notion that God was fully revealed in Jesus Christ, as the early church suggested."

Fr. McDermott has nailed it. Even in Cardinal Ratzinger's Introduction to Christianity one finds embarrassment in dealing with St. Anselm and the atonement.
No. 2:
I am reading Newbigin:
"There has been a long tradition which sees the mission of the Church primarily as obedience to a command... This way of putting the matter is certainly not without justification and yet it seems to me that it misses the point. It tends to make mission a burden rather than a joy, to make it part of the law rather than part of the gospel. If one looks at the NT evidence...Mission begins with a kind of explosion of joy. The news that the rejected and crucified Jesus is alive is something that cannot possibly be suppressed. It must be told. Who could be silent about such a fact? The mission of the Church in the pages of the NT is more like the fallout from a vast explosion, a radioactive fallout which is not lethal but life-giving. One searches in vain in the letters of St. Paul to find any suggestion that he anywhere lays it on the conscience of his readers that they ought to be active in mission... It is a striking fact, morover, that almost all the proclamations of the gospel which are described in Acts are in response to questions asked by those outside the Church....One of the dangers of emphasizing the concept of mission as a mandate given to the Church is that it tempts us to do what we are always tempted to do, namely to see the work of mission as a good work and to seek to justify ourselves by our works. On this view, it is we who must save the unbelievers from perishing....It is not that they must speak and act, asking the help of the Spirit to do so. It is rather that in their faithfulness to Jesus they become the place where the Spirit speaks and acts."
Like I said, food for thought ...


  1. This coincides with the verdict of John Lamont, who identifies as a weakness of Vatican II it's neglect of a clear rationale for missions: "It made no reference at all to unbelief rendering salvation doubtful," he writes. (See our review of John Lamont's 2007 Blackfriars article, "What was wrong with Vatican II." [back]


Mike Walsh, MM said...

It comes down to leadership, in the end. In the modern Church, bishops think of themselves primarily as pastors or --much worse-- managers. As successors to the Apostles, their primary identity should be missionary.

Amateur Brain Surgeon said...

Well, we have certainly come a long way since the days of a Fr Mueller:

Amateur Brain Surgeon said...


Therefore let all the house of Israel know most certainly, that God hath made both Lord and Christ, this same Jesus, whom you have crucified. Now when they had heard these things, they had compunction in their heart, and said to Peter, and to the rest of the apostles: What shall we do, men and brethren? [ But Peter said to them: Do penance, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins: and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all that are far off, whomsoever the Lord our God shall call. And with very many other words did he testify and exhort them, saying: Save yourselves from this perverse generation.
They therefore that received his word, were baptized; and there were added in that day about three thousand souls.

Benedict XVI, Address to Chief Rabbi of Rome, Jan. 16, 2006:

“Distinguished Chief Rabbi of Rome, you were recently entrusted with the spiritual guidance of Rome’s Jewish Community; you have taken on this responsibility enriched by your experience as a scholar and a doctor who has shared in the joys and sufferings of a great many people. I offer you my heartfelt good wishes for your mission, and I assure you of my own and my collaborators’ cordial esteem and friendship.”

Everything is broken

Anonymous said...


Archbishop Lefebvre, a great missionary and theologian, expressed grave concern that the changes being inaugurated with the Council and the 1970 Missal would, if I remember the expression correctly, "sweep away all missionary zeal". Are there problems within the Society? Probably. Is one such problem a lack of missionary zeal? No.

Cardinal Heenan, of Westminster, asserted upon seeing the demonstration of Archbishop Bugnini that in 20 years we would have a church of almost exclusively women and children. (He didn't apparently know about the widespread use of contraception?)

As to the odd claim that Christ didn't make the Great Commission ... this surely is nonsensical? The claim about bubbling over of joy strikes me as a mite strange, too. What did the Disciples do, waiting for Pentecost? They hid and they prayed. I'm missing something, apparently.

God bless,


Anonymous said...

Great post. It all boils down to the question of the atonement and how it works out. Our approach today makes Francis Xavier's grueling travels look more like silly and unnecessary expressions of an excessive zeal than any logical compulsion. We know better today than generations of Christians before us. Much more important that women should have the vote than people should have the gospel. Or so it appears.

As for Ratzinger's ITC, I am waiting for someone to convincingly explain to me why this book is noteworthyy... still waiting... ... ...

Anonymous said...

Vatican II was meant to speak to modern man in a manner that was intelligible to him.

After fifty years we have finally realized that this whole time we have only been talking amongst ourselves.

Things have come too far along. There is no way forward and no way back. We can only die at our posts.


John L said...

If you look at the textbooks of missiology now used and taught to seminarians, they explicitly deny that conversion to the Catholic faith is the purpose of mission. This approach is based on theological claims that present other religions as paths of salvation. Without explicit rejection of these theological claims and their progenitors - chief of whom was Karl Rahner - it is pointless to talk of mission. The hypocrisy of the Holy See in proclaiming the goal of a 'new evangelisation' while doing nothing about the heresy that destroys mission and faith is something I find nauseating.

Calvin Hazelwood said...

"There is no area of Church life more damaged by Vatican II than missions. We had thousands of heroic men and women in the field whose priority was evangelizing. There is still a tremendous Evangelical witness but Catholics have altogether disappeared. We now have development and charitable activity instead. Missiology is a flourishing academic specialty while missions and missionaries are in total eclipse."

And the “development” work does not do much developing; and the “charitable activity” is not very charitable.

The irony is that, back in the bad old days, 1890-1950 in Africa for example, when the “priority” was indeed on evangelizing, along with the evangelization went – un-hyped and un-supported by government funds – true “development” and authentic Catholic charitable activity. Having abandoned evangelization, we are also no longer making much of a contribution to development or charity.

Pertinacious Papist said...

John L.

Wow ...

New Catholic said...

Agreed, Mike Walsh: the problem is, as it has always been, the Bishops. The Church is a Church of Bishops. With weak, unbelieving, or malicious bishops, the disaster will continue. It is hard, nonetheless, to pinpoint a "more damaged area" in the current desert...