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Why doctrine matters when it comes to evangelization

The importance of the doctrinal truth at the heart of the Christian message runs throughout the New Testament.

Detail from "St. Peter Preaching" by Masolino da Panicale (c. 1383 – c. 1447) in Brancacci Chapel []

Catholicism has always been an intellectual religion. This is not to say that–heaven forbid–it’s a religion only or especially for intellectuals but only that the Church has been intensely concerned from the start to hold, preserve, and share what it believes to be revealed truth about God and the meaning of life.

No doubt there have been times when this intellectuality has caused Catholicism to be–or anyway seem to be–too much a religion of the head and too little a religion of the heart. On the whole, however, insistence on clear thinking and careful formulations has served the Catholic Church well and helped make it attractive to many people.

I thought of these things when I heard that Pope Francis in his reorganization of the Roman Curia was assigning pride of place to evangelization rather than to doctrine. According to advance accounts, the plan calls for the merger of two existing evangelization dicasteries (“dicastery” is Vaticanese for “department”) into a new super dicastery spearheading efforts in this area.

It hardly needs saying that the Pope can reorganize the curia as he thinks best, just as popes before him have done. Moreover, there’s a good case for placing evangelization at the top of the new organization chart.

What bothers me is the rationale offered by some Vatican insiders who claim the shift signals a downgrading not only of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith but of doctrine itself. The controversy over changes in leadership and program of Rome’s John Paul Institute for marriage and family studies in order to give it a more “pastoral” character seems to raise similar issues.

According to papal biographer Austen Ivereigh, writing in Commonweal, the curia plan involves “relegating” CDF. Relegating to what? Ivereigh doesn’t say, but presumably he means the move places doctrine in a subordinate position. And why? Because, he says, citing a draft, the Church’s “primary task” isn’t teaching doctrine but “offering the kerygma, or the Good News of Jesus Christ’s saving love.”

This is confused. If I may expand a bit on Ivereigh’s version, the Good News lies in the fact that in and through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, crucified and risen–and only in and through him–we are redeemed. That is theGood News of Jesus Christ’s saving love. And it is immeasurably rich in doctrinal content.

The importance of the doctrinal truth at the heart of the Christian message runs throughout the New Testament. For instance: the letter to the Ephesians urges Christians not to be like children “tossed back and forth and carried about with every wind of doctrine(Eph. 4:13-15); the letter to the Hebrews tells readers, “Do not be led away by various and strange doctrines (Heb 13:9). Texts could be multiplied, but the point is clear: orthodox doctrine matters.

In that Magna Carta of contemporary Catholic evangelization Evangelii Nuntiandi, published in 1975, Pope St. Paul VI conceded that evangelization “does not consist only of the preaching and teaching of a doctrine.” But he also insisted that “catechetical instruction” is a tool of evangelization that “must not be neglected.”

“The intelligence…needs to learn through systematic religious instruction the fundamental teachings, the living content of the truth which God has wished to convey to us and which the Church has sought to express in an ever richer fashion during the course of her long history,” he wrote.

As yet another reorganization of the Roman Curia approaches, there should be no downgrading of that.

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About Russell Shaw 292 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).


  1. What does the patriarchte of Rome need a dicastry of evangelization for? Surely Latin bishops re not so incomoetent that they need support in that area? Or maybe they are, after so many years of centralization in the West, in which case a dicastry is not going to solve a problem plaguing the Latin episcopte. And I am ignoring for the moment any pretension to relevance for the Church Universal that the Roman Curia has.

    • Sol the emasculation of the CDF occurred it now seems ages past with the revamping of the Roman Curia. Evangelization left to itself as the preeminent dicastery is not intended to spread the Gospels. Only lip service. Rather the new ecological conversion of bishops and presbyters ushers in the New Paradigm era. I mentioned in my comment the ‘resurrection’ of the ancient god of child sacrifice Moloch displayed during the Amazonia Synod amid Roman ruins. A seeming portent that Abortion as a primary Church concern has faded over concern for global warming.

  2. Connect the dots: Doctrinal and moral turbulence will be handled more politically, if at all. . .

    The eclipsed Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) is matched with singular prominence awarded to the Secretariat of State which, already, features a new (third) branch more connected to national bishops’ conferences (not bad in itself).

    Here’s a partial list of the major elements of proposed curial reform, as first reported in late spring:

    (1) Creation of one merged “super-dicastery” for Evangelization; (2) One-size-fits-all reform of the autonomous departments and academies as dicasteries, and possible creation of a dicastery for Charity, and merger of Education (subsumed?) with Culture (“paradigm shift”?); (3) Overall decentralization (e.g., synods) from Rome even as (generic) Evangelization, possibly Charity, and the Secretariat of State are ascendant; (4) Themes, again overall, from Evangelii Gaudium, Laudato Si, and Amoris Laetitia (the New Church truncated magisterium?)

    In a different context, Lenin said of “facts” that contradicted his dialectical theory of history: “to bad for the facts.” Likewise, now, in the New Church of “anthropological cultural change” with regard to the internally-consistent and universal magisterium?

