Wednesday, October 29, 2014

No Conversion Without Welcome

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30
I saw an interesting blog post entitled, "The Church's Essential Mission: Conversion, Not Welcome". You can read it HERE. The blog, "One Peter 5", is written by a Mr. Eric Sammons, who has some pretty impressive credentials.  He is "father of six children, author of three books, and Director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Venice in Florida."  He has appeared on "The Journey Home" on EWTN, "Catholic Answers", "Kresta In the Afternoon" "Catholic Answers" and other programs.  He hires himself out as a speaker.  Mr. Sammons is a convert to the Catholic faith from Evangelical Protestantism.

However, I must respectfully disagree with the blog post mentioned above.  Mr. Sammons' argument is stated in the first paragraph:
“All are welcome!”
You can hardly walk into a Catholic parish today without encountering this slogan. Not so long ago all the talk was about the “New Evangelization,” but that topic has been back-burnered in favor of “welcoming.” No one should feel excluded from the Catholic Church! Who is it, exactly, that has been complaining about feeling unwelcome? That’s usually left unsaid. Yet the current emphasis on welcoming people to the Church certainly implies, at the very least, that we have been in some way inhospitable in the past.
The welcome wagon movement has as a foundational principle the need for changes in the language of the Church. It posits two problems with the language of our first 1,981 years:
1) It’s too hard to understand, and
2) It makes people feel bad.
Mr. Sammons is upset with those in the Church who are "dumbing down" language to make it more understandable to people because he feels that simplifying language actually "undermines the work of salvation."  He gives an example:
They propose that the Church sought to explain the Trinity in ways people could understand, specifically by using Greek philosophical terms. However, a closer look shows that the Church was not primarily concerned with making the doctrine of the Trinity understandable. She was interested in making it precise. If the end goal is “understandable,” one usually ends up with a dumbed-down explanation which can easily lead to errors. But if the goal is precision, then although one might have to work to understand a concept, he can be assured of arriving at the correct understanding.
Mr. Sammons seems to feel that "understandable" and "precise" are mutually exclusive.  Mr. Sammons feels that the Church cannot be concerned with being "understandable" because trying to be "understandable" only leads to more error.  If people can't understand, that is their problem.  Mr. Sammons feels it is better to leave people completely in the dark than to try to speak in language to which they are more accustomed.

Mr. Sammons tells us that Jesus never tried to make things easier for people to understand.  In fact, according to Mr. Sammons, our Lord was purposely trying to hide the Gospel from certain people:
Nor do the Gospels attest that the desire to make language understandable is a priority for our Lord. After Jesus tells the story of the Sower in Matthew 13, the disciples ask him why he speaks in parables. Our Lord replies, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matthew 13:11-13). Christ himself makes it clear that the “secrets of the kingdom of heaven” will not be understood by everyone, and there is nothing we can do about it. Concentrating our efforts to do so, then, appears to be for naught.
This excerpt from the Gospels has nothing to do with language. Jesus used every day language and situations in the parables which were easily understood by the people. Our Lord was hiding the meaning of these parables from the people at that time which was before His Crucifixion and Resurrection, before the Gospel was opened to the whole world. But does Mr. Sammons believe that there are groups of people in the world today from whom Our Lord is purposely hiding the saving message of the Gospel? Remember, Christ also told Peter, James, John and Andrew not to reveal His transfiguration on Mount Tabor until after His resurrection. However, this was most certainly not true after Our Lord rose from the dead. Our Lord made it very clear to the apostles, just before He ascended to heaven, that they were to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” (Mark 16:16). The message of the Gospel is no longer hidden from anyone, as St. Paul tells us that God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (I Tim 2:4).

If we are to take Mr. Sammons' argument to its logical conclusion, we would have to say that the Church should concentrate on "precision" and forget about "understandability" because (1) worrying about "understandability" will only lead to more errors, (2) if people cannot understand what the Church is saying for whatever reason, then it is out of our hands and they can all just quite literally "go to hell" and (3), there are actually people who are not supposed to understand the Gospel because Our Lord is not interested in saving them.

Certainly there have been and always will be those who will reject the saving message of the Gospel. That is a consequence of free will. But how can free will be involved if people are not even able to understand what the Church is saying? If I speak only English, and someone is trying to tell me something in Russian, is it my fault that I don't understand?

Mr. Sammons has another argument against using language to make the church more welcoming:
The second attempt to change the Church’s language is more pernicious. It aims not just to make the Church’s language more understandable to modern man, but also to make it more acceptable to him. We see this in the desire to soften the Church’s language about sin, especially in the area of sexual morality. Less than a generation ago, St. John Paul II called the attempt of those who had divorced to later marry outside the Church “evil” (Familiarius Consortio 84), yet today such language is condemned in many quarters of the Church. People will only feel welcome and thus enter our doors, it is said, if we soften our language on the “hard teachings.”
Mr. Sammons seems to feel that unless the Church uses specific, theological language, truth and dogma will be lost.  He feels it is better to leave the teachings of the Church less understandable in order to avoid the loss of "truth."  I would like Mr. Sammons to show me one passage in the Gospel where Our Lord speaks to people using "theological" language.  He always used the language of the people, always speaking with words easily understood by the people.

Certainly I agree with Mr. Sammons that we must not use imprecise or incorrect words in order to make spiritual concepts easier to understand.  However, our world is basically biblically illiterate. Most people cannot even name the four Gospels. Knowledge of God and salvation is as foreign to most people as knowledge of quantum physics. In addition, people are just not as generally literate as they use to be. There is a reason why newspapers are now written at an 8th grade level. The Church, in her wisdom and guided by the Holy Spirit, realizes that she cannot reach people as she once did.

