I had an opportunity a few weeks ago to address a group of student leaders about preaching the gospel on college campuses. The Gospel, I said, is fairly simple. There is a God. He loves you and desires to make you part of His family. His plan is not just for you as an individual, but is to reconcile the whole human race. He will accomplish this through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, prolonged and made present through the Catholic Church. He desires to elevate your life to a supernatural dimension (best exemplified in the lives of the saints). That supernatural life will ultimately be fulfilled in heaven and in the resurrection of the dead.
This broad outline of the gospel is familiar to many people on college campuses today, but unfortunately it is also subjected to significant distortion in the media and in the popular imagination. The late atheist writer Christopher Hitchens was typical of this distortion when he depicted the Christian God as a greedy, exigent dictator, angry and bloodthirsty, who poured out his wrath on his only son. Our goal this weekend was to identify some of these distortions, and to correct them in light of the teaching of the Church. What follows is a summary of those remarks.
What is God?
Is God a tyrannical dictator who stands over against the world, demanding, judging, and condemning? And what, after all, is God? Allegedly, this is the first question that St. Thomas Aquinas put to his Benedictine teachers when he was a young boy. It was also St. Thomas who gave the most articulate and subtle answer to that question. According to St. Thomas, God is not one being among many. Rather, God is the very act of to be itself. In Thomas’s words, He is ipsum esse subsistens. The world does not stand over against God as an independent entity, but exists more in the likeness of music to a musician. (One theologian said, “God hums the world.”) As such, God is the ground of the world’s intelligibility. To deny the existence of that God is simply to deny that reality is intelligible.
Why did Christ die?
Did Christ die to satisfy the bloodlust of a celestial dictator? Some Protestant sects have actually taught this, but that is not the teaching of the Catholic Church. The Church teaches that God became man to enter into solidarity with the human race, to restore what was lost in Adam, to infuse a divine principle into the human family. His death was not a divine punishment, but a freely given sacrifice, an act of love. We are joined to his death in a mystical sense in baptism: “our old man has been crucified with him, so that our body of sin might be destroyed.” (Romans 6:6) We also were “taken up into Christ” and his resurrection, so that we might live a new life. (Romans 6:4)
What is the Church?
Is the Church merely a corrupt and self-serving hierarchy? That’s how it is often portrayed. But Catholicism sees the Church as a sign and instrument of cosmic reconciliation. Laity and clergy share a common dignity and are equally called to the perfection of holiness through love. “Really partaking of the body of the Lord in the breaking of the Eucharistic bread, we are taken up into communion with Him and with one another. Because the bread is one, we though many, are one body, all of us who partake of the one bread.” (Lumen Gentium) The Church has a hierarchical dimension, to be sure, which serves the unity of the faith through the principle of authority. But that authority does not exhaust the meaning of the Church, but rather serves the final end of reconciliation through love. The true meaning of the Church is revealed in a special way in the saints and martyrs, the fullest proof of divine love.
There are many other reasons that our contemporaries reject that Catholic faith. Some are more sociological than theological. Our prosperity/entertainment culture creates a huge barrier to assimilating the message of self-denial and the life to come. Peer orientation among the young, the loss of tradition, distaste for ritual and authority, and the skepticism bred by religious pluralism all create obstacles to evangelism. But to evangelize effectively we still need to know how to answer the common stereotypes. Fulton Sheen’s famous words are as applicable today as ever: “There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing.”