Engaging the World Can Be Risky Business

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt
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Okay, I have a confession to make. I support the sale of contraceptives. I don’t want to, and I don’t like it, but I do. I’ll explain in a moment, but first, a little background.

My confession comes in the context of Pope Francis frequently encouraging the Church to engage the culture, as he did when he spoke to the American Bishops in Washington, D.C., last month. “We are promoters of the culture of encounter . . . Dialogue is our method . . . I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly,” the Holy Father said.

Earlier, in his Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” Francis made the same point: “An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life.” (#24)

Who could argue with the Holy Father’s advice about the importance of Christians engaging the world, getting their hands dirty for the sake of evangelization? His words are very consistent with those of Jesus who sent his disciples forth to preach the Gospel, proclaim the Kingdom and be the “salt of the earth and light of the world.” (Mt 5: 13-14)

At the same time, though, we recognize that the mandate for Christians to engage the culture comes with both risks and rewards. One of those risks is that we will inevitably participate in and cooperate with the moral evil of the corrupt world, even if that cooperation is unwitting. And that takes me back to my support of contraceptives.

Whenever I enter my local drugstore to buy harmless items like toothpaste, shampoo, soap and various medications, I walk past an aisle labeled “family planning.” There one can purchase I presume (I’ve never stopped to look exactly) various methods of birth control that the Catholic Church finds seriously immoral. And by shopping at that store, I’m adding to its revenue, thus allowing it to continue its sale of immoral products.

My cooperation with evil is certainly not intended, but it’s there. (The various degrees of entanglement with evil are explained by the Church’s well-defined description of “material cooperation” vs “formal cooperation,” a theology a bit too complicated to unwrap here.)

The fact is, though, that whenever Christians encounter the world they run the risk of cooperating with evil. When you work or shop at certain stores, use various financial institutions, or invest in corporations through your mutual funds, you’re probably supporting immoral activities, albeit unintentionally.

The same thing happens when you pay taxes. Your government supports immoral activities all the time. I hate the fact, for example, that my taxes are used to fund Planned Parenthood, a morally degenerate organization if ever there was one!

There are, of course, very good aspects about your dialogue with the world too. You can be a positive influence in the world; you can give a good example to others; you can bear gentle witness to the truth and joy of the Gospel.

Pope Francis explained the impact of the disciple this way: “He or she finds a way to let the word take flesh in a particular situation and bear fruits of new life, however imperfect or incomplete these may appear . . . An evangelizing community is filled with joy; it knows how to rejoice always. It celebrates every small victory, every step forward in the work of evangelization.” (E.G. #24)

St. Paul challenged the Christians of his time to remain steadfast in the world and urged them to be “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine like the stars in the sky.” (Phil 2: 15)

Nonetheless, unless you have closeted yourself in a Carthusian monastery somewhere, you’re going to encounter the world. And, I suspect, even there the monks have to keep watch that their holy cloister isn’t tarnished by outside influences.

So, what can faithful Christians do as they encounter the world and dialogue with culture?

First, be mindful of your obligation to avoid the companies and corporations that are notorious for sponsoring immoral activities. Conversely, support those that promote your Christian values.

Vote for political leaders who are virtuous, those who are publicly committed to healthy moral values, especially regarding human life and family issues.

Get involved in the public debate about moral questions, always respectfully and charitably of course. Talk to your family and friends; challenge politicians and the media; write to the newspapers; call radio talk shows. Your voice can make a difference.

Give good example in the conduct of your daily life. It’s counter-productive to speak out on issues if you’re wallowing in a sinful lifestyle. Avoid the “near occasions of sin” and the people who might lead you astray. Surround yourself with good friends who share your values and with whom you can associate comfortably.

Finally, don’t be overly scrupulous in the conduct of your daily life. If indeed you find yourself unwittingly supporting companies and organizations that are engaged in inappropriate activity, don’t despair. You don’t have to avoid a coffee shop because it sometimes supports the gay agenda, or the drugstore because it also happens to sell contraceptives.

In your dialogue with the secular world, just do your best, live in peace, and take the joy of the Gospel with you wherever you go.