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The Apostle Paul was an imperialist. Father Matteo Ricci sought to oppress the Chinese people in his attempts to convert them. Father Junipero Serra and other missionaries to the New World promoted an unjust, racist ideology.

Don’t agree with those statements? Unfortunately, they are the sort of claims being made more and more often, even in Catholic circles. They bubble up to the surface of an ideological stew consisting of a heady mix of "isms": Marxism, multiculturalism, radical feminism, relativism, deconstructionism, and liberal "Catholicism." They result from the conviction that the Catholic Church is imperialistic, Catholic teaching about the unique salvific work of Jesus Christ arrogant and insensitive, and evangelization and missionary work should be relegated to past and rejected by enlightened Christians

An example of this perspective are the recent remarks of feminist Catholic theologian Mary E. Hunt, founder of Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER). In an article titled "A kyriarchal church unmasked" (New Catholic Times, Dec. 15, 2002) she rails against the "kyriarchy" of the Catholic Church. Not familiar with the term? It "literally means ‘structures of lordship’," Hunt explains, "with the interlocking modes of oppression that include sexism, racism, clericalism, heterosexism and imperialism, which give shape to the institutional Roman Catholic Church as we know it."

Her next remark takes us to the heart of the matter:
"Imperialism, along with its close cousin, colonialism, is yet one more dimension of kyriarchy. It is based on the presumption that some people and ideas are meant to rule and triumph over others. It is founded on the notion that there is one way, the right way, my way, to do things and anything else is suspect and inferior. The pyramid model of church that excludes, as one climbs the ecclesial ladder, is a remnant of imperialism. . . . Perhaps the most imperialistic and colonializing dimension of kyriarchal Catholicism is its theological teaching about those who are not Catholic."

Implicit here is the denial of objective truth. If there is no truth, then no religion or culture has the right to say that it is more rational, moral, or truthful. Which means that all attempts to share the Gospel and evangelize are inherently imperialistic, that is, unjust, racist, sexist, chauvinist, and, ultimately, evil. Which means that the great missionaries and evangelists are not heroes and saints, but wicked oppressors.

Our culture has been hoodwinked by a politically correct, revisionist history that portrays the Church as a bloodthirsty and unjust institution, and evangelization as a nice word for cultural genocide. This pseudo-history is often touted as being "multi-cultural," as though it properly respects differences between cultures and ethnic groups. In fact, it doesn’t; instead it creates a mythology that undermines true history and the very notion of objective truth.

Dr. Bruce S. Thornton, in his devastating critique Plagues of the Mind: The New Epidemic of False Knowledge (ISI, 1999), writes that multiculturalism is a "melodramatic tale of the wickedness of the West and its role in destroying the peaceful paradises in which other peoples (usually of ‘color’) lived before Europeans and then Americans came along to inflict on them racism, sexism, slavery, colonialism, imperialism, homophobia, technology, and ecological degradation." This ideological perspective is obsessed with power and victim hood; it despises all that is "Western." And Christianity, in this mythology, is the epitome of "Western." Thus, evangelization is portrayed as religious bigotry.

If so, it means Vatican II was a firm proponent of that bigotry. Lost in the endless talk of "the spirit of Vatican II" is the fact that the Council produced a serious and substantial body of work about the importance of missions and evangelization. Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., has noted that the first Vatican Council used the term "gospel" once (referring to the written Gospels, not to the gospel message) and never used the terms "evangelize" or "evangelization." Vatican II mentions "gospel" 157 times, the verb "evangelize" 18 times, and the noun "evangelization" 31 times. ("John Paul II and the New Evangelization–What Does It Mean?", Pope John Paul II and the New Evangelization [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995] 25-39).

He writes, "The evangelical shift brought about by Vatican II, Paul VI, and the present pope is one of the most dramatic developments in modern Catholicism." Then, in what is a serious understatement, he adds, "Partly for that reason, it encounters incomprehension and resistance among some Catholics, who seem deaf to the new summons." This new summons is what John Paul II calls the "new evangelization," which is a renewal of the evangelistic endeavor and vision that has existed for the entire history of the Church.


