Commentary: Not too shabby, thanks.

March 5, 2012

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On February 20th, Notre Dame professor of Law and Theology and regular contributor to Commonweal Magazine, Dr. Cathleen Kaveny, posted on the dotCommonweal blog. In her post, she linked to a video clip from Comedy Central’s The Daily Show personality, Jon Stewart, and contrasted his assertions and accusations against the Catholic Church amidst the aftermath of the HHS Mandate with a clip from Father Barron on the issue. Asserting that the Church should be positioned to counter “Stewart’s take among young people,” Kaveny’s subsequent statements implied that Cardinal Dolan and Father Barron’s efforts were sermons geared toward an inconsequential choir, “heremetically sealed” from the culture. The post’s title revealed Kaveny’s position and tone, “So, how’s that ‘New Evangelization’ goin’ for ya?”

Speaking as a Catholic young woman (and fellow Domer) directly involved in the New Evangelization, “With all due respect, Professor Kaveny, I am glad you asked. So far, so good.”

Here are a few statistics from Word on Fire Catholic Ministries:

  • Website subscriber increase of 1000% in 3 years
  • Website visit increase of 400% in 2 years
  • CATHOLICISM series documentary (produced by Fr. Barron and Word on Fire) ranked #150 of all movies (Amazon.com)
  • CATHOLICISM series ranked among top-ten best-selling documentaries for 6 months (Amazon.com)
  • CATHOLICISM series seen on Public Television by over 10,000,000 people
  • CATHOLICISM book ranked in the top 600 for 6 months (Amazon.com)
  • 3,297,185 unique views of videos on Word on Fire’s YouTube channel
  • Website visitors exceed 15,000 daily (roughly the number of annual subscribers to Commonweal Magazine.)

Granted, the very nature of evangelization is built upon the proverbial search for the lost sheep and will never be “successful” until all are made disciples (Matthew 28:19). To Dr. Kaveny’s point, improvement and re-evaluation of method is a constant necessity. But, I would argue that the numbers above demonstrate both ad intra and ad extra promise toward finding the lost sheep… and training the remaining 99 to scout alongside the Shepherd.

In addition, because “the task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church,” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 14), I assume that Dr. Kaveny is on board with this task and was using her blog post to tout a more effective means, one that is perhaps exhibited by her own messaging and that of her chosen media outlet.  That last statistic, however, proves otherwise. 

It is, however, possible that Dr. Kaveny was not implicitly comparing Commonweal’s strategy to the strategy of the New Evangelization embodied by the late Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Dolan and Father Barron. Maybe Commonweal is not a vehicle for evangelization at all, but rather, a commentary upon evangelization. It’s possible that, with The Daily Show in mind, Dr. Kaveny wants to go back to the drawing board, to look for new methods and means of communication to counter the image of stodgy-ness and single-issue reductionism that has characterized the media’s representation of the Church. In citing Jon Stewart’s assertions as the ground-zero of a new type of Catholic Church messaging, maybe she is searching for ways to dismantle the popular, yet mistaken perception of the Church by presenting and embodying the alternative.

To take it a step further, perhaps she is interested in some sort of vehicle, a team of readied messengers, an enticing, encapsulated presentation that reveals the truth, goodness, and beauty of the Faith in a way that will draw people beyond the subsidiary moral issues and into the richness of a relationship with Christ Himself (upon which all subsidiary issues are aligned, understood, properly ordered). Maybe she seeks to provide for the full flourishing of humanity, to undermine the mistaken aspects of the culture’s rhetoric so as to invite all people to true freedom. Drawing this to its logical conclusion, hopefully Dr. Kaveny wants to show society that, in the name of true social justice, “your life is not about you.” And, under that aegis, maybe then she will tackle the innerworkings of a moral issue like contraception.

The CATHOLICISM series, I would offer, was actually born of this strategy, and statistically, it has proven to be an effective starting point.

On Thursday evening, Dr. Kaveny laudably took to the airwaves putting her money where her mouth is, appearing on the The Daily Show to counter and clarify misinterpretations. This could have been a highly effective and appropriate means of evangelization. But, with such a tremendous opportunity, she did not offer the American public the necessary distinctions- that the issue for the bishops is much broader than contraception: it includes sterilization and abortifacient drugs, as well. More broadly, she did not speak to the concern that if the government can do this, why not abortion, in-vitro fertilization and even euthanasia, and why not on the nickel of the insurer (the Church)? Tragically, she did not address the First Amendment issue, which can apparently be trumped by the whim of the Administration or by the results of a poll. Finally, there was no mention of the fact that this very President stood up at the university that Professor Kaveny represents and lied about conscience protection. She accepted the White House’s messaging strategy and added credence to it on national television.

In other words, Dr. Kaveny’s embodied strategy was to appear on the show to make sure that its host and audience knew that, despite the bishops, the Church would play nice when secular push came to secularist shove- the assimilationist/accommodationist strategy par excellence.

Assimilation and accommodation is not an effective strategy of evangelization. It eventually renders the Church utterly and forcibly indistinguishable from society, and not because the “city on a hill” has become overpopulated. I suspect that the young viewers of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show who mock the Church because of her view on contraception are not waiting at the Baptismal font to declare allegiance upon a reversal of that theological viewpoint. On the contrary, the Church’s pandering to this dissention in order to avoid being mocked and dismissed would amount to her own de-baptism before the altar of Secularism, a loss of any recourse by which to draw people into a fuller life, a better way, the Way, who is Christ.

Most importantly, as a professor and highly-influential figure at an institution which makes the enlightenment regarding, dialogue about, and instruction upon pivotal moral issues possible, I implore Dr. Kaveny to see through all of this rhetoric. We must all understand that the disregard for conscience and the stifling of religious freedom is the true issue at stake. Without Notre Dame operating as a Catholic institution capable of acting according to its moral conscience, informed dialogue about morality (based on a standard of truth) will, in short order, be a thing of the past.

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