A recent article by Hugh Hewitt reminded me of a theme that I think is under-taught and under-developed in the Catholic Church. That is, Catholics are often afraid to be “evangelical.” By evangelical, I do not mean that they act like members of the Protestant sect of the same name. (Although we could learn a thing or two from their fervor and willingness to preach to others.) What I mean is that Catholics must be firmly rooted in the Gospel—so rooted that the Gospel informs and directs every aspect of their lives.
Catholic religious orders have done this for centuries in the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. But it has been under-appreciated and under-utilized as a way to holiness for the lay Catholic. (Here I’m reminded of a great book by Fr. Thomas Dubay.) The evangelical counsels are gifts that Christ offers to every Christian believer:
Christ proposes the evangelical counsels, in their great variety, to every disciple. The perfection of charity, to which all the faithful are called, entails for those who freely follow the call to consecrated life the obligation of practicing chastity in celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom, poverty and obedience.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 915.
Every disciple has the path open to him. We are merely to embrace it.
But easier said than done. It is, of course, not practical for married couples to practice the evangelical counsels as do religious. It is not only not practical, it is not their vocation in life. But the evangelical counsels, the Catechism says, come in “great variety” and are accessible “to every disciple.” This is a theme Fr. Dubay carries throughout his book Happy are You Poor. Gospel poverty is not an abandonment of every material thing. Rather, for lay people in the world, Gospel poverty can mean a frugal generosity of spirit that evidences a self-gift to others.
Perhaps as a first step in adopting the evangelical counsels outside of religious life, I offer to you the Principles of Evangelical Catholicism of a priest friend of mine, Fr. Jay Scott Newman. He’s been developing them for quite some time now, and you can hear him preach on the individual principles here (well worth it, I assure you). I think that were the laity in the Church to adopt these principles, the renewal that Hugh Hewitt spoke of will not only be guaranteed, it will reap a harvest greater than we could ever imagine.
Here they are:
1. The Lord Jesus Christ is the crucified and risen Savior of all mankind, and no human person can fully understand his life or find his dignity and destiny apart from a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus. It is not enough to know who Jesus is; we must know Jesus.
2. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is divine revelation, not human wisdom, and the Gospel is given to us in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition which together constitute a single divine deposit of faith transmitted authentically and authoritatively by the Bishops in full communion with the Bishop of Rome. We must surrender our private judgments in all matters of faith and morals to the sacred teaching authority of the Church’s Magisterium if we are to receive the whole Gospel.
3. The seven Sacraments of the New Covenant are divinely instituted instruments of grace given to the Church as the ordinary means of sanctification for believers. Receiving the Sacraments regularly and worthily is essential to the life of grace, and for this reason, faithful attendance at Sunday Mass every week (serious illness and necessary work aside) and regular Confession of sins are absolutely required for a life of authentic discipleship.
4. Through Word and Sacrament we are drawn by grace into a transforming union with the Lord Jesus, and having been justified by faith we are called to sanctification and equipped by the Holy Spirit for the good works of the new creation. We must, therefore, learn to live as faithful disciples and to reject whatever is contrary to the Gospel, which is the Good News of the Father’s mercy and love revealed in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
5. The sacred liturgy, through which the seven Sacraments are celebrated and the Hours of praise are prayed, makes present to us the saving mysteries of the Lord Jesus. The liturgy must therefore be celebrated in such a way that the truth of the Gospel, the beauty of sacred music, the dignity of ritual form, the solemnity of divine worship, and the fellowship of the baptized assembled to pray are kept together in organic unity.
6. Receiving the Sacraments without receiving the Gospel leads to superstition rather than living faith, and the Church must therefore take great care to ensure that those who receive the Sacraments also receive the Gospel in its integrity and entirety. Consequently, before Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, and Marriage are administered, there must be in those who request these Sacraments clear evidence of knowledge of the Gospel and a serious intention to live the Christian life.
7. Being a follower of Christ requires moving from being a Church member by convention to a Christian disciple by conviction. This transformation demands that we consciously accept the Gospel as the measure of our entire lives, rather than attempting to measure the Gospel by our experience. Personal knowledge of and devotion to Sacred Scripture is necessary for this transformation to occur through the obedience of faith, and there is no substitute for personal knowledge of the Bible. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.
8. All the baptized are sent in the Great Commission to be witnesses of Christ to others and must be equipped by the Church to teach the Gospel in word and deed. An essential dimension of true discipleship is the willingness to invite others to follow the Lord Jesus and the readiness to explain His Gospel.