Ad Gentes, the Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity, makes these key points.

First, the Church is necessarily missionary by her very nature: "The pilgrim Church is missionary by her very nature, since it is from the mission of the Son and the mission of the Holy Spirit that she draws her origin, in accordance with the decree of God the Father" (AG, 2)

Secondly, Church is missionary because all peoples need the fullness of Christ. "The mission of the Church, therefore, is fulfilled by that activity which makes her . . . fully present to all men or nations, in order that, by the example of her life and by her preaching, by the sacraments and other means of grace, she may lead them to the faith, the freedom and the peace of Christ; that thus there may lie open before them a firm and free road to full participation in the mystery of Christ" (AG, 5).

Thirdly, mission is not "cultural imperialism": "In order that they may be able to bear more fruitful witness to Christ, let them be joined to those men by esteem and love; let them acknowledge themselves to be members of the group of men among whom they live; let them share in cultural and social life by the various. undertakings and enterprises of human living; let them be familiar with their national and religious traditions; let them gladly and reverently lay bare the seeds of the Word which lie hidden among their fellow" (AG, 11).

A glance at the three great missionaries mentioned earlier indicate how well those men lived the vision of Ad Gentes.

Saint Paul, the former student of Gamaliel and persecutor of Christians, was relentless in his proclamation of the gospel. His approach was simple: "To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some" (1 Cor. 9:22).

Upon entering a new city Paul would first preach in the synagogue (cf., Acts 13:16-43). Then he would take his message to the streets or to the homes of Gentiles curious to hear him out. He proved equally adept at discussing the Torah with Jews and addressing philosophical questions with "the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers" at the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:18-33). There is much about Paul that is striking and worth emulating. Perhaps most impressive was his singular, passionate vision. It was a vision that was at once theologically sophisticated and very practical, just what we might expect from a great rabbinical student who was also a tent maker.

Father Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) went to the far reaches of the world with the gospel message. A Jesuit missionary who studied mathematics, astronomy, and Chinese, he led the first successful mission in China in the late sixteenth-century. Having carefully studied Chinese culture and religion, he concluded that while Buddhism and Taoism were not compatible with Catholic teaching, Confucian philosophy was. As part of his goal to convert the Emperor and the entire nation of China, Ricci wrote a number of tracts in Chinese, notably The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven, a dialogue between a Western scholar and Chinese scholar.

Often held up as an example of inculturation, Ricci’s entire work was oriented toward the communication of the gospel. Sadly, that work was largely undone by other missionaries who did not agree with his methods and had all rites of homage to Confucius condemned. In 1939 Ricci’s approach was vindicated when Pope Pius XII revoked the ban on the veneration of ancestors and of Confucius.

The Franciscan priest Father Junipero Serra (1713-1784) was a brilliant scholar who left the comfort of Spain in 1750 and volunteered to serve in the Franciscan missions in the New World. At age fifty-six he founded the first California mission in San Diego. He founded nine missions, with twenty-one missions finally being established from San Diego to Sonoma.

His beatification in 1987 drew protests from Native American activists who claimed Serra and the Franciscans treated the indigenous people cruelly. Yet it was Serra who fought for rights for the Native Americans, defended them against Spanish soldiers, and improved their lives by introducing better agricultural and ranching practices. All of this because he believed that the natives were deserving of respect and dignity, as well as a chance to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The men were not imperialists, nor is the Church imperialistic. An imperialist comes to control your life; an evangelist comes to transform your life. An imperialist might take your life; an evangelist offers you life. An imperialist seeks to own you; an evangelist seeks to serve you. Saint Paul wrote, "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel" (1 Cor. 9:16). Woe to us if we do not preach the Gospel to each other, our culture, and our world, no matter the slander and persecution involved.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2004 issue of Lay Witness, published by Catholics United for the Faith (CUF).

Carl Olson
is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.

He is the co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author of Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He resides with his wife and daughter in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland, Oregon and Sacramento, California.

More of his articles and columns can be found on his personal website, www.carl-olson.com.

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