Summary: The stark message of the Gospel must be delivered in ways that will be heard by modern humans.
Monday of 3rd Week in Lent
Gaudium et Spes
Adapting the Delivery, Not the Message
Those commentators who are not very familiar with the documents of Vatican II, but who count themselves experts on the “spirit” of Vatican II frequently see the Council as creating a break with the historic Church. They only prove themselves ignorant of history, and so likely to repeat the mistakes of history. The trouble with repeating history in religious matters is that it can lead people to hell. That’s more than an economic mistake leading to bankruptcy. That is eternal bankruptcy.
Jesus was not naive. He knew that when he reminded his Jewish listeners that the great prophets Elijah and Elisha, active in the time of some of the most paganized of the Israelite kings, were not sent to heal the people of Israel, he would lose popularity. Those prophets performed their greatest miracles for foreigners. Jesus knew that he was preaching unpopular ideas, particularly the business of forgiving one’s enemies, and doing good to those who hate us. Even among us Christians today, these teachings are not enthusiastically received. Jesus and his teachings represented a continuity with the ancient prophets, who valued the Truth more than their own lives. Jesus adapted the delivery of his message to the sensibilities of His hearers, but He gave the same message of love, compassion, respect and self-sacrifice that had been at the core of the prophetic message for a millennium.
The Fathers of the Council, in Gaudium et Spes, outlined much the same protocol: “The experience of past ages, the progress of the sciences, and the treasures hidden in the various forms of human culture, by all of which the nature of man himself is more clearly revealed and new roads to truth are opened, these profit the Church, too. For, from the beginning of her history she has learned to express the message of Christ with the help of the ideas and terminology of various philosophers, and and has tried to clarify it with their wisdom, too. Her purpose has been to adapt the Gospel to the grasp of all as well as to the needs of the learned, insofar as such was appropriate. Indeed this accommodated preaching of the revealed word ought to remain the law of all evangelization. For thus the ability to express Christ's message in its own way is developed in each nation, and at the same time there is fostered a living exchange between the Church and the diverse cultures of people.(22) To promote such exchange, especially in our days, the Church requires the special help of those who live in the world, are versed in different institutions and specialties, and grasp their innermost significance in the eyes of both believers and unbelievers. With the help of the Holy Spirit, it is the task of the entire People of God, especially pastors and theologians, to hear, distinguish and interpret the many voices of our age, and to judge them in the light of the divine word, so that revealed truth can always be more deeply penetrated, better understood and set forth to greater advantage.”
The Word of God, and the delivery of the Word of God, both develop as humanity develops, but they develop in continuity with the past. To give an example, in the OT we read the law of Talion–an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. That was an improvement over the law of massive retaliation that would demand someone who knocks out your tooth be killed, or his whole family be killed for some insult. But it wasn’t the final word in the development of human relationships and conflict resolution. To insist on equal retaliation ignores the teachings of Jesus, who taught forgiveness and loving response to insults and persecution. The Church has always held that in some circumstances, capital punishment is justified for particularly heinous crimes. Bl. Pope John Paul took that further and asked whether in our advanced age, with our improved understanding of human nature and rehabilitation, we could not practically eliminate capital punishment in favor of a humane incarceration for a time, or for life.
It is particularly important in response to the Council’s directive for us to find new ways of communicating the unbroken tradition of the Church’s teaching. Social media, for instance, has given some evangelists a new way to share the Gospel. I find that my homilies are now read by two and three times the number who used to hear them, because I share them through the Sermon Central website. We must continue to teach the One Truth, who is a Person, Jesus Christ. But we must adapt our delivery of Jesus to the needs of the culture, so that they may more easily accept Him as their Lord and Savior.