  3. Why doctrine asks Russell Shaw commenting on the dearth of doctrine in communicating Catholicism. New Paradigm Catholicism will do that. Conversion as the Pontiff contends is no longer trophy collection rather the converter is the one requiring ecological conversion. ‘Morbid fascination’ was described by John Paul II as a growing obsession with the occult at the time of the 1979 Exorcist release and its fevered aftermath. That dark desire now acculturated continues within the hallowed walls of Catholicism. Appearance in Rome of occult images besides Amazonia Pachamama in churches strangely parallels pursuance by German Bishops Conference Cardinal Marx of change of doctrine. An example is the display among Rome’s ruins of Moloch the pagan god of child sacrifice. The Israelites horrified God by that practice adapted from the Canaanites in their midst. Returning to why is doctrine important to evangelization the answer is fidelity to Christ. Faith in Christ alone saves. Not human invention however brilliant and practical Cardinals Marx, Kasper, Bishop Overbeck and a slew of others may perceive themselves. God is made manifest to Man exclusively through and in the Person of Jesus Christ. Modify that revelation pursue a difference that ‘transcends’ Revelation and the inclination naturally turns toward alternative spirituality, the occult. Occultism parallel to radical doctrinal change repeats events that occurred in ancient Israel and the Abomination of Desolation placed in the Jerusalem temple by Epiphanes Antiochus. Deformation of Catholic doctrine threatens to spread globally unless Pope Francis steps in and halts the process. Will he?

      • You’re “No” JoAnn is disheartening though likely true. The path since 2013 has been engineered. Where we’re at cannot be accidental. Deeper veneration of the Holy Eucharist and strengthening the faith of the wavering needs be our response.

    • Hi, Tom! First the dictionary definitions then some more differences. Proselytizing: “the action of attempting to convert someone from one religion, belief, or opinion to another”. Evangelizing: “convert or seek to convert (someone) to Christianity”. At the very core, when you proselytize and you seek the highest good of that precious, eternally valuable human soul by converting him/her from another set of beliefs to True Christianity, proselytizing is extremely legitimate. It is what the Holy Catholic Church has done for 2,000 years following Jesus command: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ Amen” (Matthew 28:19-20). At that time, the whole world was choke full of paganism, occult religions, atheism, etc. and Jesus, God In The Flesh, issued that solemn command knowing this full well.

      The problem is that the word “proselytize” has been given lately a very bad, poisoned connotation, first by the aggressive, church-filling-at-all-costs-and-grow-the-tithing, commercial-style campaigning of the more radical Protestant denominations. That has no “evangelizing” in it despite all the appearances and Bible-thumping, loud self-righteousness of these groups. They don’t care much about souls but about numbers and, in turn, turning these people into ruthless-people-hunters not truly Christian fishers of men (Matthew 4:19).

      Second, those who hate the 2,000 years effectiveness of the Catholic Church at converting people from all human-made faiths and invented ideologies into the Divinely Gifted Catholic Church, have made a humongous campaign for a very long time against true evangelizing by forcefully equating it with commercially-inspired proselytizing, by saying it violates other people’s rights, “all-religions-are-equal-and-useless”, and so on and so forth. Pope Francis has joined this choir by also artificially equating true, sacrificial, charity-inspired evangelizing with heartless, commercial proselytizing. No, these are not the same and it is the Catholic Church’s most sacred duty to evangelize all and bring all, including all non-Catholics, to total union with Jesus in the Kingdom of God in Catholic Truth and Practice. Only Authentic Truth is the Guardian and Guarantee of True Love, regardless what the tyrannical, collectivist, hateful, fantasy-proselytizers say, inside or outside the Church. I hope this helps and God bless you!!

  4. Tom asks “What are the differences between evangelizing? and proselytizing?” There is a subtle difference. Proselytize is to encourage or induce people to join a religious movement, political party while,evangelize is to tell people about (a particular branch of) Christianity, especially in order to convert them; to preach the gospel to. Notice the word “convert”. I am tempted to add a third conciliatory method stated by Pope St. John II “ecumenism” … which is manifested in a movement promoting cooperation and unity among religious.

    Evangelizing and proselytizing provide varying approaches to active conversion. Ecumenism, however seems to take a more conciliatory method of encouraging conversion by accepting the fact that their religion can also be participating in ultimate salvation by conversion.

  5. What is evangelism?,is it an academic or the expression and proclamation of faith that most often is intinsically motivated by personal spiritual conversion and expierience with the risen Lord.St Paul talks of that which his hands has touched and handled- the word of life.You can only be an effective witness when you have expirienced this.Doctrine forms the depth of your faith and provides a balance to your zeal giving you access to the whole counsel of God.With sound doctrines,pachamama and other gods will never come in.Can we strenghten the school of evangelism,promote spiritual conversion,be strong on doctrines,discourage head knowledge and place inculturation properly to mean not the introduction of strange practices but allowing cultures to be transformed by the power of the word of God.The more we dweel on all these academic and head knowledge,the more we drive the spirit out of our churches. The result is what we are witnessing,please my beloved brothers,the letter kills.

  6. We need to evangelize with correct doctrine which instructs us on how to receive the Spirit of Christ within us. It contains our inner peace and strength. Grace is received by humility toward God.
    This humility is well-described in 1Peter 5:5-7 which says: “Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you.”
    This is what brings us peace and strength from God (see also Philippians 4:6-7; Proverbs 3:5; Psalms 37:7; 55:22; Isaiah 26:3-4; 55:7-9; and Galatians 5:22-23).

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