In answer to Mr. Sammons, here is an interesting video which was just made at the Synod of the family in which the fathers of the Synod discuss this very issue:

These Cardinals explain far better than I can why Mr. Sammons is wrong:

Cardinal Wilfred Napier of South Africa: "I think language is something we have overlooked for a good while. We used language that is out of touch with the way people speak today. In the past, it was sufficient to say to people, "you are going to go to hell if you continue this way of life." Hell was a reality. It was something they knew, or they understood it. When you talk about hell today, people don't know what you are talking about. So I think the emphasis is shifting."

Cardinal Godfried Daneels: "We don't begin by accusing or stigmatizing but by talking. At a later stage you can take the person to a higher level. But beginning with accusation or a stigmatization is not good pastoral method."

Cardinal André Armand Vingt-Trois: "If the Church wants to address not only its members, but also others outside the Church, it must look for words and formulas that will allow it to be understood by those who are not already inside."

Cardinal Wilfred Napier of South Africa: "All kinds of people came to Jesus. What did Jesus do? He opened the doors for them. He spoke the language that they understood and He converted them out of their sin. "Woman, did no one condemn you?" He wasn't saying you are okay, you were just caught out. He said, "Did no one condemn you? Neither do I condemn you." Which means that He could have condemned her for what she had done. But He didn't use that language of condemnation. And I think that's sort of the feeling that I get. Let's put our language in a way that is going to invite people to a conversion, to an experience of Christ which is going to be realistic and is going to make a change in their life rather than leave them going away with a terrible guilt conscience or something like that."

Cardinal André Armand Vingt-Trois: "When a physician makes a diagnosis, he has terms to designate exactly the disease in question, but if he uses these terms with his patient, he will not be understood. Therefore, he must explain the meaning of the diagnosis with words that are not technical words. In theology, it is the same thing. One has a precise theological vocabulary that is a science with a technical reference, and when one addresses people to announce the goods news of Christ, one does not teach them a theology course. One tells them the contents of the theology but with a vocabulary that can be understood."

Mr. Sammons writes, "picture finding a person drowning in quicksand. Would your first concern be greeting her cheerfully and making sure she feels comfortable in your presence?" Mr. Sammons thinks the first thing we need to do is make sure they understand the correct terminology of why they are in quicksand. Mr. Sammons also writes, "Today there are countless souls lost and drowning, and the mission of the Church is to set them on the right path to salvation." I could not agree more with that statement. But when someone is drowning, as Mr. Sammons says, do we look at them floundering in the water and start lecturing them on the dangers of whatever led to them to this situation? Don't we first have to pull them out before we can do anything else? When someone is drowning, that is not the time to give them swimming lessons. 
Our world is most definitely drowning in sin, and they can no longer hear the Voice of God. Holy Mother Church, as evidenced by the above video of various cardinals, realizes that her job has become to reach out to people who know nothing of God. The Catholic Church has truly become an alien culture in the world. Since the world no longer speaks our language, we must now speak in a language that they will understand. It is a daunting task, but with God, all things are possible.

And to answer the title of Mr. Sammons's post, "The Church’s Essential Mission: Conversion, Not Welcome," the truth is there can be no "conversion" without "welcome". Why should anyone come to a Church which he or she feels is standing in judgment and condemnation, and speaks in ways that no one can understand anyway. Our Lord said, "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." (John 3:17). That does not mean that Jesus did not show people their sins. He was always telling people "Sin no more." And certainly the Church must always define sin.

But as Pope Francis said, the Church is a field hospital. And a hospital never turns anyone away. In fact, the more ill someone is, the more right that person has to be a patient. It doesn't matter what the patient understands or doesn't understand about his illness. As Our Lord said, "It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick." (Mt. 9:12). And as Cardinal André Armand Vingt-Trois explained, "When a physician makes a diagnosis, he has terms to designate exactly the disease in question, but if he uses these terms with his patient, he will not be understood . . . when one addresses people to announce the goods news of Christ, one does not teach them a theology course. One tells them the contents of the theology but with a vocabulary that can be understood."


  1. I agree with what you say in this article. I love Cardinal Napier and I understand that he was trying to make a point with his example of the woman caught in adultery but every time I have seen this video, there is something about how he uses this story in his example that makes me want if not actually NEED to add my 2 cents....He says"Did no one condemn you? Neither do I condemn you." Which means that He could have condemned her for what she had done. But He didn't use that language of condemnation_ Axtually he did use the language oof condemnation but he did not condemn her. The point of the story is that this was one of the many traps they set trying to catch him because tin the Mosaic Law, the punishment for the woman's sin is "stoning' But they did not catch him denying the Mosaic law by telling them they couldn't stone her...Jesus was like ,, let he who has no sin cast the first stone....Brilliant But Cardinal Napier left out a very important sentence " GO and sin no more... You got it in , though, elsewhere in your article.Jesus does not condemn her but he does say that she must repent....calls the woman to repentance.... Repentance and the Mercy of God go hand in hand.. As the catechism says:...
    1847 "God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us."116 To receive his mercy, we must admit our faults. "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."117

    I do not like that video , though. It sends up a red flag for me.... I am concerned about ' changing the language." This is verbal engineering and alarm bells go off for me. Verbal engineering has been one of the devils greatest tools in the last century . Verbal engineering is used to change people's perception of reality ....It has been used for programmong people to accept something which they do not usually find acceptable . Verbal engineering has been used in the last century, to advance the agendas of Socialistm , communism, abortion, LGBT, and various was, just to name a few. ...

  2. I for one loved the video.
    I disagree that verbal engineering is the tool of the devil.
    Language is a gift from God.
    As the language of the world changes so does the language of the Church.
    That makes sense to me.


Related Posts  0