Beliefs Opinion

COMMENTARY: Among Catholics, who should do the evangelizing?

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and a sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. Check out his home page at or contact him via e-mail at agreel(at)

UNDATED _”Evangelize”is the new Catholic buzzword clergy are using lately as if it had mystical and magical powers, even though it is often used out of its proper context, as in”We must evangelize our own people.” Regardless of the word’s meaning, I find that sentence troubling. My feeling is that faith is deeper and love more generous among the Catholic laity than it is in either the clergy or the hierarchy. So who should do the evangelizing?

The Catholic leadership thinks it has a monopoly on the Holy Spirit, but the Spirit blows whither it will.

Moreover, since liturgy and preaching are unspeakably bad in so many parishes, it’s laughable to think today’s clergy could evangelize anyone. They’d be lucky if they could convince a pack of starving vampires into raiding a blood bank.

But I don’t think anyone should use the word”evangelize”unless they use it in its proper context. The word comes from”evangelium,”which means”good news”or”gospel.”The good news preached by Jesus is that God’s merciful, all-forgiving and passionate love is among us. And Jesus didn’t mean God’s love was near during his lifetime only; it’s near existentially, lurking all around us in the objects, events, and people of our lives.

God is like the father of the prodigal son and like the good Samaritan, with a love so overwhelming that if humans tried to live that way, they would be judged mad. If we preach as Jesus preached, then we have a powerful message indeed. News so good, it often seems, is too good to be true.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure this good news is heard often enough on the Sabbath.

But the”evangelizing”talked about by church leaders usually means demanding obedience from the laity.

Today’s”evangelium,”for example, is that Catholics are forbidden to use birth control or in vitro fertilization; they cannot vote for candidates who support abortion rights; women cannot be priests; the divorced and remarried should not receive the sacraments unless they give up sex; and homosexuals are fundamentally flawed.

It’s not my intention to debate whether or not these points flow from the Gospels. I only wish to suggest this”evangelium”_ mostly concerning sex and gender _ will never fly, despite the leadership’s obsession with it.

Most Catholics (and most clergy, too) have made up their minds on these issues and the hierarchy has no credibility to change them. Their only appropriate strategy on these matters is for church leaders to begin listening to the laity, not evangelizing them with demands to accept church doctrine. The laity are not about to abandon their ideals simply because they are ordered to do so.

But the leadership must also ask itself how it came to lose credibility on issues of sex and gender because change will not occur until the hierarchy admits it erected a barrier between themselves and the laity.

I’m not saying lay skepticism is justified. I’m merely pointing out its existence and saying it will not be swept away by pronouncements either from the Vatican or local bishops, especially when neither seem interested in spreading the Good News preached by Jesus.

To those outside the hierarchy, it seems that”evangelizing”means the leadership trying to assert its power over the laity, especially in sexual matters. It just will not work, not now and not at any time in the foreseeable future.