Rethinking “mission territory”

George Weigel

In his June 1908 apostolic constitution, Sapienti Consilio, Pope Pius X decreed that, as of November 3 that year, the Catholic Church in the United States would no longer be supervised by the Vatican’s missionary agency, the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Propaganda Fide). American Catholicism had grown up. The U.S. Church would now be a mission-sending Church, not “mission territory.”

This pattern has long characterized the organization of the world Church. Young local Churches begin as “mission territory” and their bishops are chosen in consultation with what’s now called the “Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples” (but which everyone in Rome still refers to by its old name, “Propaganda,” or simply “Prop”). After these young Churches demonstrate that they can stand on their own spiritually, organizationally, and financially, they cease being “mission territory” and relate to the Roman Curia like the older local Churches; the bishops of these newly “graduated” local Churches are thus chosen in consultation with the Congregation for Bishops.

The rapid de-Christianization of Europe, however, prompts a thought-experiment: What should the Church do when this process of ecclesial maturation slips into reverse? Where do venerable but collapsing local Churches “fit” in their relationship to the Curia, the central government of the Catholic Church? If there can be a (sometimes lengthy) period of ecclesiastical apprenticeship during which a young, growing local Church is supervised by Propaganda Fide, might there be a parallel arrangement for decaying older local Churches, in which they’re taken into a form of ecclesiastical trusteeship aimed at rebuilding their evangelical, catechetical, and pastoral strength? And if we can imagine that (admittedly bold) move, which Roman agency should be the trustee?

For purposes of this thought-experiment, my nominee would be the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. It seems the logical place. For John Paul II’s 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio, the Magna Carta of the New Evangelization, called for urgent evangelism among Christians who had fallen away from the practice of the faith, or who had been poorly catechized, or who had, more likely, suffered both maladies, the latter contributing to the former.

That seems to describe most of the Church in western Europe. So perhaps the Church’s central administration should stop relating to dying European local Churches as if they weren’t dying, and recognize that they are, in fact, mission territory. But rather than putting such local Churches back under the supervision of “Prop,” put them into trusteeship under the supervision of a reconstituted and re-staffed Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization – just like a failed company that goes into Chapter 11 bankruptcy is supervised by a trustee until such time as the company can stand on its own feet again.

What would happen under this “trusteeship”? Again, let’s think outside the box. The trustee agency would recommend to the Pope replacements for failed bishops and nominees for empty sees, drawing candidates from around the world who had demonstrated success in enlivening a sclerotic or corrupt local Church. Pastoral life in the moribund local Church and the structures of its national bureaucracy would be examined by Catholics who are expert in making organization serve evangelization; those consulters would then make recommendations to the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization for mandated reforms. There would be apostolic visitations of seminaries and houses of religious formation, led by seminary rectors and religious men and women from living and growing communities, who would recommend needed changes; the trustee agency would then mandate their implementation.

Where might this form of trusteeship be tested? How about Germany? The practice of the faith is dying there. Senior German churchmen have made clear that they believe something different than what’s in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, whether the issue is the nature of marriage, the ethics of human love, the character of the Holy Eucharist and the priesthood, the authority of revelation, or the enduring effects of baptism. And what could be more appropriate on the quincentenary of the Reformation than to call German Catholicism to a thoroughgoing Catholic reform?

Perhaps this thought-experiment – putting the German Church into ecclesiastical trusteeship – isn’t the answer to the Church’s German problem. But recognizing that Germany is mission territory is the beginning of any serious analysis of a grave situation, and any serious thinking about how it might be addressed.

Featured image by dronepicr | wikicommons

COMING UP: Forming mind and heart in faith

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

People tell me pretty regularly that we should not over-intellectualizing the faith — making the Church simply about ideas, doctrines, and rules. I agree that this can be a problem, but we also have to guard seriously against an opposite problem — emotionalizing and privatizing faith. We are blessed with a reasonable faith that can be studied in harmony with the truth of the natural world. Faith and reason strengthen one another, together leading our minds to conform to the mind of the God who is our Creator and Redeemer. In the midst of a secularism which pits science against the faith, it is important that we form our minds in the truth. Being rooted in the truth of our faith does not lead to abstract ideas, but to an encounter with the living God which sets our hearts on fire with His love.

The Dominicans have a long history of teaching the faith, founded originally to preach to those who had fallen into the dualistic heresy of Albigensian and producing the Common Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas. The papal theologian, who advised the pope, by tradition comes from St. Dominic’s Order. One of the most renown Dominicans teaching in the United States, Father Thomas Joseph White, has recently been called to Rome to teach at the Angelicum, the Pontifical University of the Dominicans. Father White, though a profound scholar, has produced a clear and accessible overview of the Catholic faith.

Father White’s book, The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism (Catholic University of America Press, 2017) offers a serious overview of the Catholic faith. It is not a scholarly work, but one that does challenge us to enter more deeply into the theological tradition of the Church, flowing from the Bible and Catechism, the Fathers, and especially the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Part of the genius of the book is how it uses the theological tradition to address contemporary concerns such as evolution, sexual ethics, and relativism. The book contains seven major sections—Reason and Revelation, God and Trinity, Creation and the Human Person, Incarnation and Atonement, the Church, Social Doctrine, and the Last Things—as well as a robust epilogue on prayer.

Father White challenges us to “to be an intellectual. . . to seek to see into the depths of reality” (1). As intellectual beings, we have been created in the image of God and are called to enter into his truth and life. Therefore, White reminds us that “every person has to accept risk in truth’s call to us. Even religious indifference is a kind of risk, perhaps the greatest of all, for if nothing is ventured, nothing is gained. The mind is reason’s instrument, but the heart its seat” (5). Therefore, the ultimate questions lead the mind into prayerful contemplation of the truth. Theology cannot remain an intellectual enterprise alone, but must lead us to encounter God in prayer: “Prayer is grounded in our natural desire for the truth. When we pray we are trying to find God, to praise him, and to see all things realistically in light of him. In a sense, then, prayer stems from a search for perspective” (288).

Our faith forms us as a whole person and shapes our feelings and desires according to what is highest. Father White rightly points out that “heart and intelligence go together” (49). When it comes to God, intellectual theory is not enough, as he calls us to know him in a “concrete, personal, affective relationship” (48). This does not mean that we can dispense with theology. Quite to the contrary, “we want to get right who God is, and what the mystery of Christ is, so that we can be in living contact with divine love” (42). God speaks to us so that we may come to know him by exercising our minds to know the truth given us through the Church (36).

Knowing God is the work a lifetime and our eternal vocation. We can strengthen our faith by studying theological truths and deepening our capacity to contemplate divine things. Father White’s book will help us all to be theologians, entering into the practice of theology as faith seeking understanding. As we come to know God more, it should lead us to fall in love with him more deeply, strengthening our relationship with him and preparing us to see him face to face.